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Celebrating 150 years of Big Ben

The Tongue of Big Ben (Westminster Clock Tower), forged in Houghton-le-Spring

Big Ben - Westminster Clock Tower, London

Forged in Houghton-le-Spring

Once an hour, every hour, a little piece of Houghton apparently rings in the passing of time in London, for the tongue (clapper) of the famous Big Ben bell in Westminster clock tower was forged in an ironworks in the centre of Houghton-le-Spring. Copyright © Books of the North 2009.

The Westminster Clock Tower started keeping time accurately on May 31st 1859, following a construction period that was five years behind schedule. John Warner & sons cast the Great Bell on August 6th 1856 at their foundry in Stockton-on-Tees and it was transported by rail and sea to London.

The bell was tested for an extensive period, however a crack appeared on October 17th 1857. Warners placed the blame on the weight of the hammer and a lighter replacement bell was cast at the Whitechapel Foundry on April 10th 1858 and it was winched into place alongside the four quarter bells in October of the same year. Copyright © Books of the North 2009.

Unfortunately the new bell did not last long, and in September 1859 it cracked and was silent for four years.

In 1863, Sir George Airy, the Astronomer Royal, found a solution, which saw the bell being rotated by a quarter turn and a new, lighter hammer cast. Copyright © Books of the North 2009.

In around 1869 or 1870, the clapper inside the Great Bell cracked and splintered. George Elliot, Member of Parliament for North Durham and resident of Houghton Hall in Houghton-le-Spring, became aware of the issue and recommended the services of his friend, George Hopper, who had an iron foundry just off Sunderland Street in Houghton. The order was subsequently placed.

Drawings were sent to the Houghton-le-Spring Ironworks and foreman John Thornton made the tongue, a fact that the residents of Houghton are still proud of to this day.

The origins of the clapper seem to have been misreported in a 1901 book, which incorrectly states that the famous bell itself was forged at Houghton:

“The largest bell in Gt. Britain is "Great Paul" in St. Paul's Cathedral, cast in 1881, and weighing about 18 tons ; but the most famous bell we have is probably "Big Ben" at Westminster, named after Sir Benjamin Hall, First Commissioner of Works in 1856, when it was cast. There have been two musical giants of this name, and they have both been unfortunate, as within a year after being hung they were both found to be cracked. The first Big Ben was cast by Messrs. Warner, Houghton-le-Spring, Durham, from a bronze composed of 22 parts of copper and 7 parts of tin. Its diameter was 9 ft. 5 1/4 in., while its height was 7 ft. 10 1/2 in. ; it weighed 15 tons 8 cwt., and the clapper 12 cwt. About a year after it was hung it was discovered to be cracked, so it was broken up, and Messrs. Hears, of Whitechapel, cast another from the game metal, but about 2 tons lighter; the hammer also was much lighter about 6 cwt. In a short time this bell was also found to be cracked, but the fault was remedied by filing the crack open, and in this condition Big Ben continues to mark time with no uncertain sound its note is E natural.”
[From: Brassfounders' Alloys, by John Findlay Buchanan, 1901]
Copyright © Books of the North 2009.

Like many other Houghtonians I have peddled the above story of the clapper, usually on Armistice Day or New Year’s Eve, when the bell tolled eleven or midnight, justly proud that a little piece of Houghton’s heritage was responsible for the famous chimes.

However, I was surprised to discover that the tongue of Big Ben was dismantled off of the bell in 1934, and subsequently removed from the bell platform in 1954. The clapper, which was only used for the first testing of the bell once Big Ben was hung on its bell frame, was superfluous to the hammer which marked the hour. It can now be found in the public Exhibition Room 1 within the clock tower. Copyright © Books of the North 2009.

As the 150th anniversary celebrations of Big Ben continue, let us now be proud of the fact that for over 75 years a little piece of Houghton was up inside the world’s most famous clock.

 

Article and research by Paul Lanagan, local historian

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Copyright © Books of the North 2009.

A HISTORY OF TIME

1824 – George Hopper established his business in Houghton-le-Spring as a timber merchant.

1843 – The foundation stone for the clock tower was laid on September 28th 1843.

1856 – The original bell was cast on August 6th 1856 at Stockton-on-Tees by John Warner & Sons. Copyright © Books of the North 2009.

1858 – Big Ben, the lighter replacement bell, was cast on Saturday April 10th 1858.

1859 – The clock, which was installed in April, first started keeping time accurately on May 31st 1859. There was no official opening ceremony, possibly owing to the construction being five years behind construction. The bell first struck time with the clock on July 11th 1859.

1868 – November 26th - George Elliot became a Member of Parliament for North Durham until 1880. Between 1850 and his death in 1893, Sir George frequently resided in Houghton Hall, Houghton-le-Spring. Copyright © Books of the North 2009.

1869 to 1870 (tbc) – The new tongue (clapper) of Big Ben was forged at Houghton-le-Spring Ironworks (Hopper’s Iron Foundry). Some sources suggest this took place in 1858, but this would precede George Elliot's election.

1874 – George Elliot was created a Baronet (Bart) in recognition of his work for public services and was then known as Sir George Elliot, Bart.

1875 – George Hopper passed away on Thursday September 23rd 1875 at the age of 78 years. His obituary in the Sunderland Herald of October 1st stated: “We must not omit to state that the last famous forging turned out of the Houghton-le-Spring Forge was the tongue for Big Ben, the great bell of the now Houses of Parliament.”

1934/1954 – The clapper was separated from the bell, Big Ben. In 1954 it was removed from the bell platform. It is now on display in Exhibition Room 1.

2009 – The Palace of Westminster clock tower, now often referred to as Big Ben, celebrated its 150th anniversary. Copyright © Books of the North 2009.

 

Paul Lanagan wishes to place on record his thanks to the following:

:: With thanks, once again, to Alan Vickers for his ongoing help since 2002 – thanks Alan!
:: Thank you to Mark Collins, Parliamentary Estates archivist, and his team for help and assistance.
:: Sunderland Herald newspaper, October 1st 1875
:: Houghton-le-Spring: A History, Frank H Rushford, 1950
:: Brassfounders' Alloys, by John Findlay Buchanan, 1901

 

The following links may be of interest (no responsibility can be held for external links):

:: Wikipedia article en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Big_Ben
:: Whitechapel Bell Foundry www.whitechapelbellfoundry.co.uk/bigben.htm
:: Official Big Ben website www.bigben.parliament.uk
:: Parliament’s Flickr photostream www.flickr.com/photos/uk_parliament

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