There isn’t a more famous clocktower in the world than Big Ben. It has featured in a number of films, either up close or as part of London scenery, and it’s one of the most iconic parts of the skyline. You’d be hard pressed to find anyone, no matter where they hail from, who doesn’t know what Big Ben is.
But there is also a rich story behind this most famous of landmarks…
Genius and Madness
Back in 1834, the regal and ancient palace of Westminster burned down. Gutted and mostly destroyed, renowned architect Sir Charles Barry was given the task of rebuilding it. He set to work planning and building the palace proper but handed off the task of designing Elizabeth Tower (Big Ben’s more formal name) to a man by the name of Augustus Pugin.
Pugin was famed for employing the Gothic Revival style of architecture, and it is him that we can thank for Big Ben’s iconic looks. Pugin emphasised a style that would be grand, imposing and project power. He was acutely aware of the importance of his work and wanted to create something that would both impress contemporary viewers and also stand the test of time.
Settling on Anston limestone cladding and brickwork for the lower two-thirds of Big Ben, Pugin crowned that with 115 feet of solid iron cladding, wanting to ensure that the tower was rock-solid and could stand the test of time.
For Pugin, this would be the last project he would ever complete before lapsing into catatonia and, after a period of ill-health, death. He considered his work ‘beautiful’ and it is fair to say the world agrees.
In the Wars
At the outbreak of World War One, Big Ben fell silent for the first time in over half a century. German zeppelin raids were bedevilling London and the choice was made to silence Big Ben and turn off the lights that illuminated the clock face. The government and locals were worried the huge tower would work as a homing beacon for German pilots and sought to deny them this advantage.
World War Two once again saw the iconic clocktower darkened, but not silenced. The bells of Big Ben continued to ring throughout the six-year conflict, but the clockface went unilluminated. Again, it was feared German pilots could use Big Ben to orient themselves and specifically target Westminster. In May, 1941, this very thing happened. A German bomber successfully hit Big Ben, damaging two of the four clockfaces
Since the Second World War, Big Ben has never had to face such dire threats. It broke down in August, 1976 when an air brake broke after a hundred years of continual use, but that’s not bad going for a century of service and, to this day, this event represents the only time Big Ben has had a major breakdown.
In 2017, Big Ben was silenced for the next four years, as part of maintenance, repairs and improvements to the building itself. The hands will still continue to tell Londoners the time, as they have for generations and the bells will still chime at certain key times of the year, such as Remembrance Day and New Year’s Eve.