The Magnificent Story of London’s Big Ben



The Palace of Westminster was burned down on the night of October 16th, 1834. Only a few pieces survived the fire, and were integrated into the new structures and buildings that exist today. A competition was held for the design of the Parliament’s new building and renowned architect Charles Barry won. His original designs did not actually include a clock tower until Parliament requested he did so. With the help of his assistant, Augustus Welby Pugin, Barry added a clock tower to his design. 

Benjamin Lous Vulliamy, the Queen’s clockmaker, was was asked by Barry to design the clock for him. A rival clockmaker, Edward Dent, wrote to famed astronomer Sir George Airy and asked Airy recommend him for the job instead. George Airy did as  Dent requested, and recommended Edward Dent to Charles Barry. The committee made the decision that Airy should write up a list of requirements for the clock and to choose the design instead of Vulliamy.

Among Airy’s many requirements was that the clock be so accurate though that it was never a second behind.  However, the clock tower was to have four faces, so everyone believed making the clock that accurate would be impossible. Edmund Beckett Denison thought he might as well try. In fact, Denison was a lawyer and clockmaking was only a hobby of his. So, Denison and Edward Dent began to work together on the clock. They had achieved what everyone else believed to be impossible while the clock was under construction.



Bells for the clock tower were brought in during construction. One bell in particular was so large that it had to be brought in by ship instead of railway like the others. The bell was hung in the yard until construction of the tower was finished. Originally the bell had been named Victoria, after Queen Victoria, but Londoners called it Big Ben.



The tower opened May 31st, 1859, over twenty years after the Palace of Westminster was first burnt down. The tower is now officially known as Elizabeth Tower. In May of 2009 it celebrated it’s 150th birthday. In fact, the tower has the second largest four faced chiming clock in the world, just behind Minneapolis City Hall in Minnesota.