THE STORY OF BIG BEN|
At 9'-0" diameter, 7'-6" high, and weighing in at 13 tons 10 cwts 3 qtrs 15lbs (13,760 Kg), the hour bell of the Great Clock of Westminster - known worldwide as 'Big Ben' - is the most famous bell ever cast at Whitechapel. This picture, painted by William T. Kimber, the head moulder responsible for casting the bell, shows George Mears with his wife and daughter inspecting the casting prior to despatch. Big Ben was cast on Saturday 10th April 1858, but its story begins more than two decades earlier....
On 16th October 1834, fire succeeded where Guy Fawkes and his fellow plotters had failed on 5th November 1605, and destroyed the Palace of Westminster, long the seat of the British government. Those few bits of the Old Palace that survived the fire - most notably Westminster Hall, which was built between 1097 and 1099 by William Rufus - were incorporated into the new buildings we know today, along with many new features.
In 1844, Parliament decided that the new buildings for the Houses of Parliament, by then under construction, should incorporate a tower and clock. The commission for this work was awarded to the architect Charles Barry, who initially invited just one clockmaker to produce a design and quotation. The rest of the trade objected to this, demanding the job be put out to competitive tender. The Astronomer Royal, George Airy was appointed to draft a specification for the clock. One of his requirements was that:
"the first stroke of the hour bell should register the time, correct to within one second per day, and furthermore that it should telegraph its performance twice a day to Greenwich Observatory, where a record would be kept."Most clockmakers of the day considered such accuracy unnattainable for a large tower clock driving striking mechanisms and heavy hands exposed to wind and weather and lobbied for a lesser specification. However, Airy was adamant that the first specification be adhered to. Due to this impasse, Parliament appointed barrister Edmund Beckett Denison as co-referee with Airy. Edmund Beckett Denison, later Sir Edmund Beckett, the first Baron Grimthorpe, was a difficult man. He was described by one writer as:
"zealous but unpopular, self-accredited expert on clocks, locks, bells, buildings, as well as many branches of law, Denison was one of those people who are almost impossible as colleagues, being perfectly convinced that they know more than anybody about everything - as unhappily they often do."Denison decided to apply himself to the problem of the clock. It was 1851 before he came up with a design which could meet the exacting specification. The clock Denison designed was built by Messrs E.J. Dent & Co., and completed in 1854. The tower was not ready until 1859, so the clock was kept on test at Dent's works for over five years. (During that time, Denison invented a new gravity escapement and a trial clock was tested and approved by the Astronomer Royal. This clock is believed to be now in use as the church clock at St. Dunstan's, at Cranbrook in Kent.)
Next came the bells, and Denison discovered that Barry, now Sir Charles Barry, had specified a 14 ton hour bell but had made no provision for its production or for that of the four smaller quarter chime bells. Denison's studies of clocks had included bells and he had developed his own ideas as to how they should be designed and made.
The largest bell ever cast in Britain up to that time had been 'Great Peter' at York Minster. This weighed just 10¾ tons, so it is not surprising the bellfounders were wary of bidding for the contract to produce the new bell, particularly since Denison insisted on his own design for the shape of the bell as well as his own recipe for the bellmetal. In both respects his requirements varied significantly from traditional custom and practice. Eventually, a bell was made to his specification, albeit somewhat oversize at 16 tons, by John Warner & Sons at Stockton-on-Tees on 6th August 1856, but this cracked irreparably while under test in the Palace Yard at Westminster. It was then that Denison, who now had QC after his name, turned to the Whitechapel foundry....
George Mears, then the master bellfounder and owner of the Whitechapel Bell Foundry, undertook the casting. According to foundry records, Mears originally quoted a price of £2401 for casting the bell, but this was offset to the sum of £1829 by the metal he was able to reclaim from the first bell so that the actual invoice tendered, on 28th May 1858, was in the sum of £572. It took a week To break up the old bell, three furnaces were required to melt the metal, and the mould was heated all day before the actual casting, the first time this had been done in British bell-founding. It took 20 minutes to fill the mould with molten metal, and 20 days for the metal to solidify and cool. After the bell had been tested in every way by Mears, Denison approved it before it left the foundry.
Transporting the bell the few miles from the foundry to the Houses of Parliament was a major event. Traffic stopped as the bell, mounted on a trolley drawn by sixteen brightly beribboned horses, made its way over London Bridge, along Borough Road, and over Westminster Bridge. The streets had been decorated for the occasion and enthusiastic crowds cheered the bell along the route.
The bells of the Great Clock of Westmister rang across London for the first time on 31st May 1859, and Parliament had a special sitting to decide on a suitable name for the great hour bell. During the course of the debate, and amid the many suggestions that were made, Chief Lord of the Woods and Forests, Sir Benjamin Hall, a large and ponderous man known affectionately in the House as "Big Ben", rose and gave an impressively long speech on the subject. When, at the end of this oratorical marathon, Sir Benjamin sank back into his seat, a wag in the chamber shouted out: "Why not call him Big Ben and have done with it?" The house erupted in laughter; Big Ben had been named. This, at least, is the most commonly accepted story. However, according to the booklet written for the old Ministry of Works by Alan Phillips:
"Like other nice stories, this has no documentary support; Hansard failed to record the interjection. The Times had been alluding to 'Big Ben of Westminster' since 1856. Probably, the derivation must be sought more remotely. The current champion of the prize ring was Benjamin Caunt, who had fought terrific battles with Bendigo, and who in 1857 lasted sixty rounds of a drawn contest in his final appearance at the age of 42. As Caunt at one period scaled 17 stone (238 lbs, or 108 kilogrammes), his nickname was Big Ben, and that was readily bestowed by the populace on any object the heaviest of its class. So the anonymous MP may have snatched at what was already a catchphrase."In September, a mere two months after it officially went into service, Big Ben cracked. Once again Denison's belief that he knew more about bells than the experts was to blame for he had used a hammer more than twice the maximum weight specified by George Mears. Big Ben was taken out of service and for the next three years the hours were struck on the largest of the quarter-bells. Eventually, a lighter hammer was fitted, a square piece of metal chipped out of the soundbow, and the bell given an eighth of a turn to present an undamaged section to the hammer. This is the bell as we hear it today, the crack giving it its distinctive but less-than-perfect tone.
Not prepared to admit any error on his part, Denison befriended one of the Foundry's moulders, plied him with drink, and got him to bear false witness that it was poor casting, disguised with filler, that had caused the cracking. (A close examination of Big Ben in 2002 failed to find a trace of filler, incidentally.) With reputations at stake this led to a court case, which Denison rightly lost. (With all the passion and intrigue involved, from the commissioning of Big Ben through to the court case, it's surprising these events have never been turned into a TV drama.) Nor was this the end of the story. Denison, obviously aggrieved at having lost the court case, continued to badmouth the Foundry. Twenty years later he was unwise enough to do so in print and this led to a second libel trial. And he lost that case, too.
In mid-2002, we uncovered a dusty old boxfile bearing a label that read "Stainbank v Beckett 1881". It contained a complete transcript of the second trial between the Foundry - this time in the person of founder Robert Stainbank - and Sir Edmund Beckett Denison. Initially, we thought we'd discovered a transcript of the original, Big Ben trial. While it's a shame we don't possess a transcript of the first trial (at least, none we've yet found) there is apparently a copy still extant at the Palace of Westminster. This may, however, be the only existing transcript of the later trial. That original, handwritten transcript will be lodged in the Foundry library after a typed record has been made.
One final point of interest is that the transcript mentions the lawyer for the Foundry using a small model to demonstrate the principles of bell-casting. This would almost certainly have been the same small, exquisitely crafted model currently on display in the Foundry's lobby museum area.
Big Ben remains the largest bell ever cast at Whitechapel. Visitors to the foundry pass through a full size profile of the bell that frames the main entrance as they enter the building. The original moulding gauge employed to form the mould used to cast Big Ben hangs on the end wall of the foundry above the furnaces to this very day.
Among the gift items available from Whitechapel Bell Foundry is the book 'Big Ben: The Bell, The Clock, and The Tower' by Peter MacDonald, and a finely detailed miniature of the bell itself. These can be found on our merchandising page.
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