Start free trial

Home > News, Articles & Multimedia > Articles > Big Ben: The Iconic London Landmark Appears on Thousands of Collectibles

Big Ben: The Iconic London Landmark Appears on Thousands of Collectibles

by priceminer (07/20/09).

The Big Ben clock tower and the House of Parliment in London, England. Big Ben is one of the iconic images of London and has appears on thousands of collectible items over the last 150 years.

The Big Ben clock tower and the House of Parliament in London, England. Big Ben is one of the iconic images of London and has appears on thousands of collectible items over the last 150 years.

A close-up view of the Big Ben clock face.

A close-up view of the Big Ben clock face.

Big Ben is probably the most famous clock in the world, and is one of London, England’s best known landmarks. Actually, Big Ben is not the name of the clock at all, but one of the bells (the 13-ton bell that strikes on the hour) housed in the tower. It is speculated that the bell was named for either the first Commissioner of Works, Sir Benjamin Hall—and a man of considerable size—or after a popular heavyweight boxer at the time, Benjamin Caunt. The name Big Ben today is commonly used to refer to the combination of the bell, the clock and the tower.

Whatever takes the name—the clock, the bell, the tower or the whole assembly—Big Ben is iconic. As one of the top symbols of London, there have been, over the last 150 years, thousands of souvenirs and collectibles cast with its image. From the simple postcards (in which the tower and the House of Parliament stayed the same; only the things in the foreground—buses, cars, boats—have changed over the years) to plates, mugs and miniature clocks, the odds are that if great grandma brought anything back from her trip to England, it’s going to have Big Ben on it.

But for as big an icon as Big Ben is, unless you’ve taken a tour of London, odds are you have no idea about the history of the clock tower and bells.

After the old Westminster Palace was destroyed by fire in 1834, Queen Victoria launched a design competition for a new palace. Architect Charles Barry won the competition for the new Palace of Westminster, and his plan had a clock incorporated in a tower. Barry invited Queen Victoria’s clockmaker, Benjamin Lewis Vulliamy, to submit a design and price for construction of a clock. The clock was to be the largest in the world with 30-foot diameters, quarter chimes to be struck on 8 bells, and the hour to be struck on a 14-ton bell. Other competing firms were unhappy about not being able to bid, and a referee was appointed to produce specifications for bids. One of the key requirements was that the clock was to strike the first blow of each hour correct to within one second. In 1852, Edward Dent was awarded the contract.

postcard-i-houses-of-parliament-london postcard-iii-westminister-bridge-and-houses-of-parliament
postcard-ii-houses-of-parliament-london postcard-iv-house-of-parliament

Four postcards from the last century featuring Big Ben and the House of Parliament, from (clockwise from top) 1906, circa 1900, 1964 and circa 1920.

The clock mechanism had to be altered because Barry, the architect, had forgotten to make provisions for the clock inside the tower. Dent died in 1853, and his stepson, Frederick Rippon (who changed his last name to Dent) completed the mechanism. While awaiting completion of the tower, famous horologist Edmund Denison, who was working with Dent, invented the double three-legged gravity escapement that was to eventually enable the clock to keep its extremely accurate time.

John Warner and Sons were placed under contract to cast the bells, and when the hour bell was completed, because the tower was not yet finished, the bell was mounted in the New Palace yard and struck regularly. The bell, at 16 tons—two tons heavier than planned—required a heavier ball hammer, which in 1857 cracked the huge bell irreparably. George Mears of the Whitechapel Bell Foundry was hired to recast a new bell using the metal from the old one. The new bell, completed in 1858, weighed a mere 13.5 tons, and is the one still in use today.

Big Ben is featured on this lithograph copy of a poster for the London Olympics, held in 1948.

Big Ben is featured on this lithograph copy of a poster for the London Olympics, held in 1948.

A vintage travel poster for Pan American airlines, circa 1950, also features Big Ben.

A vintage travel poster for Pan American airlines, circa 1950, also features Big Ben.

After the bells were installed in 1858, the clockworks could then be installed in its room beneath the belfry. The hands for the clock, designed by Charles Barry, were too heavy for the mechanism to operate. The second pair he was requested to make also was too heavy. Permission was granted for Dent to make minute hands to his specifications. This was successfully accomplished, and the clock now functions with minute hands by Dent, and hour hands from Barry’s second attempt. The clock became fully functional Sept. 7, 1859.

Augustus Pugin designed the four 23-foot dials of 312 individual pieces of opal glass housed in an elaborate iron framework. The Roman numerals were each two feet high, and the surround of the dials was gilded.

Less than a month after becoming functional, the second hour bell cracked. The hammer being used was the same one used on the first bell. After a long dispute about who was to blame, the bell was eventually rotated to a position with the crack away from the hammer’s strike, and a lighter hammer was substituted. The hour striking resumed in 1862 with Big Ben soon attaining a reputation for great accuracy.

A Royal Doulton porcelain character jug featuring John Doulton with a Tower of Big Ben handle (D6656, 1980).

A Royal Doulton porcelain character jug featuring John Doulton with a Tower of Big Ben handle (D6656, 1980).

A bone china mug from the Dunoon, featuring Big Ben, along with the statue of Eros in Piccadilly, St Pauls Cathedral.

A bone china mug from the Dunoon, featuring Big Ben, along with the statue of Eros in Piccadilly, St Pauls Cathedral.

In 1906, the gas lighting for the dials was replaced with electric lighting, and electric winding of the clock was added in 1912 (it had previously taken two men five hours per train to wind). The mechanism of the clock was overhauled in 1934 and 1956. Radio broadcasts were begun by the BBC to welcome in the New Year of 1924, and shortly afterwards a permanent microphone was added for regular broadcasts of the chimes and the bell. The broadcasting of the bells on the BBC World Service became particularly important during WW II.

In 1976 metal fatigue led to the near complete destruction of the chiming mechanism. Replacement with an electric motor was considered, but rejected, and the chiming train reconstruction took nearly a year to complete.

Big Ben collectibles don’t always come from London or England, even. The London House was a restaurant in Cleveland, Ohio, and its 1965 menu shows Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament, although in a mirror image of the way they actually appear.

Big Ben collectibles don’t always come from London or England, even. The London House was a restaurant in Cleveland, Ohio, and its 1965 menu shows Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament, although in a mirror image of the way they actually appear.

With the 150th anniversary of Big Ben’s functionality coming around this fall, there will be thousands of new items bearing the clock tower’s image. In another 150 years, these new items will be in some collections as well.

Originally published in the American Antiquities Journal

WorthPoint—Discover Your Hidden Wealth

Join WorthPoint on Twitter and Facebook.

Want a picture icon with your comment? Sign up with Gravatar to get one, or connect with your Facebook or Twitter account.

Looking for even more discussion? Check out the WorthPoint Forums.

Leave a Reply

Connect with Facebook