London’s Most Famous Landmark: What Is Big Ben's Real Name?

Westminster Bridge at sunset, London, UK
Westminster Bridge at sunset, London, UK | © ESB Professional/Shutterstock

London Travel Writer

What is Big Ben? Is it the same thing as the Elizabeth Tower? And what have they both got to do with the Houses of Parliament and the Palace of Westminster? All is about to be revealed.

First things first: the Palace of Westminster is the biggest entity in the equation. It describes the entire Gothic revival complex, which stretches along the northern bank of the River Thames in Westminster. Within the Palace of Westminster sits Parliament, the bicameral legislature of the UK government that consists of the House of Commons and the House of Lords.

Westminster Bridge and the Palace of Westminster

Strictly speaking, Big Ben is, confusingly, the smallest entity among those mentioned earlier. While many people believe the name refers to the Palace of Westminster’s iconic clock tower – and in some ways, due to exceedingly widespread common misconception, it sort of does – the name Big Ben actually refers to the Great Bell. This bell sits behind the Great Clock, which is embedded in the Elizabeth Tower, which stands at the northern tip of the Parliamentary complex.

After suffering a five-year delay to its construction schedule, the Elizabeth Tower was completed in 1859 and the Great Clock started on May 31 that year. While Big Ben refers to the Great Bell that gongs on the hour, four quarterly bells contribute the charming chimes that ring out every fifteen minutes. Interestingly, the bells in the Elizabeth Tower are hit with hammers from outside, unlike conventional bells, which are struck by clappers from inside as the bell swings.

View of the Elizabeth Tower and the Palace of Westminster from St Thomas’ Hospital Garden

Big Ben was first struck on July 11, while the first chimes of the quarter bells were heard ringing out over London on September 7. Essential repairs to the Elizabeth Tower necessitated the silencing of the bells in early 2017, but it is hoped that the conservation works should be completed by 2021. Despite the ongoing works, the bells will still ring out for important events like New Year’s Eve and Remembrance Sunday. Although this is the longest the bells will have gone quiet, this is not the first time they have been silenced – they also underwent repairs in 1976, 1983-85 and 2007.

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