Big Ben

Big Ben is one of London's best-known landmarks, and looks most spectacular at night when the clock faces are illuminated. You even know when parliament is in session, because a light shines above the clock face.

The four dials of the clock are 23 feet square, the minute hand is 14 feet long and the figures are 2 feet high. Minutely regulated with a stack of coins placed on the huge pendulum, Big Ben is an excellent timekeeper, which has rarely stopped.

The name Big Ben actually refers not to the clock-tower itself, but to the thirteen ton bell hung within. The bell was named after the first commissioner of works, Sir Benjamin Hall.

This bell came originally from the old Palace of Westminster, it was given to the Dean of St. Paul's by William III. Before returning to Westminster to hang in its present home, it was refashioned in White chapel in 1858. The BBC first broadcast the chimes on the 31st December 1923 - there is a microphone in the turret connected to Broadcasting House.

During the Second World War in 1941, an incendiary bomb destroyed the Commons chamber of the Houses of Parliament, but the clock tower remained intact and Big Ben continued to keep time and strike away the hours, its unique sound was broadcast to the nation and around the world, a welcome reassurance of hope to all who heard it.

There are even cells within the clock tower where Members of Parliament can be imprisoned for a breach of parliamentary privilege, though this is rare; the last recorded case was in 1880.

The tower is not open to the general public, but those with a "special interest" may arrange a visit to the top of the Clock Tower through their local (UK) MP.


The legislative branch of the British government occupies what is officially called the New Palace of Westminster, situated on the original site of Edward the Confessor's Palace of Westminster. The neo-Gothic building was begun in 1840 and the first Parliament was opened by Queen Victoria in 1852. Victoria Tower at the south end of the building is, at 336 ft., the tallest square tower in the world. Tucked into a niche along the west side of the building, is a statue of Richard I, Lionheart, striking a heroic pose.

One of the world's most famous landmarks, Big Ben is the clock tower of the Houses of Parliament. "Big Ben" was originally the nickname given to the 13 ton "Great Bell of Westminster," but the term ultimately came to include the clock and St. Stephen's Tower.

The original specification for the clock (developed by Astronomer Royal, Professor George Biddell Airy) called for it to be accurate to within one second (the accuracy would be checked twice daily, comparing it's time to the Royal Observatory's standard). The clock making industry felt that this requirement would be impossible to achieve in a large, exposed, outdoor timepiece, but Big Ben has proven remarkably accurate, even during wartime. For example, during a WWII bombardment on 10 May 1941, the House of Commons was virtually destroyed, but Big Ben managed to lose only a half second of time through it all.