History of the Big Ben Clock Tower for Kids

Do you like riddles?  I know I do and I have a tricky one for you today.  What is over 300 feet tall, has a pointy cap, eight hands, and four faces?  Did you guess a monster, a space creature, or a huge robot?  Nope, guess again.  Need some more hints?  Well, it has been around for over 150 years and has been seen by millions of people but is not alive. It has appeared in many films, including Peter Pan, the Great Mouse Detective, Young Sherlock Holmes, and A Christmas Carol.  Give up?  It’s Big Ben – the massive clock tower in London, England!  Actually, Big Ben is the large bell INSIDE the tower, but most people now call the tower “Big Ben,” too!

Big Ben, the tower, is one of the most iconic – or recognizable – landmarks in the world, just like the Eiffel Tower in Paris, the Great Sphynx of Giza in Egypt, or the Statue of Liberty in New York.  It was completed in 1859 and stands 316 feet – or 96 meters – tall.  It has four sides measuring 40 feet each, and to get to the top of the tower you need to go inside and climb 393 steps.  

At the top of the tower are four clock faces measuring 22.5 feet in diameter.  How tall or wide is that?  Well, take four or five of your friends and have them stand on each other’s shoulders!  That’s a tall stack – and a tall clock!  The clocks are lit by electric lightbulbs but in the 1800’s they were lit by gas lamps.  It is said that Queen Victoria used to look out of Buckingham Palace at night and see the clocks lit up, meaning that her ministers were still working late into the night.  There was no sneaking out early when Queen Victoria was watching those clocks!  

So, we now know that the tower and the four clocks are big – and so are the clock hands!  The hour hands are almost 9 feet (or 2.7 meters) long and the minute hands are 14 feet (or 4.3 meters) long!  Can you imagine if you had to set those clocks by leaning out of a window 300 feet in the air?  Luckily, the clocks are run by mechanisms, like pendulums, wheels, gears, and rods.  They even use pennies as weights!  The clocks are wound inside the tower by hand every three days, taking 1.5 hours each time, kind of like winding large metal hamster wheels.

Inside the tower, there are four bells that chime every 15 minutes.  The fifth and largest bell, called Big Ben, weighs over 13 tons and bongs every hour.  When it was installed in the 1800’s, it took a cart and 16 horses to bring it to the site.  Then a team of workmen spent 18 hours pulling on ropes to raise the humongous bell 300 feet in the air and place it inside the tower.  The first bell made for the tower cracked before it was even installed, so a new one had to be made.  After that bell was installed, it cracked, too!  The engineers weren’t about to remove a 13-ton bell and lower it 300 feet to the ground for repairs, so they did something else.  They turned the cracked bell slightly to one side so the hammer would strike in a different place on the bell – and, thus, it was never repaired.  Big Ben continues to ring to this day, although with a slightly different sound since cracking.  Big Ben was the largest bell in England for over 20 years until “Great Paul,” an even more ginormous bell, was put into Saint Paul’s Cathedral in 1881.

And while the bell was never repaired after its big crack, the four clocks have been repaired, including at least 6 paint jobs over the last 160 years.  Originally, the clocks and their hands used to be blue, but they were painted black at one point to cover damage from air pollution.  Many years ago, London used to burn a lot of coal to heat houses and factories, and the smoke turned all the buildings black with soot.  In 2017, the clock faces and hands were cleaned and repainted.  They are now back to their original blue and look amazing.

All of these bell and clock facts then got me thinking:  Have they ever stopped?  And the answer is yes.  Both the clocks and the bell have stopped on occasion throughout the centuries.  Several times the clock hands have stopped due to the weight of so much snow sitting on them, stopping their movement.  Sometimes all the snow would cause the hands to hit each other and grind to a stop. During both World Wars, the clock lights were turned off so enemy planes could not bomb the tower or use its lights to find their way across London.  And the bell was silenced on January 30, 1965, during the funeral of former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, who led England to victory during WWII.  There have also been repairs here and there through the years, causing them to be stopped for short periods of time.  

Also, in 2012, Big Ben’s regular chimes were reprogrammed to ring 30 times on the morning of July 17 to welcome the 30th Olympic Games to London.   

By now you may be wondering how Big Ben actually got its name – both the tower and the bell.  Nobody knows for sure about the bell.  It might have been named after the man who supervised its installation, Sir Benjamin Hall, or after a British heavyweight boxer at that time named Benjamin Caunt, who was also nicknamed “Big Ben.”   But somewhere along the line, someone gave the bell the nickname “Big Ben” and it stuck.  It’s similar to when you get a nickname as a baby and it stays with you as you grow up.  As for the tower, it was originally called “The Clock Tower.” Then it was called “St. Stephen’s Tower” because the government used to meet in St. Stephen’s Hall below it.  Then people started calling the tower “Big Ben” like the bell inside it.  Finally, in 2012, the tower’s name was changed to “Elizabeth Tower” in honor of Queen Elizabeth II and her Diamond Jubilee.  

But there’s even more interesting history on the outside of the tower.  If you look at it from the street, you will see six shields above the clocks with a red cross on them.  This is St. George’s Cross.  During the Middle Ages, there was a crusading warrior who was killed for his Catholic faith and was later named Saint George.  His emblem was a red cross on a white background.  He was so respected and admired for his bravery and faith that his emblem was incorporated into the flag of England and you can still see this red cross on the British flag today. 

Also on the tower are 52 shields showing other emblems of the United Kingdom: a thistle for Scotland, a leek for Wales, a shamrock for Ireland, and a rose for the Tudor kings of England.  There are pomegranates, a symbol of King Henry VIII’s first wife, Catherine of Aragon; a metal gate symbolizing the Houses of Parliament; and the French fleurs-de-lis.  And why a French emblem on a British building?  Well, at one time the English kings claimed they also ruled France!  Under the clocks is an inscription in Latin that reads, “O Lord, keep safe our Queen Victoria the First.”  Truly amazing!  Everywhere you look in England, you will see hidden – and not-so-hidden – emblems, images, and insignias.  They are like a secret, long-forgotten code revealing bits of history in pictures and words.  You just have to know how to read the code!

Standing outside the Elizabeth Tower, you will see it is attached to a large rectangular building called the House of Parliament.  This is where government officials conduct business every day.  It is a very ornate, gothic building.  And you may wonder why a government building is so fancy.  Well, many centuries ago it used to be a royal palace called the Palace of Westminster!  It was built over a thousand years ago and was one of the first royal palaces in England.  Kings, queens, princes, and princesses lived there for over five hundred years, long before Big Ben and the Clock Tower were built.  Unfortunately, the palace was destroyed twice by fire, most recently in 1834.  When the palace was rebuilt after the second fire, the iconic Clock Tower and bell were added.

So, if this building used to be a royal palace, what else did it have besides towers, bells, and clocks?  Why, a prison, of course!  Yes, it’s true!  There is a prison at the bottom of the Elizabeth Tower! It was last used in 1880 when a government official was locked inside after he refused to swear an oath of allegiance to Queen Victoria!  

And if a tower prison isn’t sketchy enough, you should also know that the tower LEANS!  Yes, it’s leaning to one side!  Maybe not as much as the Leaning Tower of Pisa in Italy, but it leans!  The tower was built on soft clay ground covered by gravel.  Over time, the tower shifted – or started to lean – by about 9 inches. Then, about 20 years ago, London started digging a new underground subway line nearby.  The engineers knew that this drilling might make Big Ben lean even further, so they poured thousands of tons of concrete under the tower to support it.  It now leans about 20 inches at the top but no one seems too worried about it.  They say it should stand for another 4,000 to 10,000 years.  Hmmm, I wonder who will be around at that time to check on it or fix any problems?  Martians maybe?

I think it is a marvel that this tower is still standing, especially after the repeated bombings during the blitz of WWII.  Two of the clocks, the tower roof, and part of the parliament building were damaged during those fiery raids, but the tower stood and Big Ben chimed through it all – and still does to this day, keeping its amazing history alive!  

I don’t know about you, but I find these bits of British history truly fascinating.  England is full of amazing stories, legends, and wonders.  And what about your town or city?  Are there buildings where you live that have hidden history or are decorated with murals, emblems, or inscriptions?  Maybe you can plan an outing with your parents or friends to look at these buildings and discover their stories.  Generations of people before us have left their marks on buildings to memorialize their times and beliefs.  I’d love to hear from you and learn more about the historic buildings in your area.  Click this link to leave your comments and you just might be mentioned in a future episode.