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Carolyn Whitlock

How did Big Ben get its Name?

from: http://www.icons.org.uk/theicons/collection/big-ben/features/how-did-big-ben-get-its-name

Big Ben is such a familiar sight it’s hard to believe there’s mystery still attached to the landmark’s history, but there is… Big Ben was originally the name given purely to the bell. Over the years, however, it has also become the name of the chimes, the clock tower, the mechanism and even the surrounding area. But no one is sure how the name Big Ben came to be used.

Every large bell needs a name – for example Great Paul, the bell of St Paul’s Cathedral, is named after the saint to whom the church has been dedicated. The same goes for Great Peter, the bell of York Minster.

But what to call this mighty bell? There are no official records on the subject, but it is thought the original idea was to call the bell Victoria, or Royal Victoria, in honour of the Queen. St Stephen and Great Stephen were also suggested after the Chapel of St Stephen inside the Palace of Westminster, whose crypt was saved from the fire in 1834.

Big Ben – the bell


There are different theories about how the bell actually came to be named. At almost 16 tonnes, it would have appeared colossal and it is believed to have been inscribed with the name of “Sir Benjamin Hall MP Chief Commissioner of Works”. (Sir Benjamin did a lot to smooth relations between the clockmaker and the architect during difficult times and furthered the progress of the clock.)

It has been suggested that some of the workmen responsible for testing the bell were very impressed with its great size and on seeing the name Benjamin on the inscription, decided to call it Big Ben.

The inscription of the present, second Big Ben bell (the first one cracked) does not show the name of Benjamin Hall – by the time it was cast he was no longer Chief Commissioner.

House of fun

There is another, better-known story of a special sitting held in the Commons to decide on a name for the bell in 1857. This seems to have run into a long session, and Members were becoming increasingly tired of the whole thing, when the Chief Commissioner of Works, Sir Benjamin Hall, MP for Marylebone, launched into a long ramble on behalf of the government.

He was popular with both sides of the house, had a good sense of humour, and was very tall at 6ft 4in (with a stomach to match) and was affectionately known as “Big Ben”. The story goes that as Benjamn Hall was speaking, a backbencher, longing to see the end of the debate, interrupted and said, “Why not call it Big Ben?”

According to the tale, the house erupted with laughter and the name stuck. It is a shame, but there is no mention of this episode in Hansard (the official record of debates in Parliament), so we’ll never know if this is what really happened.

There is also the possibility that the bell was named after Benjamin Caunt, a heavyweight prizefighter who was very popular at the time. At one stage he weighed 17 stone, and he too earned the nickname “Big Ben”.

Which story do you believe?