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The contentious chimes of Big Ben

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The contentious chimes of Big Ben

Houses of Paliament, 1899 (catalogue reference: COPY 1/441)

Houses of Paliament, 1899 (catalogue reference: COPY 1/441)

03 June 2009

The National Archives turns the spotlight on Big Ben as the famous London icon is celebrated in its 150th year.

Big Ben, the Great Bell situated in St Stephen's Tower at the Palace of Westminster, first struck time on 11 July 1859.

According to files held at The National Archives, in WORK 11/394, WORK 11/468 and WORK 11/459, the Ministry of Works replied to several letters received from the public between the 1920s and 1950s suggesting improvements that could be made to the Great Bell's chimes.

One member of the public offered their services as an engineer to help fix the tone of the chimes, 'to stop the jarring that comes through the radio'. Another called for donations from home and abroad to fund the recasting of the Great Bell to act as a war memorial, and one member of the public even wrote to Prime Minister Winston Churchill suggesting that they change the tune of the bells from the Westminster Chimes (which still rings out today) to the Chimes of Thanksgiving, to celebrate the end of the Second World War.

The Ministry of Works responded to these ideas, stating that there was no intention to alter the tone of the chimes, as 'their current tone had become familiar across the world and has long since acquired a special significance.'

This significance is illustrated by Winston Churchill speaking on the hour of armistice in 1918. Listen as he recounts how he waited for Big Ben's chimes to signal the armistice and the end of the war against Germany, from our First World War online exhibition.

It is generally believed that the Great Bell was named after Sir Benjamin Hall, First Commissioner for Works 1855-1858, whose name is inscribed on the bell, although another theory suggests it is named after Ben Caunt, a champion heavyweight boxer of the 1850s.

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