When the original Palace of Westminster was destroyed by a fire in 1834, architects were invited to submit designs for the new palace and a commission was set up to select the best. Sir Charles Barry’s design was successful, however, it did not feature a clock tower. Barry turned to Augustus Pugin for the design of the tower and it was added to the plan in 1836. The Parliament was built in a Neo-Gothic style and the foundation stone for the Elizabeth Tower was laid on 28 September 1843. Due to construction work falling five years behind the schedule, the tower was completed in 1859.
As Charles Barry wasn’t a specialist clockmaker, they held a competition in 1846 to find a suitable design for the tower’s clock. Edward John Dent was appointed to build the clock following the design of clock maker Edmund Beckett Denison. When Dent died, his stepson Frederick completed the clock in 1854. It was installed in Elizabeth Tower in April 1859.
The main bell – officially the Great Bell – is known as Big Ben; the largest bell in the tower and part of the great clock. The origin of the name ‘Big Ben’ is not clear, but it may have been named after Sir Benjamin Hall, who oversaw the installation of the Great Bell. After the first bell suffered a 1.2m crack, Warners of Norton were asked to recast the bell 2.5 tonnes lighter. This new bell was winched up to the belfry in October 1858, and Big Ben first rang out on 11 July 1859. A short time later in September 1859 the bell broke again, and was fixed and reinstalled in 1863 costing £22,000. Apart from occasional halts, it has struck ever since and in 2009, Big Ben celebrated its 150th anniversary.
The tower and the bell can be visited by UK residents. The tours are free of charge, but must be sponsored by a Member of Parliament or a Member of the House.