On this day in history….12th August 1949

On this day in history : 12th August 1949 – A flock of starlings take roost on the minute hand on one of the clock faces of Big Ben, slowing it down by four and a half minutes….

Photo credit : Pierre Selim CC BY-SA 3.0

Listeners to the BBC’s 9 O’Clock News were surprised to hear the bullet-in start without the customary chimes of Big Ben…. Later in the broadcast the BBC announced that “swarms of starlings are sitting on the hands holding them back”….

That evening the flock had decided the clock hand would make a good perch for the night and their combined weight had slowed the clock down so it was unable to chime at the correct time…. However, by midnight everything was ‘back to normal’….

There was a time when the Capital was home to many flocks of starlings – who gave an impressive show with their murmurations…. To see starlings take to the sky in this way is one of nature’s most spectacular wonders…. The numbers were at their largest in the winter months when the birds joined forces to keep warm at night….

Starling murmuration

Sadly the starlings left London and in fact numbers across the whole of the UK are down by 70%…. Once such a common bird they are now on the critical red list…. Loss of permanent pasture, an increase in the use of chemicals, a shortage of food and nesting sites are all contributing factors…. The expansion of London itself pushes the birds further and further afield….

Incidentally, Big Ben was to run slow once again on New Year’s Eve 1962…. Snow jammed the north face clock and ice coated the minute hand….causing New Year to be rung in 10 minutes late…. To think Big Ben survived the Blitz – yet can be hampered by a bit of snow or a flock of birds….

On this day in history….11th July 1859

On this day in history : 11th July 1859 – Big Ben chimes for the first time….but just two months later it is to crack and is taken out of commission for nearly four years….

Big Ben – Image credit : D S Pugh CC BY-SA 2.0

Most people refer to the clock tower – (which was renamed Elizabeth Tower in 2012 for the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee) – as ‘Big Ben’ ~ but it is actually the name given to the bell housed inside…. It is believed to have been named after Sir Benjamin, First Commissioner for Works – and indeed his name is inscribed upon it….

Image credit : Diliff CC BY 2.5

However, the current bell is not the original one…. In August 1856 a bell was cast by Warners of Norton, Stockton-on-Tees….and it was originally to be called the ‘Royal Victoria’…. Unfortunately this first bell cracked during testing in October 1857 and a second bell had to be cast…. This time the honour went to George Mears at his Whitechapel Foundry in April 1858…. However, this bell cracked too – but the problem was solved by turning it a quarter clockwise and chiming it with a lighter hammer….

Big Ben finally went into service in July 1859 – but disaster struck with yet another crack in the following September…. According to the foundry manager, a hammer more than twice the maximum weight specified had been used….

Since that time Big Ben has fallen silent on other occasions…. In 1976 it was taken out of commission for 9 months for repairs….and again for 7 weeks in 2007…. On Monday the 21st of August 2017, after the 12 noon chimes, Big Ben’s bongs temporarily ceased….as extensive repair, conservation and refurbishment work on the clock tower began…. The bell remains silent for the time being – except for on special occasions, such as New Year’s Eve and Remembrance Day….img_3526

Big Ben weighs a massive 13.7 tonnes, is 7.2ft (2.2m) tall and 8.9ft (2.7m) in diameter…. Its hammer weighs 200kg…. Elizabeth Tower is 96m tall and has 11 floors…. Each clock Face is 23ft (7m) in diameter and is made of 312 sections of opal glass…. The hour hand is 9.2ft (2.8m) in length and the minute hand is 14ft (4.3m)…. The clock is accurate to one second…. It is expected work will be completed by 2021 – and then we will hear Big Ben’s bongs every day once more….