I have a small hobby of collecting old copies of the Illustrated London News – a venerable newspaper which was first published n 1842. I acquired a few more copies last week and scanning through the collection this weekend, came across a short news article about the infamous Big Ben bell and its arrival at Parliament. Although the news item was small, it was accompanied with one of the newspapers iconic large drawings of the event.

While the history of how the bell got its nickname of Big Ben is not entirely clear, the bell was never formally named and it is thought that the bell was to be called the Victoria Bell – and indeed, the caption accompanying the picture does call it the Bell Victoria. Proof at last?

The news item is dated Saturday June 5th, 1858 – and the bell was first chimed in position the following year, in July 1859. Just two months later though, the bell cracked as the clapper was too heavy and was taken out of commission and the hours were struck on the lowest of the quarter bells until it was reinstalled. To make the repair, a square piece of metal was chipped out from the rim around the crack, and the bell given an eighth of a turn so the new hammer struck in a different place.

If indeed the bell could be rung with a mere rap of the knuckles as was claimed, then it seems odd that the clapper was so heavy. Personally, I tend to suspect the news item follows the trend of the time, which is to over-state engineering efforts and make them sound better than they really were in truth.

In contradiction to the glowing report in the news item below, Big Ben has chimed with an odd twang ever since that repair and is still in use today complete with the crack.

I’ve taken a photo of the illustration from the newspaper (click for larger version) and transcribed the article below. My long term aim is to scan the newspapers with a decent scanner and archive them somewhere. Incidentally, note how the road and bridge names are spelt with a hyphen and lower cased second word – somewhat different to how we tend to write them today.

Big Ben arriving at the Palace of Westminster


The Great Bell for the Houses of Parliament

The Bell, of the casting of which we gave an illustration about a month ago, having been dug up and proved to be perfectly sound was on Friday morning week safely conveyed from Messrs. Mear’s Foundry in Whitechapel to the foot of the Clock Tower, where it is now suspended on the same framework which bore its unfortunate predecessor. Though it has not yet been struck by a proper clapper, there is no question that the note is far superior to the former one, whilst the vibration of the ponderous mass is so perfect that sound can easily be produced from it with the knuckles only. The bell was hoisted without accident on Friday morning, between eight and nine o’clock, on to the truck belonging to Messrs. Maudslay, the men having been occupied all night in adjusting the tackle, and getting it out of the foundry into the street, where a considerable crowd had remained during the whole proceedings. It was then taken in tow by sixteen powerful horses, belonging to Mr. Scott, and passed along the Whitechapel-road, over London-bridge, along the Borough-road, and over Westminster-bridge, where it arrived about eleven o’clock, by which time an immense crowd not only accompanied it but had collected to witness an object of so much curiosity. It is at this point that our Sketch was taken, showing it as it descended the declivity of the bridge towards its destination.

The bell is believed to weigh about fourteen tons, but its exact weight has not yet been ascertained, and blanks have been left in the inscription to be filled as soon as this has been done. In outline it is much more graceful than the former bell, and its decoration is more in accordance with the style of the building it is to occupy. As soon as Messrs. Warner have tuned the quarter bells manufactured by them for the proving of the new note of the present bell, it will be raised to its final destination. This will have to be done sideways, the bell being rather wider than deep, and there not being room for it to pass up in the position it will hang.


If you want to watch Big Ben being struck live, read Visiting Big Ben.


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