The Houses of Parliament and Elizabeth Tower, commonly called Big Ben, are among London's most iconic landmarks and must-see London attractions. Technically, Big Ben is the name given to the massive bell inside the clock tower, which weighs more than 13 tons (13,760 kg). The clock tower looks spectacular at night when the four clock faces are illuminated.
Big Ben Facts
- Each dial is seven metres in diameter
- The minute hands are 4.2 metres long and weigh about 100kg (including counterweights)
- The numbers are approximately 60cm long
- There are 312 pieces of glass in each clock dial
- A special light above the clock faces is illuminated when parliament is in session
- Big Ben's timekeeping is strictly regulated by a stack of coins placed on the huge pendulum.
- Big Ben has rarely stopped. Even after a bomb destroyed the Commons chamber during the Second World War, the clock tower survived and Big Ben continued to strike the hours.
- The chimes of Big Ben were first broadcast by the BBC on 31 December 1923, a tradition that continues to this day.
- The latin words under the clockface read DOMINE SALVAM FAC REGINAM NOSTRAM VICTORIAM PRIMAM, which means O Lord, keep safe our Queen Victoria the First
- In June 2012 the House of Commons announced that the clock tower was to be renamed the Elizabeth Tower in honour of Queen Elizabeth II's Diamond Jubilee.
The History of Big Ben
The Palace of Westminster was destroyed by fire in 1834. In 1844, it was decided the new buildings for the Houses of Parliament should include a tower and a clock.
A massive bell was required and the first attempt (made by John Warner & Sons at Stockton-on-Tees) cracked irreparably. The metal was melted down and the bell recast in Whitechapel in 1858. Big Ben first rang across Westminster on 31 May 1859. A short time later, in September 1859, Big Ben cracked. A lighter hammer was fitted and the bell rotated to present an undamaged section to the hammer. This is the bell as we hear it today.
You can visit the Whitechapel Bell Foundry and discover more about Big Ben's origins.
London's Favourite Landmark: Why Ben?
The origin of the name Big Ben is not known, although two different theories exist.
- The first is that is was named after Sir Benjamin Hall, the first commissioner of works, a large man who was known affectionately in the house as "Big Ben".
- The second theory is that it was named after a heavyweight boxing champion at that time, Benjamin Caunt. Also known as "Big Ben", this nickname was commonly bestowed in society to anything that was the heaviest in its class.
Visiting Big Ben in London
You can take a tour of the Houses of Parliament. The Elizabeth Tower is not open to the general public although UK residents can arrange a visit by writing to their MP. Applications should be made in writing, as far in advance as possible, to:
House of Commons
It is not possible for overseas visitors to tour the clock tower.
Big Ben and Elizabeth Tower Refurbishment Work
From early 2017, refurbishment work will commence on Elizabeth Tower and Big Ben. The work is due to last three years. During this time, the tower will be scaffolded and the clock mechanism will be stopped for several months (no chiming or striking). Find out more about the refurbishment.