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The man who made Big Ben

Big Ben, the great hour bell of the Palace of Westminster in London (a building better known as the Houses of Parliament), will controversially fall silent at noon on 21st August. Major conservation work to the clock, tower, and bells means that it won’t chime again until 2021. But despite the bongs of Big Ben being the national soundtrack of the UK from New Year’s Eve through to Remembrance Sunday, and housed in one of the most recognisable buildings in the world, very few people can name the man who was its creator. So, step into the limelight, Edmund Beckett Denison, first baron Grimthorpe (1816-1905).

He was, by all accounts, an appalling character, and no stranger to controversy himself. An ecclesiastical lawyer, much exercised by the law banning marriage to a deceased wife’s sister, Beckett was also an amateur architect, and talented horologist. Born in Newark in Lincolnshire, his father had been MP for the West Riding and Chairman of the Great Northern Railway. His favoured method of attacking his enemies was to fire fusillades of bilious correspondence at the letters pages of The Times (Charles Barry, the architect of the Houses of Parliament sued him for libel), and he was so notoriously aggressive and unpleasant that a condition of his repeated election as President of the Horological Institute was that he would never to attend its dinners. On building himself a house at Batch Wood, near St Albans in Hertfordshire, he proudly declared himself to be, ‘the only architect with whom I have never quarrelled’. And his gross over-restoration of St Albans Abbey brought a new verb into the English language – ‘to Grimthorpe’, that is, to trash a historic building.

Statesmen No. 559: Caricature of Edmund Beckett, 1st Baron Grimthorpe by Leslie Ward. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Grimthorpe was arrogant, bombastic, and spiteful, but perhaps only a man of his steam-rollerish tendencies would have been able to succeed in creating the greatest clock in the world, particularly when up against the combined force of nearly a thousand opinionated and fractious politicians. Work on rebuilding the Houses of Parliament began in 1836. It soon became horribly delayed, and by 1849 there had already been five years of squabbles between competing clockmakers. At this point, the man who ended up with his name on both clock and the bells arrived on stage, and the others retreated.

In clarifying how the Great Clock should incorporate a telegraphic signal to Greenwich to assure its accuracy, Beckett produced a completely new design, and the clockmaker Edward Dent agreed to make it for him. It was finally completed in 1854, but it was to be another five years before the mechanism was installed, which would drive the dials and thus sound the chimes.

Warner’s of Cripplegate were duly chosen to cast the bells, but their London foundry was too small to cast the 18-ton bell required for the Palace’s timekeeper. Instead, the work was done at the firm’s new foundry in the village of Norton, near Stockton on Tees. On the morning of 6 August 1856 eighteen tons of metal in a mix of twenty-two parts copper to seven of tin was loaded into two furnaces, and three hours later released in a molten stream around the mould of the Great Bell to the cheers and applause of invited visitors. On 21 October, it arrived at the site of the Palace of Westminster to be tested. Beckett led the first trial of the bell using a 1485½-pound hammer, and ringings of the bell continued over the next year for public amusement.

Then disaster struck. At the end of October 1857, Big Ben cracked. Beckett explained to the Office of Works that ‘through some mistake or accident, which the founders say they cannot account for, the waist (the thin part of the bell) was made one-eighth inch thicker than I designed it’. It was typical of Beckett to blame someone else. What he failed to reveal was that his prescribed alloy formula, which he had insisted on in spite of Warner’s protests, had produced a metal casting more brittle than usual, and the hammer had been excessivly heavy when he showed off the bell’s sound to the public. The shattered pieces were then transported to George Mears’ Whitechapel Bell Foundry in east London. It was back to the drawing-board.

On 28 May 1858, the new bell crossed Westminster Bridge to cheering crowds. Problems did not stop there, however. The second Big Ben was found to be too big to be wheeled into the entrance of the Clock Tower for installation, even though it was smaller and lighter than its predecessor. As a result of Grimthorpe’s incompetence (though of course he blamed Barry), Big Ben had to be slowly pulled up the Clock Tower sideways and by hand to the belfry 200 feet above for over a day and a night. Finally righted at the top, it began ringing out in 1859, but cracked again soon after, again because of Grimthorpe’s faulty recipe. Yet turned by forty-five degrees, Big Ben has sounded out across London and the world ever since, with the crack still visible.

Featured image: Big Ben and Palace of Westminster in London by TravelAdvisor. CC0 via Pixabay.

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