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 centuryby Caroline Crampton / August 21, 2017 / Leave a comment
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.