It happened today - April 10, 2016
A nasty fire. In 1834 most of the ancient Palace of Westminster was leveled including the “Painted Chamber” where Edward the Confessor had supposedly died in 1066. Much history was lost, including St. Stephen’s Chapel where the Commons had met since the days of Henry VIII’s son Edward VI, though fortunately not the magnificent hammerbeam roof Edward II installed in Westminster Hall in virtually his only worthwhile act as king.
It was rebuilt in the magnificent faux Gothic form it still has, and the Commons chamber was done by 1852. (And parenthetically the stench from the Thames, then an open sewer, was so offensive to MPs when they occupied the new chamber that it helped prompt the magnificent engineering enterprise by Joseph Bazalgette during which the first parts of the famous Tube were also constructed; when it was over Bazalgette got the Order of the Bath and after digging through London’s filth I bet he needed it.) But the bell tower wasn’t ready until 1858.
So a great big bell was cast, named Big Ben for reasons that are now unclear, possibly prompted by some parliamentary crack unrecorded in Hansard. It had to wait two years to be transported to the new tower, accompanied by cheering crowds, where it was tested and um speaking of cracks, cracked.
So 16 tons of metal had to be schlepped off to the Whitechapel Bell Foundry where it was recast on April 10. The new 13.5-ton bell was hauled up the bell tower, which took 18 hours as it was over seven feet wide as well as mind-bogglingly heavy, and first rung in July 1859. Two months later it, um, cracked, possibly because some nit used a hammer more than twice the proper weight.
This time they didn’t melt it. Instead they kind of trimmed the crack and turned the bell so the hammer would hit somewhere else. So the most iconic tourist image in all Britain has rung with a slightly different tone ever since. I love it.
It reminds me of the chorus from Leonard Cohen’s Anthem:
“Ring the bells that still can ring Forget your perfect offering There is a crack in everything That's how the light gets in.”
Big Ben, at any rate, just wouldn’t be itself without a crack that, when it first appeared, doubtless prompted a range of highly emotional responses none of which were remotely connected with rejoicing.