Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Clocking in

Everybody knows Big Ben. Right?

Americans mostly think Big Ben is the clock tower pictured here. A lot of London folk think so too. No harm done.

Of course YOU know that Big Ben doesn't really refer to the tower or the clock, but rather to the largest of the 5 bells that are located in the belfry. I'm not writing this post to correct your thinking - so many people just call the clock tower Big Ben, it has become acceptable to do so. No, what I really want to do in this post is talk about the bell itself.

My infallible sources (I'm trying to stay away from Wikipedia this year) tell me that Big Ben is the third largest bell in the UK. I'm sure you can name the other two, so I won't insult you by telling you about those.

Yes I will.

The largest bell in the kingdom is Great Paul and the second largest is in Liverpool. Big Liv or something like that. No, wait. Great George.

Some of you are probably wondering who Big Ben is named after. Rightly so. That's a poser. For those of you who believe it was named after Queen "Ben" Victoria, sorry. But thank you for playing. There are so many prominent Benjamins from whom to choose. Many say it was named after Sir Benjamin Hall, who personally carried the 13-ton bell on his back up the 334 steps to the tower belfry. Could be. In fact, Sir Benjamin Hall's name is inscribed on the bell, so you would really have to be a dyed-in-the-wool skeptic to still doubt who it is named after. Before I learned about Benjamin Hall, I was going to guess Benjamin Disraeli, though I doubt even his own mother ever called HIM "Ben". And I immediately discarded Benjamin Franklin as a candidate.

The original Great Bell weighed over 16 tons, and was drawn from the foundry to the tower on a trolly drawn by 16 horses. This was not, I'm thinking, one of your average Tesco trollies. [Note to American readers: Tesco is a British grocery store chain, and the British don't use shopping carts.] Unfortunately, the first bell cracked while being tested and had to be recast. I'm not entirely sure where the missing 3 tons went. All I know is that Sir Ben was PISSED (as Charles Dickens noted afterward) that he had to carry the bell down and up again.

I'm sure, if you are burdened by the peculiar kind of "Rain Man" memory that Relax Max has, then you can't really read the words "16 Tons" without immediately thinking of Tennessee Ernie Ford's 1956 hit song of the same name. I'm sure. "Ya loaded sixteen tons, whaddaya get? - Another day older and deeper in debt. St. Peter dontcha call me cuz I CAN'T GO! I owe my soul to the company store. Doodoodoodoo dumdy dumdum."

But try to block that out of your mind for the time being.

Would you, dear American reader, like to visit the belfry of the Great Clock Tower of the Palace of Westminster when next you are in London, and check out the bells and clockworks close up? Sorry, no furriner tourists allowed. They'll take your money for the ground level tour stuff, though, and let you in the gift shop, but only actual card-carrying British citizens (including some Scots, I'm told) may tour the tower itself, and only then if they get a recommendation and okey-dokey from their PM. Make that MP. True. And guess whether or not the tower has a lift? Heh heh heh.

I really wanted to show you a picture of the Great Bell known as Big Ben, but the only pictures I could find were on Wikipedia, and, as I say, Wikipedia lies too much for me to use this year. Those could have been pictures of the Liberty Bell for all I know. So I have drawn you a picture of Big Ben, below, just to give you a working idea of what it looks like. By the way, just for scale, the actual bell is 2.2 meters tall. That is about half a rod, more or less.

[Illustration drawn by Relax Max. The original was drawn by 16 horses.]

One final note. The clock tower (and maybe the whole of the Westminster post-fire rebuild, for all I know - I have already spent too much time on this post and I'm not going to go back and look it up in my notes) was designed by Augustus Pugin. Augustus later went mad and spent time in Bedlam (perhaps screaming in terror about nightmarish neo-gothic architecture) and died at age 40. So sad. Died at Ramsgate, Kent. But I've already posted about Ramsgate. Some say he really died of syf-full-lus. But those people are probably spiteful Torries.


  1. Excellent (mostly) and hard to fault. However with a bit of determination I did find one obvious fault at the end. Pugin indeed designed the interiors of the house of Commons and the House of Lords but the actual architect was not he but a man called Charles Barry. Much argument between them (and their sons) for years afterwards as to who was responsible for the work.

    The clock is kept in time by the use of several old pennies from Victoria's time, used as weights when required. Not a lot of people know that...

  2. Oranges and lemons
    Say the bells of St. Clement's.
    You owe me five farthings,
    Say the bells of St. Martin's.
    When will you pay me?
    Say the bells of Old Bailey.
    When I grow rich,
    Say the bells of Shoreditch.
    When will that be?
    Say the bells of Stepney.
    I do not know,
    Says the great bell of Bow.

    Proving that there is room for the smaller bells too. And if you can introduce "16 tons", I can introduce "Oranges and Lemons".

  3. It should be noted that I know four verses to "16 Tons" (is that all of them - I'll check on Wikipedia) and can sing it in several different keys a capella.

    I did happen to know that Big Ben was the bell; however, I did not know the other large bells in the UK, or, in fact, anywhere else. Just not one of those subjects that compel me.

  4. Hello!

    Have you written about the Houses of Parliament generally yet or Westminster Hall? You could illustrate it with a Turner painting and make me really happy :)

  5. @Kelly - Hi Kell. I'm glad you could still find the way. Thank you. :) :)

    @Adullamite - Well, I can't argue (though I will a little bit). Sir Charles certainly won the contest from the other 80-odd architects, and was the official architect for the huge rebuilding project. But I think young Mr. Pugin did a bit more than he is given credit for in the history books. At least his biographer thinks so. Barry liked and trusted him, and Pugin was the king of Gothic Revival. The bell tower is based too closely on Pugin's previous bell tower work, particularly at Scarisbrick Hall, for it to be a coincidence, in my opinion. (At least I think there is a resemblance.) But the credit must historically officially go to Barry, the lead architect, as you say.

    @A., you are so right. In fact I will do a scholarly post on my other blog about the other bells. Thank you for reminding me. And Tennessee Ernie would be darn proud of you. ;)

    @Stephanie Barr - I didn't think there were 4 verses. Really? Let's see (I'm not going to Wikipedia, as I said earlier.)

    1. I was born one morning, it was drizzlin' rain. Fighting and trouble are my middle name. I was raised in a canebreak by an ol' mama lion; no high-toned woman can make me walk the line.

    2. I was born one morning when the sun didn't shine. Picked up my shovel and walked off to the mine. I loaded sixteen tons of number nine coal, and the old straw boss said, "Well bless my soul."

    3. If you see me comin', better step aside. A lot of men didn't and a lot of men died. One fist of iron and the other of steel; if the right one don't get you then the left one will.

    No, I think only the three verses. Go for it. :)

    @Alison - Hey! No, I've not written generally about the Houses of Parliament. Unless you count the time I wrote about Guy Fawkes storing his gunpowder under them. :) I would be honored, though, to research them and add to my knowledge of both them and Turner. But you must promise to stop by and look from time to time and not wander so far away for so long. I will probably cheat and ask A. to help me. ;) I remember you are from London and thus probably know Westminster well, though you are far away now. I'm really glad you stopped by!

  6. @Adullamite - I didn't know that about the pennies.

    Would you please try to get an endorsement from your MP and go climb up and take some pictures of the bell for us? If you don't tell them you are a Scottish revolutionary, they will probably let you go up. What do you say? If you agree to do it and can get permission, I'll try and have a fundraiser on the blog to get you fare down to London. It would be a lark. Think about it. No meals, just fare. I figure you would have to eat anyway even if you didn't go. Or maybe I could get one of the game shows to sponsor you. That way you could get lodging and meals too. You would probably have to dress up funny, though. Maybe a raffle on the blog would be better. Soubriquet would be good for a few quid.

  7. Climbing those stairs would be the death of me. Therefore I see your suggestion as attempted murder and intend to send my lawyers onto you seeking compensation.
    About $35 million would be about right I suggest (plus lawyers fees.')

  8. Before the court case, here are some 'Big Ben' links:-




  9. Duh! The first one:

    "Well, they say that a man is made out of mud,
    Poor man's made out of muscle and blood.
    Muscle and blood and skin and bone,
    A mind that's weak and a back that's strong--"

  10. Whilst it's true that only the biggest bell is really called Big Ben, when we see that image, that clock-tower, we think "Big Ben", not St Stephen's Tower.
    So I think you could argue that the whole thing is Big Ben, simply because, across the world, most people call it that.

    Might I recommend, for your amusement...

  11. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gkDU7SBBPA0&feature=related

  12. Your mention of Big Paul and Big George made me wonder where Big John and Big Ringo are located.

    I prefer a Waitrose trolley to a Tesco one any day, BTW. Much fancier!

  13. Aww dang, now you've done - set off Poe's The Bells in my head. Must go read it now to stop the tintinnabulation.

  14. @Soubriquet - Hmmm. My first paragraphs seem to agree with your observation. :) Thanks for the link... a few discrepancies in facts, but it is a movie, after all. Exciting, no?

    @Adullamite - Thanks for the link. Interesting and informative indeed! Cool. :)

  15. @Stephanie Barr- I agree. I missed that one. You amaze me sometimes. :)

    @Lidian - You crack me up. Why didn’t I think of that? :) Actually, I think there IS a bell named after Richard Starkey. I won’t tell you it’s nickname though.

    @Leazwell - Thanks a lot - now I’ve got that in my brain too! :)

  16. I love "The Bells." But you have to read it out loud to get the full effect.

    That's a whole different kind of music.



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