Bongs, bangs and broken bells: why the sound of Big Ben resonates in British culture

It's Londoner's favourite sound by far, familiar from nursery rhymes and BBC bulletins. But Big Ben's iconic tone is actually due to an eight-foot crack the bell sustained in the nineteenth century

August 21, 2017
Big Ben will fall silent for four years. But why are people so attached to the sound of the bell? Photo: PA
Big Ben will fall silent for four years. But why are people so attached to the sound of the bell? Photo: PA

In 1998, the artist Peter Cusack took part in an inquiry into London’s soundscape. Hundreds of Londoners from all over the city shared their favourite sounds, and then Cusack made recordings of their choices. The subsequent album—Your Favourite London Sounds—contains 40 pieces of audio, with subjects as diverse as “onions frying in my flat,” “rain on skylight while lying in bed” and the call to prayer from an east London mosque. Yet the first track on the album, and the most popular choice by far, was the sound of Big Ben.

The great bell at the top of the Palace of Westminster’s Elizabeth Tower will now be silent for four years—other than on special occasions like New Year’s Eve and Remembrance Sunday—while essential refurbishment works are carried out on the clock tower. But for all the wailing about “health and safety gone mad” muzzling one of Britain’s most iconic and essential landmarks merely out of a desire to protect the hearing of the workers carrying out the repairs, there is little examination of just what it is about this particular bell’s sound that gives it such patriotic overtones.

Like much of Parliament’s pomp and tradition, Big Ben is a Victorian creation. It was cast at the Whitechapel Bell Foundry on 10 April 1858 and installed in the tower in May 1859, beginning official duties in August that year. Even before it sounded for the first time, it had become a symbol of British empire and exceptionalism. It was the biggest bell cast to date in Britain, and the clock’s mechanism was to be the most accurate ever devised. Big Ben’s bong was always intended to be a sound that would reverberate across London and, by reputation, the world, as an example of British technological prowess. The fact that both the bell’s shape and metallic composition were designed by an amateur, the clock-fancying barrister Sir Edmund Beckett, further compounded this mythology of nineteenth-century entrepreneurship and superiority.

But two months after Big Ben began to chime, it cracked. According to the Whitechapel Bell Foundry’s history of the incident, the damage occurred because Beckett had disregarded the advice of the bell’s caster and installed a hammer twice as heavy as was necessary to strike the hours. Repeated striking in the same place (the bell is too heavy to swing, so is held rigid on a frame) caused an eight-foot rupture in the metal. To avoid the expense of bringing the bell back down for a repair or recasting, it was merely turned by an eighth, the crack filed off and a new, smaller hammer put in place. It has remained like this ever since.

Due to the unorthodox shape and thickness required by Beckett’s design, Big Ben already had a higher tone than would be expected for a bell of its size and weight—it is nine feet in diameter and weighs 13.5 tonnes. With the addition of the crack, the bell’s sound acquired a dissonance that suggests minor harmonic overtones, adding to its solemn timbre. Earlier this year a BBC Four documentary titled Sound Waves: The Symphony of Physics featured research by academics at the University of Leicester revealing that what we hear as a single strike of the bell is actually made up of different sounds at distinct frequencies or “layered pulsations” happening simultaneously—a sound unique to the flaws of this bell, and the ideas it represents.

The melody that marks the quarter hours, struck on four smaller bells that sit around Big Ben in the Elizabeth Tower belfry, was similarly singular when it was first introduced. “Westminster Chimes,” as the tune is known, was composed in Cambridge in the late eighteenth century and is thought to be based on a violin melody in the soprano aria “I know that my Redeemer liveth” from Handel’s Messiah. The chime’s twenty-note sequence is in the key of E major, with a new part of the phrase added each quarter until the full chime is played on the hour. The ending note of each phrase alternates between E (the tonic) and B (the dominant), leaving the expected cadence hanging for 15 minutes until the next part sounds.

It’s a simple and memorable tune, since replicated by clock towers, doorbells and children's nursery rhymes all over the world. On a quiet night in London, the Westminster version can be heard for several miles around—more if you are listening from high up in a building where the sound can reach you unimpeded by traffic noise. Patients in St Thomas’s Hospital on the opposite side of the Thames, for instance, often report being able to hear the chimes through the night. And, since 1923, the full chime followed by Big Ben’s striking of the hour has been used by BBC Radio to open news bulletins, broadcasting that expectant E major sequence around the world.

As well as merely being a projection of a particular kind of British identity, this short snatch of music carries with it associations of security and power, emanating as it does from the site of parliamentary democracy. Its regularity and continued presence is reassuring, serving as a shorthand for a certain kind of imperial nostalgia that, while Big Ben still strikes, requires no further articulation. At a time of national identity crisis, then, occasioned by the Brexit vote and the UK’s unresolved social and economic inequality, it’s no wonder that the loss of this sound has caused such clamour.