London Lantern

Putting the Spotlight on London

Big Ben - London's Favourite Landmark

24/02/2006, By David McIntosh

Reader Rating: 2.9 from 17118 votes


For starters letís clear up a common misconception, Big Ben is not the name of the clock tower at the Palace of Westminster, it refers to one of the bells in the tower which is actually St. Stephenís tower. But passers by, who each day hear the bells chime out the time, visitors to London and people around the world, when you say Big Ben, the image that springs to mind is of the tall clock tower at the Houses of Parliament. No matter, when you say Big Ben it can only mean that you are in London town.

Actually Big Ben refers to the biggest of the bells inside St. Stephen's tower. Ben weighs over 13 tons and so the story goes is named for Sir Benjamin Hall who was Commissioner of Works in Britain when the tower was built.

Big Ben, the name, the tower, both have become synonymous with London. Today most people think of the tower as Big Ben. In the 1930s the cinema impresario Alexander Korda choose the tower as the image that opened all of the films produced by his company London Films, an image still used by the company, today still a respected producer of movies as well as television programming.

Any director that wants to quickly establish the locale of a scene in a movie as London has to do nothing more than feature a shot of Big Ben and the sound of the bells chiming out the time. Think of all of the movies that featured wartime London as the setting. What is the establishing shot? None other than Big Ben. For example in a 1970s version of the John Buchan classic The Thirty-Nine Steps in one of the scenes near the end the hero Richard Hanney finds himself hanging on for dear life as he clings to one of the hands of the clock atop the tower. Admittedly the scene is a bit of a stretch but it does make for exciting cinema.

Even children around the world know that Big Ben means London. Another movie that makes good use of Big Ben to place set the stage is the Disney animated classic Peter Pan - remember when Peter leads Wendy and her brothers through the skies above London on their journey to Neverland one witness to the childrenís flight is none other than our friend Big Ben.

It seems that St. Stephenís has been an image of London forever; itís hard to imagine the city by Thames without the clock tower. It may come as surprise then to many that the Palace of Westminster and Big Ben are fairly recent additions to Londonís historic landscape. One October night in 1834 flames would sweep through the old Palace of Westminster destroying it.

Soon after the flames had been extinguished and the embers had cooled a competition to design new Parliament buildings was announced. Winning the competition was a man who had witnessed the flames as he returned from Brighton to London. Charles Barryís winning design featured a clock tower with dials that had a diameter of thirty feet.

On the quarter hour chimes would be struck on smaller bells and on the hour a fourteen ton bell - at the time the biggest in the world - would be struck. A controversy developed over who would receive the contract to construct the clockworks and the Astronomer Royal, Sir George Airy, was brought in, along with Edmund Beckett Denison, to assist in resolving the matter. Receiving the contract was Edward John Dent. The specifications called for the clock to strike the first blow of each hour within one second of the correct time. (To be continued next month)

David McIntosh

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