Big Ben is the nickname for the great bell of the clock at the north end of the Palace of Westminster in London, and often extended to refer to the clock and the clock tower. The tower is now officially called the Elizabeth Tower, after being renamed to celebrate the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II. The Elizabeth Tower holds the largest four-faced chiming clock in the world and is the third-tallest free-standing clock tower. The tower was completed in 1858 and had its 150th anniversary on 31 May 2009, during which celebratory events took place. The Elizabeth Tower has become one of the most prominent symbols of both London and England and is often in the establishing shot of films set in the city.
The Elizabeth Tower (previously called the Clock Tower), named in tribute to Queen Elizabeth II in her Diamond Jubilee year, was raised as a part of Charles Barry‘s design for a new palace, after the old Palace of Westminster was largely destroyed by fire on the night of 16 October 1834. The new Parliament was built in a Neo-gothic style. Although Barry was the chief architect of the Palace, he turned to Augustus Pugin for the design of the clock tower, which resembles earlier Pugin designs, including one for Scarisbrick Hall. The design for the Elizabeth Tower was Pugin’s last design before his final descent into madness and death, and Pugin himself wrote, at the time of Barry’s last visit to him to collect the drawings: “I never worked so hard in my life for Mr Barry for tomorrow I render all the designs for finishing his bell tower & it is beautiful.” The tower is designed in Pugin’s celebrated Gothic Revival style, and is 315 feet (96.0 m) high (roughly 16 storeys).
The bottom 200 feet (61.0 m) of Elizabeth Tower’s structure consists of brickwork with sand coloured Anston limestone cladding. The remainder of the tower’s height is a framed spire of cast iron. The tower is founded on a 50 feet (15.2 m) square raft, made of 10 feet (3.0 m) thick concrete, at a depth of 13 feet (4.0 m) below ground level. The four clock dials are 180 feet (54.9 m) above ground. The interior volume of the tower is 164,200 cubic feet (4,650 cubic metres).
Despite being one of the world’s most famous tourist attractions, the interior of the tower is not open to overseas visitors, though United Kingdom residents are able to arrange tours (well in advance) through their Member of Parliament. However, the tower has no lift, so those escorted must climb the 334 limestone stairs to the top.
Due to changes in ground conditions since construction, the tower leans slightly to the north-west, by roughly 230 millimetres (9.1 in) over 55 m height, giving an inclination of approximately 1/240. This includes a planned maximum of 22 mm increased tilt due to tunnelling for the Jubilee Line extension) Due to thermal effects it oscillates annually by a few millimetres east and west.
Journalists during Queen Victoria’s reign called it St Stephen’s Tower. As MPs originally sat at St Stephen’s Hall, these journalists referred to anything related to the House of Commons as news from “St Stephens”.
On 2 June 2012, The Daily Telegraph reported that 331 Members of Parliament, including senior members of all three main parties, supported a proposal to change the name from Clock Tower to “Elizabeth Tower” in tribute to the Queen in her Diamond Jubilee year. This is thought to be appropriate because the large west tower now known as Victoria Tower was renamed in tribute to Queen Victoria on her Diamond Jubilee. On 26 June, the House of Commons confirmed that the name change could go ahead. Prime Minister Cameron announced the change of name on 12 September 2012, at the start of Prime minister’s questions. The change was marked by a naming ceremony in which the Speaker of the House of Commons, John Bercow unveiled a name plaque attached to the tower on Speaker’s GreenSignificance in popular culture
The clock has become a symbol of the United Kingdom and London, particularly in the visual media. When a television or film-maker wishes to indicate a generic location in Britain, a popular way to do so is to show an image of the tower, often with a red double-decker bus or black cab in the foreground.
The sound of the clock chiming has also been used this way in audio media, but as the Westminster Quarters are heard from other clocks and other devices, the unique nature of this sound has been considerably diluted. Big Ben is a focus of New Year celebrations in the United Kingdom, with radio and TV stations tuning to its chimes to welcome the start of the New Year. As well, to welcome in 2012, the clock tower itself was lit with fireworks that exploded at every toll of Big Ben. Similarly, on Remembrance Day, the chimes of Big Ben are broadcast to mark the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month and the start of two minutes’ silence. Londoners who live an appropriate distance from the Tower and Big Ben can, by means of listening to the chimes both live and on analogue radio, hear the bell strike thirteen times. This is possible due to what amounts to an offset between live and electronically transmitted chimes since the speed of sound is a lot slower than the speed of radio waves. Guests are invited to count the chimes aloud as the radio is gradually turned down.
ITN‘s News at Ten opening sequence formerly featured an image of the Elizabeth Tower with the sound of Big Ben’s chimes punctuating the announcement of the news headlines. The Big Ben chimes (known within ITN as “The Bongs”) continue to be used during the headlines and all ITV News bulletins use a graphic based on the Westminster clock dial. Big Ben can also be heard striking the hour before some news bulletins on BBC Radio 4 (6 pm and midnight, plus 10 pm on Sundays) and the BBC World Service, a practice that began on 31 December 1923. The sound of the chimes are sent in real time from a microphone permanently installed in the tower and connected by line to Broadcasting House.
The Tower has appeared in many films, most notably in the 1978 version of The Thirty Nine Steps, in which the hero, Richard Hannay, attempted to halt the clock’s progress (to prevent a linked bomb detonating) by hanging from the minute hand of its western dial. In the fourth James Bond film, Thunderball, a mistaken extra strike of Big Ben on the hour is designated by criminal organisation SPECTRE to be the signal that the British Government has acceded to its nuclear extortion demands. It was also used in the filming of Shanghai Knights starring Jackie Chan and Owen Wilson, and was depicted as being partially destroyed in the Doctor Who episode “Aliens of London“. Big Ben was also featured in the closing scene of James McTeigue‘s film V for Vendetta in which a futuristic depiction of Guy Fawkes succeeds in blowing up parliament, and the tower’s bells and pendulum are sounded with a final screech at the beginning of the explosion. The apparent “thirteen chimes” detailed above was also a major plot device in the Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons episode, “Big Ben Strikes Again“. It has featured prominently in several animated Walt Disney films, including The Great Mouse Detective, Peter Pan and Cars 2.
At the close of the polls for the 2010 General Election the results of the national exit poll were projected onto the south side of the Elizabeth Tower.
On 27 July 2012, starting at 8:12 a.m, Big Ben chimed thirty times, to welcome in the London Olympic Games (i.e. the 30th Olympiad), which officially began that day..