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Compromising England: Big Ben's 150th Birthday
by Dr. Binoy Kampmark
2009-07-13 09:20:59
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Big Ben turned 150 on Saturday to the music of composer Benjamin Till, but confusion still exists as to what the birthday is actually for.  Tourists travel to London convinced they are seeing the tower and the fabled clock of ‘Big Ben.’  The confusion was re-enforced by the creation of a miniature tower to commemorate the occasion.  ‘Little Ben,’ goes a note on the LondonNet website, ‘stands 30 ft (9m) tall.  Big Ben is 316 ft (96m) top to toe.’  The more astute might pick up the fact that it is the bell of the Palace of Westminster which assumed the name ‘Big Ben’, not the impressive tower or clock which hosts it. 

At least the ceremonial emphasis on bells might have dispelled the confusion, though not by much.  (The Till piece, performed at St.  Mary Le Bow Church, was based on the Oranges and Lemons nursery rhyme listing 17 of London’s most known church bells).

Big Ben’s birth was itself a fortuitous one, with its chiming commencing in the summer of 1859, and the quarter bells striking on 7 September.  Scandal and acrimony kept the bell good company through its construction.  The rebuilding of the old Palace of Westminster, which was consumed by fire in 1834, was itself a problematic affair, marred by the rivalry of Edmund Becket Denison and Charles Barry.  The wealthy Denison, horologist and barrister, was responsible for the bell and clock aspect of the construction.  Barry’s project dealt with the buildings entire form.

Denison’s plan, named the ‘Double Three-legged Gravity Escapement’ had an element of mad genius about it, proposing a mechanism to isolate the pendulum from the clock hands in the name of accuracy.  The bell was to weigh an impressive 16 tons.  Mocking and disbelieving comments were heaped upon the suggestion.

Skeptics had a point.  The first bell ominously cracked in October 1857 while hanging in New Palace Yard, a victim of zealous, daily testing.  A smaller one had to be cast at Whitechapel Bell Foundry.  The chimes of the new bell did not impress some listeners, who felt that entire creation was lacking the necessary gravitas.  Then the second bell cracked.  Barry and Denison then began a very public battle of sniping and recrimination.  Recourse to the courts was inevitable.   Far from being a feat of Victorian ingenuity, Big Ben was looking more like a case of Victorian miscalculation, legal maneuvering and self-defeating folly.  As an editorial in The Times went, ‘What is to be done about the Westminster Bell?  It is becoming a serious affair, for all England is compromised.’

The fact that the bell should have ever received its current title is itself a curious case.  It would be an odd thing to have named it after the Commissioner of Public Works at the time, Benjamin Hall, who did little in the way of luck by having his name on the first bell.  But perhaps such a story has far more credence to it, and certainly more than the supposed links to the robust figure of Victorian masculinity Ben Caunt, heavy-weight boxer of the 1850s.  Eager scriptwriters will just have to busy themselves with a suitable dramatization of the saga in due course.

Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge.  He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne.  Email: bkampmark@gmail.com

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