Does anyone have the right chime, please?

One hundred and sixty four years after Big Ben first rang out over the Houses of Parliament, time stood still in Westminster, writes Claudia Lee.

Last week, four dials on the clock froze for about 30 minutes.

The same problem occurred the Wednesday before, when the bell failed to chime on the hour at 1pm.

However, this is not the first time Big Ben has missed its cue.

The great clock in the Elizabeth Tower has only just finished an £80million refurbishment in which its chimes were largely silenced for five years, only returning in November last year.

Originally in co-ordination with the Royal Greenwich Observatory, the chimes of Big Ben have been broadcast—with a few interruptions—since 1924 as a daily time signal by the BBC.

The hammer on one of the four smaller bells surrounding Big Ben (right), which was removed and cleaned during the renovation work on the Elizabeth Tower in 2017 Picture: PA

Typically, Big Ben is accurate to within two seconds per week. It is wound three times a week and the winding takes more than an hour.

The clock was designed by Edmund Beckett Denison, Sir George Airy and the clockmaker Edward Dent, and construction began in 1837.

The pendulum is adjusted by adding pennies made before the decimalisation of the United Kingdom’s currency in 1971 to the weight. Each penny causes Big Ben to gain 0.4 second per day.

In 1852, Mr Dent won the commission to make the great clock, but he died before completing the project, and it was subsequently finished by his son, Frederick Dent. The clock and bell were installed together in 1859.

Two main stories exist about how Big Ben got its name.

Many claim it was named after Sir Benjamin Hall, the commissioner of works.

Whitechapel Bell Foundry’s bell hangers Peter Scott (left) and Peter Trick begin the process of repair work on a fourth quarter bell hammer inside the belfry of Big Ben in 2006 Picture: PA

However, another story argues that the bell was named for the popular heavyweight boxer Benjamin Caunt, because it was the largest of its kind.

Shortly after it was installed, it developed a crack and was kept out of service until its repair in 1862.

For two years during the First World War, Big Ben’s bell was silent to prevent attracting enemy aircraft to the Houses of Parliament, and during the Second World War its clock was not illuminated for the same reason.

In 1934 and 1956, and again in 2007, the bell underwent short periods of maintenance.

Then on August 21, 2017, Big Ben stopped chiming, as the tower began a five-year restoration project, during which the bell was scheduled to ring only for special events, including New Year’s Eve and Remembrance Sunday.

The chimes were silenced to protect the hearing of the workers on the tower, and drew much criticism from senior MPs and then Prime Minister, Theresa May.

After the clock stopped ticking last week, a spokesman from the House of Commons was quick to reassure the public that Big Ben was once again “running as normal” after “clock mechanics worked quickly to rectify the issue”.


Picture: The facade of the Elizabeth Tower during restoration in 2021 Picture: PA

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