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Big Ben: The Great Clock and the Bells at the Palace of Westminster

Review by:  Dominic Janes, University of London

Chris McKay. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010. 288 pp. $75 (hardcover).

 A history of the clock tower at the Houses of Parliament in London is a very worthy enterprise. Big Ben, the largest bell in the tower is amongst the most famous bells in the world, just as the tower itself is the most well-recognised aspect of one of the most iconic buildings on the planet. For many decades in the nineteenth century Britain was arguably the most powerful nation in the world, and Big Ben was set at its conceptual heart. There had been a series of clock towers at the Palace of Westminster before, but Pugin’s conception, in the wake of the great fire of 1834, was simply audacious in its heroic medievalism. Moreover, as McKay is keen to emphasise, the mechanics behind the construction of the Great Clock and Big Ben were expressive of British technical pre-eminence. The Clock was expected to perform to very high standards of accuracy. Together with the contemporary advancement of Greenwich Mean Time, this was intended to assert the centrality of Britain not simply in space but also in time. The empire, and indeed, the world, was intended to look to London in order to be up to date.

 The book is well organized and abundantly illustrated. There is also extensive quotation of fascinating archive material and reportage. The author is careful to distinguish, as indeed he must be, Big Ben, from the other bells, and the Great Clock from the clock tower. We are treated first to a tour of the tower as it stands today, before a brief outline of the history of the Palace is provided. After this, the construction of the Great Clock is explored in detail, as is, in some of the most dramatic sections, the casting and re-casting of Big Ben. The material here gives a lively sense of mid-Victorian cultural politics as well as providing superbly detailed testimony to the horological excellence of the time. The remaining chapters, on the later history of the bells and Clock appear to have been written more from secondary materials and lack the same sense of engagement, whilst the final brief material on ‘iconic Big Ben’ would have merited a full-length study in its own right.

The volume consists of an, at times, highly technical core, surrounded by a populist shell and lacks a proper apparatus of references. Even though there is a glossary, there is, therefore, a slight suspicion that the general reader will be bored and a little mystified by such information as:

the locking blocks were moved much higher up the gravity arms to positions 60o each side of the vertical rather than on each side of the escape wheel, as was used in the three legged-version. The moving of the locking block’s positions presented a problem: when one tooth of the escape wheel was locked on the left-hand gravity arm, the locking block on the right-hand arm would foul on an escape wheel tooth. The solution was simple: provide two separate escape wheels, one for each gravity arm… (p. 146).

 The specialist, on the other hand, might be frustrated at the absence of references that link to the bibliography. Furthermore, comments such as ‘long may Big Ben continue to serve and represent the British nation!’ (p. 4) and ‘apart from being the Nation’s icon, Big Ben also represents Westminster with all its meaning of history, Parliament, democracy and free speech’, do not suggest a fully critical engagement with the context of this monument as a work of national, and indeed, imperial, self-assertion.

After all, there were many people in Britain and beyond it who had good reason to question the moralizing bombast that Barry and Pugin’s building represented. Some of the most interesting material in this volume comes in relation to the darker aspects of this story as acted out through rows, demotions, disputes and faults. The first Big Ben cracked so badly that it had to be recast, and even the second bell was metallurgically flawed. Contemporary evidence, abundantly quoted in this volume, suggests that Honorable Members were less than impressed. Hansard reported a debate in Parliament in which Mr Hankey asked ‘whether there was any chance of the bell sounding more like ordinary bells. At present it inflicted great annoyance on the public and the House’, and Sir John Parkington suggested that the lighted dials of the clock would suffice for telling the time and that, therefore, ‘the horrible tolling should cease’ (p. 161).

This volume does two things very well: it provides a detailed technical account of the construction of the Great Clock and of the castings of Big Ben, and it inspires the reader to know much more about the cultural context. Its best material provides detailed engagement with the dramatic – and expensive – business of installation in the mid-nineteenth century. The story of the maintenance of the mechanism is, perhaps inevitably, less compelling. And yet this is where the importance of understanding the cultural context becomes pressing. As the Big Ben chimes made their way onto the BBC, and as British democracy faced its greatest challenge in World War Two, the Great Clock and the Bells were transformed from evidences of ascendant ambition into symbols of heroic resistance to tyranny. It is the latter story, perhaps more than the former, which will attract many of the potential readership of this book. What they find will whet, if not quite satisfy, their appetites.

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