As the New Year approaches, we will once again hear the bongs of Big Ben ring out across London as midnight strikes. While renovations are taking place, the Great Bell is currently only rung on special occasions such as Remembrance Sunday and New Year’s Eve (along with several test runs in the lead up to the big events!). In total, Big Ben will be stopped for four years (2017-2021), which is the longest period of silence for the bell since its creation. This makes those moments when it does ring even more special. While for many people, hearing Big Ben is an integral part of London’s culture, there have been several times in its history when Big Ben has fallen silent. Using our collection here at the Parliamentary Archives, we can look back at times when (intentionally or accidentally) Big Ben has gone quiet.
When the Great Bell was first commissioned in 1856, at times it looked as though it would never chime at all! The first Big Ben was nearly 2 tonnes overweight and developed a large crack during preliminary tests in 1857, probably because the clapper which struck the bell was twice as heavy as originally planned. The damage was so extensive that the bell had to be completely recast. Sir Edmund Beckett, in the abstract of his 1874 book, Treatise on Clocks and Watched and Bells, sums it up nicely when he says:
‘We were in every way well rid of Big Ben the first’ (Parliamentary Archives, PWO/16/5).
Having been remade and installed in 1859, Big Ben II almost had the same problem again, when it developed two surface cracks. While these were being repaired, the large bell was not used for several years, with the hour chime instead being rung by the smaller quarter-bell. Yet despite these teething problems, the bell has stood fast ever since, and has not developed any new cracks. So, it seems it was well worth the initial effort to make sure the bell was right. However, there have been other reasons why Big Ben has had to fall silent since then.
During WWI, the bells of Elizabeth Tower were silent in order to avoid detection from enemy Zeppelins. But by WWII, such precautions were no longer necessary, as the more advanced aeroplanes by then flew too high to hear Big Ben’s bongs. Nevertheless, there was one night in 1941 when the bells did go quiet, but not because of the enemy threat…
Several newspaper reports told of the workman who singlehandedly silenced Big Ben by leaving his hammer on the hour spindle bracket. He had been working on one of the clock faces which had been damaged in a recent air raid, and left his hammer there overnight. This meant that the Great Clock stopped at 10.13 that evening, as the hammer acted as a wedge between the spindle and the bracket. The clock restarted at 10.13 the next morning, but the incident meant that BBC radio could not broadcast the chimes as usual at midnight.
Embarrassingly, this was not the first time an incident like this had taken place. An article in the Evening Standard at the time noted ‘Big Ben last stopped four years ago. A workman who had been cleaning it left his ladder against the spindle’ (Evening Standard, 4 June 1941, Parliamentary Archives). It seems like leaving things in the wrong place and causing the clock to stop was an occupational hazard back then!
Currently, Big Ben is not chiming in order to protect the workers who are carrying out the restoration work on Elizabeth Tower. A similar precaution was taken in the 1980s, when extensive repair work was carried out to clean the stone, painting and gilding work, and to repair the cast iron roof. At that time, the Great Bell was silent for two years. Several photographs of the work done are held in our collection, such as the one below.
Big Ben’s chimes were first broadcast across the country on New Year’s Eve to celebrate the start of 1924, and the tradition continues today. Events which have previously silenced the bells, and the current restoration work, mean that it is a real privilege to hear Big Ben’s chimes. So, enjoy them wherever you are at midnight, and Happy New Year!