What Big Ben Is… and Isn’t

What Big Ben Is… and Isn’t

I’ll give you the bottom line first. Big Ben is a bell, not a building or even a clock. You cannot see Big Ben in this photograph:

Big Ben

And sadly, unless you are a resident of the UK, you never will see Big Ben. The interior of the tower is not open to overseas visitors, although United Kingdom residents are able to arrange tours (well in advance) through their Member of Parliament. But there is no lift, only 300+ stairs, so maybe it’s just as well.

However, that will be changing. Next year, a three year long major renovation is due to take place. In addition to essential maintenance on the clock mechanism, a lift will be installed in the tower. The clock will be stopped for several months during the maintenance, and there will be no chimes. Striking and tolling will, however, be maintained for important events. Tours will also be suspended at the end of this year until the work on the Tower and Clock is complete.

The tower in which Big Ben resides was renamed the Elizabeth Tower in 2012 to honor the queen for her Diamond Jubilee. In times past, it has also been known as the Clock Tower or St. Stephens Tower.

The clock is famous for its accurate timekeeping abilities. Each face of the clock bears a Latin inscription at the bottom which means O Lord, keep safe our Queen Victoria the First. 

On top of the clock’s pendulum is a small stack of old penny coins; these are to adjust the speed of the clock. Adding or removing a penny will change the clock’s speed by 0.4 seconds per day. In August of last year, the clock was discovered to be running 7 seconds fast. Coins were removed from its pendulum to correct the error, which caused it to run slow for a time.

Big Ben is the largest bell inside the Elizabeth Tower, and it is formally known as the Great Bell (there are four smaller bells known as quarter bells). It is 7 feet 6 inches tall and 9 feet in diameter.

Big Ben Bell London


Big Ben was cast by the Whitechapel Bell Foundry, who also made the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia. The Whitechapel Bell Foundry was established as a business in 1570 and is still operating today. The Foundry can be toured, but tour availability is limited and must be booked well in advance. For more information, check the Foundry website.

Back to Big Ben. How it came to be called that is a matter of opinion. Some believe it was named after Sir Benjamin Hall, who oversaw the installation of the Great Bell. Others believe it was named after English heavyweight champion Benjamin Caunt.

Most people nowadays use the name to refer to the clock, the tower and the bell collectively, although sticklers like me cringe upon hearing it.

So, to review:

  • the bell is Big Ben or the Great Bell
  • the tower is the Elizabeth Tower

Any questions?



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