This blog article was written by Nicole Hartland, Archive Assistant (Graduate Trainee).
The sound of Big Ben is iconic. Big Ben (rings the note of E) and the four quarter bells (ring G sharp, F sharp, E, and B) sound the Westminster chimes. They are set to the lines ‘All through this hour, Lord be my Guide. And by thy power, No foot shall slide.’ Big Ben is associated with British democracy and the power, strength and resilience of British people. The chiming of Big Ben at New Year's Eve and Remembrance Sunday draws upon these associated qualities and the deep, and often emotional, connection many people have to the sound of Big Ben.
Much of this personal connection to Big Ben, in the UK and throughout the world, comes from the regular broadcasting of Big Ben on the radio since the 1920s. The bells mark the news and national events. Whilst the television and social media are now our main sources of entertainment and information, the radio was crucially important throughout the 20th century, especially during wartime.
In this blog post, we will explore the national and personal connections to the chimes and look at how Big Ben was first broadcast live on the radio, the sound of Big Ben during World War Two, and national news coverage of a few times Big Ben didn't quite hit the right note.
LIVE ON AIR: NEW YEAR’S EVE 1923
The chimes of Big Ben were first broadcast on New Year's Eve, 1923. BBC engineer AG Dryland transmitted the sound live from a rooftop opposite the Houses of Parliament, recording the chimes amongst the general noise of Westminster. This tradition has persisted ever since, and the sound of Big Ben is now an iconic part of New Year's Eve celebrations in London and on screens across the UK. This clip from ‘Scrapbook for 1924’ discusses the first radio broadcast, its impact in the UK and ‘the chimes which linked Britishness the world over’. The idea of British democracy and the power, strength and resilience of Britain were represented by the chimes as this iconic sound of ‘Britishness’ was broadcast to the world.
THE FIRST ROYAL CHRISTMAS BROADCAST
In 1932, Big Ben's chimes were heard throughout the empire in King George V’s Royal Christmas Broadcast on the BBC Empire Service (now the World Service). Introduced by local shepherd Walton Handy and with carols and bells from the town church, this broadcast created a direct connection to Britain and the King for around 20 million listeners in Canada, India and Kenya to name but a few. The tradition of the Royal Christmas Broadcast remains to this day, reaching people in the UK and throughout the commonwealth via the radio, television and internet.
Whilst a key part of Christmas, New Year’s Eve, Remembrance Sunday and Jubilee celebrations, the chimes of Big Ben are a routine sound for many. They serve as the radio equivalent to the London skyline behind television newsreaders, announcing the start of the Westminster Hour, 6pm and midnight news on BBC Radio 4 for example. The chimes are broadcast live from contact microphones right next to Big Ben, such as this early example and the current microphones pictured below. Unlike in 1923, these microphones allow the bongs to be broadcast live without the cars, birds, and general noise of Westminster taking the spotlight.
‘A SOUND YOU CAN’T HEAR WITHOUT CRYING’: BIG BEN DURING WWII
The qualities of power, strength and resilience discussed earlier are especially pertinent in times of national crisis such as wartime or the national coronavirus lockdown. Everyday sounds such as news announcements become much more significant, taking on a morale-boosting quality as a symbol of shared experience such as this viral TikTok video which made the news – a ‘kitchen remix’ of the BBC News theme. During WWII, the radio was the only source of breaking information, unlike today, and the chimes of Big Ben took on a morale-boosting and emotive character for many.
This clip from BBC radio program 'These Foolish Things', 1958 explores the profoundly emotional and lasting impact of the chimes for people throughout Europe during WWII. In the clip Ginette Spanier, then director of Paris fashion house Balmain, says hearing Big Ben on the radio in Nazi-occupied France was one of the most ‘sacred sounds’ heard during the war, ‘it was our lifeblood and it was our comfort and it kept us sane’. She then recalls New Year’s Eve 1943, surrounded by the Gestapo, ‘we got up, wrapped ourselves in rugs, we had a tooth glass with water… and as Big Ben sounded, we lifted our glasses… and we drank into the New Year. And we said one day, we will hear Big Ben in England’. Alain Bombard also discusses hearing Big Ben on his first trip to England in 1951 and breaking down in tears as it brought back memories of friends arrested and killed in Germany. ‘It really is a sound you can’t hear without crying’ comments Spanier.
‘A RACE AGAINST TIME’, BIG BEN ON THE NEWS
Despite the reliability of Big Ben and the Great Clock, there have been a few times when Big Ben has fallen silent. Unlike the clock, it is almost impossible not to notice when Big Ben sounds wrong – or doesn’t sound at all. On the night of August 10, 1976, the clock mechanism exploded due to an issue with the pendulum weights causing extensive damage (see image below). This meant Big Ben was silenced for almost nine months to allow for repairs. Silencing Big Ben for restoration and repair is not a decision to be taken lightly due to the attachment many feel to the chimes, such as these BBC Radio 4 listeners who made their thoughts about pre-recorded chimes clear.
In the winter of 1986, one of the bells stopped working due to the extreme cold and in October 1987 there was a crack found in the striking mechanism. News coverage of these events from London Plus (1986) and Breakfast Time (1987) show how invested we are in the bongs, and to making some awful clock puns. ‘The security of the nation itself is at risk if the clock bongs no more!’ the presenter says, well thank goodness for the emergency clock repair team!
Since 2017, Big Ben has not chimed apart from days of national importance due to an extensive conservation project which will ensure the longevity of Big Ben’s chimes. On the eve of Big Ben’s final chimes, Steve Jaggs, Keeper of the Great Clock invited members of the public to “mark this important moment by gathering in Parliament Square to hear Big Ben's final bongs until they return.” Many people did attend these ‘final bongs’ with some, including MPs, moved to tears by the occasion. The chimes of Big Ben continue to be an iconic and nationally important sound, representing far more than the Houses of Parliament, as seen in debates around ringing Big Ben to mark the UK’s exit from the European Union. Now, thanks to extensive conservation works, Big Ben will be chiming for years to come.