The "unearthly, sepulchral" bell made people's "marrow creep". Then it broke.
"Like a potent poison, the vibration penetrates every vein in the body; it strikes every nerve, it attacks and tries every fibre in the muscle, it makes your bones rattle and your marrow creep."
That was the verdict of a Times reporter on the first test of the Great Bell of Westminster. The colossal bell had already earned the nickname of Big Ben, probably after the commissioner of works Sir Benjamin Hall. It was first tested outside the Palace of Westminster on 13 November 1856, in front of quite a crowd.
"A liquid blow": the first bong of the first Big Ben
The bell had no doubt been tested behind closed doors at the manufacturer — John Warner & Sons of Stockton-upon-Tees. But its public debut came in New Palace Yard on that early winter's day of 1856.
Big Ben was mounted on a cradle at the foot of the still-incomplete Clock Tower. The assembled dignitaries crowded round in trepidation. This was the largest in England, and none had heard such a monster sound its tone before.
Just after 11 o'clock, "six or eight sturdy artisans tugged lustily" at the clapper rope, causing the bell to ring for the first time. Reporters were astounded at the noise, as the hyperbolic quote that opened this article shows. The same reporter further described the sensation as "A liquid blow... [that] floods your inner man in an instant of time," surely Victorian code for "it made me piss my pants".
The bell's designer, Edmund Beckett Denison, intended and predicted that his massive bell would sound an E natural. Plenty of folk were on hand at the test to check his working. "Some of the invited auditors came armed with their tuning keys, to test the result; some stuffed their ears with cotton, lest their tympanums should crack, and some manfully trusted that their ears would stand the sound." And so it proved — E natural was the unanimous verdict among those who had not fled or wet themselves in terror.
Big Ben 2 bongs in Whitechapel
The first trial was a success. The bell had sounded the intended note and put the willies up half of Westminster. The Times predicted "that great bell will probably stand in that lofty tower for centuries, connecting the present with the future, and making its mighty voice hourly heard over the city of millions of inhabitants." Well, yes and no.
This first bell remained at the base of the tower for 11 months, making a weekly toll at 1 o'clock on Saturdays. Then on the afternoon 24 October 1857, the third toll rang out at a peculiar pitch. The bell had cracked, so disastrously that a candle held within the chamber could be seen from without.
The damage was too profound to repair, and the bell was sent away to be melted and recast. The work fell to the celebrated Whitechapel Bell Foundry (whose half-millennium-long history came to a sad end very recently). The 'New Ben' was given a test ring in Whitechapel around 12 May 1859 "to the astonishment and alarm of the whole vicinity".
This slightly lighter second bell, also dubbed Big Ben, was hoisted into the Clock Tower the following month. It gave its first bong on 11 July 1859. Not everyone was charmed. "The noise which it makes is so unearthly, sepulchral, and miserable," thought one commentator, "that one would suppose it was tolling the funeral dirge of the whole human race!... It is voted a bore, by general assent."
Farcically, the second bell also cracked after just two months in the tower. It remained out of action for three years, while repairs were made in situ. The debacle was widely mocked in the press, with Punch offering this somewhat over-egged ditty to the tune of Oranges and Lemons:
When, finally, it did resume tolling the hours, in November 1863, the tone was notably more 'subdued'. And so it has remained up until the recent silencing of the bell for maintenance.
As noted at the time, "The bell will merely strike the hours, rising only occasionally... to the solemn dignity of announcing the griefs of our nation."
As I write, plans are afoot to sound the bell at the moment of Brexit.
The British Newspaper Archive was invaluable in preparing this article.
- Carlisle Journal, 21 November 1856.
- Sun (London), 26 October 1857.
- Evening Mail, 14 May 1858.
- Cheltenham Looker-On, 16 July 1859.