Today (October 21) in London History – Big Ben

The business end of the famous clock tower at the Palace of Westminster was christened Big Ben on October 21, 1856. This Today in London History podcast tells the tale.


London calling.

London Walks connecting.

London Walks here with your daily London fix.

Story time. History time.

I think this probably settles the question. I’m looking at Page 5 of the Times for Wednesday, October 22, 1856.

Seeing myself as a Victorian gentleman, just sitting down to a hearty breakfast of sausages, preserves, bacon and eggs, and bread rolls. And yes, a glass of beer. And black coffee to finish. While I read the Times. Catch up with the latest news.

And I come to that story on page five and I think, “Oh, yes, so it made it over there at last. That would have been a sight to see.”

Well, what I – teleported back to October 22, 1856 and not surprised in the least to find myself a portly Victorian gentleman tucking into a hearty breakfast – what I am seeing on page 5 of the Times is a report about the delivery of the great bell, yesterday, October 21st, to Palace Yard, at the foot of the clock tower. At the Houses of Parliament.

What a production that was. What a production the whole affair has been. 

The Clock Tower’s already been 13 years in the making. And it won’t be finished for three years.

Not that it matters a whit. Because it turns out that – after all that kerfuffle yesterday – it turns out we don’t have a bell after all. Or we won’t have one very soon. 

Here’s the tale (it’s great being teleported back to 1856 – it effectively means you can see into the future). 

Yesterday’s bell – yesterday is the mot juste – was cast up in Stockton on Tees. It was a monster bell. Sixteen tons. 

Just listen to this, darling. [Stage direction: Reads to his wife here. Reads from the Times.]

The Wave was yesterday morning safely delivered of her monster burden alongside Messrs. Maudslay’s Wharf, near Westminster Bridge, those gentlemen having kindly granted the use of their crane etc. to Mr Jabez James of Broadwall, for that purpose. The great bell, which as our readers are aware, was founded by Mssrs. Warner and Son, was afterwards conveyed on a low truck, drawn by sixteen horses, over Westminster Bridge, and safely deposited in Palace Yard. Mr Quarm, clerk of the works of the new Palace, superintended the arrangements, and professor Taylor and Sir Charles Barry were both present. The crowd collected in Palace Yard after its arrival was so great that the police had considerable difficulty in keeping the approaches to Palace Yard clear. In the course of the afternoon the bell was lifted from the truck and swung under the massive frame erected for the purpose at the foot of the Clock Tower. It was then tested once or twice, and having been pronounced entirely free from crack or flaw of any kind, it was propped up with timber to take the immense strain off the chains by which it is suspended, and so left to repose in silence after its journey for the night. All bells, we believe, are christened before they begin to toll, and on this occasion it is proposed to call our king of bells, “Big Ben,” in honour of Sir Benjamin Hall, the President of the Board of Works, during whose tenure of office it was cast.”

Ok, let’s get back to today, to today. Several interesting things about that account. The big one being, it surely settles, once and for all, the debate about the name Big Ben, who it’s named after. Sir Benjamin Hall has always had pole position in that debate. But other candidates have had their proponents. But if on delivery day of the bell the Times reporter covering the story is stating it baldly, ‘the bell’s going to be named Big Ben in honour of Sir Benjamin’, that’s game, set, match. Case closed.

And the others are just a couple of delicate brushstrokes. It’s nice to know that the vessel that brought the bell down from Stockton on Tees was named The Wave. And just another dab of paint – each of these dabs is a glimpse of the London of 170 years ago – nice to know there was a wharf called Maudsley’s Wharf on the Surrey side of Westminster Bridge. 

The reporter talks about the monster reposing in silence. The day wasn’t too far off when it would forever be reposing in silence. The rest of the story being, they tested the monster bell again. And this time it cracked. It couldn’t be repaired. Had to be replaced. A London foundry, the famous Whitechapel Bell Foundry, stepped up. Recast the replacement. That happened on April 10th, 1858. The replacement bell was a little bit smaller. Thirteen tons. The bell was transported from the foundry on a trolley drawn by sixteen horses. Wonder if it was the same sixteen horses? Imagine those big poweful shire horses looking at one another and groaning, “oh, no, not again.” Crowds cheered its progress all the way across London. The horses did their bit. Got it to Palace Yard. Then up it went – 200 feet – to the belfry. That little job took 18 hours. The new bell was first chimed in July 1859. Six weeks later, the jinx struck again. The new bell cracked. Turns out the horologist bonged it with hammer that was way too heavy, more than twice the specified weight. Big Ben was silent for three years while heads were scratched and solutions proposed and one of them finally adopted and acted on. They didn’t repair the crack. They rotated the bell an eighth of a turn and installed a much lighter hammer.

And maybe one more takeaway – Big Ben was the largest bell in the British Isles until “Great Paul”, the nearly 17 ton behemoth that currently hangs in St Paul’s cathedral was cast in 1881. And here’s a choice London Walks factoid for you – the clock is of course the public clock for London. Before it came along, London’s public clock was the big clock just up the way at Horse Guards. And that clock’s got great stories, great point-outs – it’s great fun to guide it, get people people to notice important, special things about it that they’d never see off their own bat. 

But hey, I’m going to hold back on those morsels. You want those treats you’re going to have to come walking with me.

And a Today in London recommendation. Let’s break step here. Have you thought about a Tour of Lord’s? The most famous cricket ground in the world. The ground – the stadium – and the museum. Got a lot to recommend it. Very English, very London. And hey if you’re a compatriot of mine – from over the pond – you might even get a bit closer to understanding cricket, both the game and the culture surrounding it. 

things went pear-shaped. Went bell-shaped. They were testing it and dear me if it didn’t crack beyond repair. Well, I suppose they caught a break. Imagine if it had cracked after they got it up to the top of Tower.

You’ve been listening to the Today in London History podcast. Emanating from – home of London Walks, London’s signature walking tour company. London’s local, time-honoured, fiercely independent, family-owned, just-the-right-size walking tour company. And as long as we’re at it, London’s multi-award-winning walking tour company. Indeed, London’s only award-winning walking tour company.

And here’s the secret: London Walks is essentially run as a guides’ cooperative. 

That’s the key to everything. It’s the reason we’re able to attract and keep the best guides in London. You can get schlubbers to do this for £20 a walk. But you cannot get world-class guides – let alone accomplished professionals.

It’s not rocket science: you get what you pay for. And just as surely, you also get what you don’t pay for. 

Back in 1968 when we got started we quickly came to a fork in the road. We had to answer a searching question: Do we want to make the most money? Or do we want to be the best walking tour company in the world? You want to make the most money you go the schlubbers route. You want to be the best walking tour company in the world you do whatever you have to do to attract and keep the best guides in London – you want them guiding for you, not for somebody else. Bears repeating: the way we’re structured – a guides’ cooperative – is the key to the whole thing. It’s the reason for all those awards, it’s the reason people who know go with London Walks, it’s the reason we’ve got a big following, a lively, loyal, discerning following – quality attracts quality.

It’s the reason we’re able – uniquely – to front our walks with accomplished, in many cases distinguished professionals: barristers, doctors, geologists, museum curators, archaeologists, historians, criminal defence lawyers, Royal Shakespeare Company actors, a bevy of MVPs, Oscar winners (people who’ve won the Guide of the Year Award)… well, you get the idea. As that travel writer famously put it, “if this were a golf tournament, every name on the Leader Board would be a London Walks guide.”

And as we put it: London Walks Guides make the new familiar and the familiar new.

And on that agreeable note…come then, let us go forward together on some great London Walks. See ya tomorrow.

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