Big Ben and the British

With Big Ben – possibly – due to fall silent next week, our Director, Dr Paul Seaward, discusses the history of the famous bell…

The reaction in some quarters to the news that Big Ben will cease to strike from noon on Monday 21 August until 2021 (the Daily Telegraph says there is a ‘backlash’; the Mail says it’s a ‘death knell for common sense’) is an index to the peculiar place of the bell, its clock and its tower in British national consciousness. The overused word ‘iconic’ seems for once appropriate in the case of something that has appeared on countless photographs, souvenirs and bottles of brown sauce, and whose sound has been heard just about every day from London to Lahore and beyond. The reasons for its status are obvious enough; but it is perhaps worth reflecting on what sort of nation the clock and the tower came to symbolise and just how it came to do so.

Initially, the clock must have seemed indicative of British power, confidence and technological knowhow. The largest bell ever cast in Britain, and perhaps beyond it, the tallest four-faced clock tower ever built, the most accurate clock, the whole construction was vauntingly ambitious, a masterpiece of engineering – at least once the initial problems were overcome and the clock was got to work properly. Its reliability, carefully adjusted with pennies, was almost proverbial. The mantelpiece clock for the ruling elite – it could and can be seen right down Whitehall – people around Westminster and even over the river measured out their lives by it. Clarissa Dalloway in Virginia Woolf’s 1925 novel laid her green dress on her bed  just as Big Ben struck twelve, ‘whose stroke was wafted over the northern part of London, blent with that of other clocks, mixed in a thin ethereal way with the clouds and wisps of smoke and died up there among the seagulls’. ‘She came to my room just as Big Ben was striking 8’, said a witness of the victim in a sad murder and suicide case in 1919 in Lambeth reported in The Times. In 1859 one medical practitioner in Southwark complained to the Medical Times of the depressing effects produced on his patients by the ‘morbific influence’ of the ‘sepulchral tones’ of the big bell.

It was possibly that ‘sepulchral’ sound – more than the clock’s accuracy or ubiquity – that was the reason why the bell seeped so deeply into the British mindset. It was first used to toll at the obsequies of a monarch in 1910: both at the procession to take Edward VII’s body to lie in state at Westminster Hall, when it was rung every 15 seconds, and again for the funeral itself, when it was rung every minute. Its authoritative and dominant sound was echoed by a 68-gun salute in Hyde Park, one for every year of the king’s age.  Lord Harcourt, who was in 1914 colonial secretary, remembered in a speech after the First World War hearing from Downing Street the chilling sound of the bell tolling 11 o’clock and marking the expiry of the ultimatum to Germany and the beginning of hostilities [The Times 20 November 1920]. When, after the war, an annual ceremony was instituted at the Cenotaph in remembrance of the war dead, the chime of Big Ben at 11 was the symbol for a two minute silence to begin. The clock was becoming associated with moments of reflection, remembrance and solemnity.

In the interwar years the sound of Big Ben would become familiar across Britain in a more mundane manner. From 1924 it was regularly broadcast by the BBC at home, and after the Empire Service (later the World Service) was begun in 1932, the chimes became a favourite with overseas listeners, projecting nostalgia to those far from home, and an idea of Britain as a source of order, authority, and time even to some who had never been there [see this article]. Some of those under German occupation during the Second World War would later regard it as a symbol of the common endeavour against Nazism, as suggested in a moving interview recorded in the 1950s with members of the French resistance (as well as an amusing, if not entirely relevant, anecdote from Nancy Mitford about her maid Gladys’s enjoyment of air raids). The symbolic meaning of Big Ben as a way of uniting the Empire – and ultimately all of those fighting Nazism – became the point of the ‘Big Ben Silent Minute’ movement. Founded by the spiritualist Wellesley Tudor Pole in 1940, the movement, which was intended to encourage all who heard them to take the chimes of Big Ben as the cue for a minute of prayer or reflection, attracted high-level political support, especially conservative support, overcoming Clement Attlee’s initial scepticism about a single moment that could unite a global empire. It was seen in some quarters as a real boost to the morale of allied populations, and the movement retains a legacy today.

It was perhaps the war, the association of Big Ben with the fight against Nazi tyranny, that did more to link the clock to the idea of democracy than its mere proximity to the Palace of Westminster, for it and the messy and divisive business of politics have led largely separate lives. The installation of a light in the tower signalling when the House of Commons was sitting – the so-called ‘Ayrton light’, put there initially in around 1871, was a reminder that the clock belonged to a Parliamentary building; but the clock and the attached Parliament have largely functioned independently except when MPs noticed a discrepancy between Big Ben’s chimes and either the clocks internal to the House of Commons or the chair’s timekeeping, or have used it to make mischievous points against their opponents.

Big Ben has stood for many as a synecdoche of national – even imperial – unity, one in which the idea of parliamentary democracy is bound up, but which rolls up much more history than that, including the monarchy and the highwater mark of the Victorian empire. As the reaction to the news of its silence shows, it’s still a tender part of the British psyche.


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