The following is an excerpt from a story I contributed to the book, The Wisdom of Monuments.
French author Iveline Denormandie had the idea of bringing together sixteen authors of different nationalities to write a story from the viewpoint of a famous monument from their country. They allow the great monuments to tell their own stories: how they came to be, what they have seen in their city, and their hopes for the future. I was honored to contribute an article about London’s Big Ben.
Big Ben: A Handsome London Monument
I’m called Big Ben, and I’m one of the handsomest buildings in one of the greatest cities in the world. You might think I’m bragging – and I suppose I am – but I hope you’ll indulge an old man. I’m 157 years old, after all. Perhaps that’s not all that old as buildings go, but during my lifetime, I’ve certainly seen a lot happen on the streets of my city, often right at my feet. I’ve lived through some of London’s most glorious times and some of its most terrible. But through it all, like the true Londoner that I am, I’ve stood tall, kept calm, and carried on.
Big Ben. That’s what everyone calls me. Originally, that was the nickname given to my largest bell, however, today most people call all of me Big Ben – tower, clock, bells, and all. And that suits me fine.
Construction on my tower started in 1843, and my first big bell was cast in 1856. When the bell arrived, however, my tower still wasn’t finished. The bell was placed in New Palace Yard, not far from where I now stand. It was rung every day for almost a year. But on October 17, 1857, when the giant hammer struck, a huge crack ran up the bell. It was irreparable. It had to be melted down, and recast. A year later, my second bell was made. This one was two and a half tons lighter.
When that bell was finally installed, I was complete. In July 1859, my bells reverberated across London as I chimed the hour for the first time
All these years, I’ve stood watch over my city. I don’t like to brag, (well, maybe I do) but they say I’m one of London’s most recognized symbols. Each year, millions of tourists come from every corner of the world to see me and take my photo. And who can blame them? I am quite a handsome fellow.
As people on the streets below gaze up at me in admiration, what they might not realise is that I’m watching them too. I’m a keen observer of my city and I’ve seen quite a lot during my 157 years.
Oh, the Things I’ve Seen
In the middle of the nineteenth century, when I was born… I mean built, the Industrial Revolution was in full swing. Life was changing quickly: Horses and carts were replaced by bicycles, then motor cars. Electricity replaced gas street lights, and railroads linked cities together. The first underground transportation system in the world was built right here at my feet.
As the twentieth century rolled around, human creativity seemed to have no limits, and all kinds of machines were being invented to make people’s lives easier. However, the same machines that made London prosper almost destroyed her during the two World Wars.
World War I was the first war fought in the air, and London had its share of bombers lying overhead. Since I was the tallest building around, and had a lighted face, we had to turn off my lights and stop my chiming every night. I certainly wouldn’t have wanted to be responsible for helping to guide in any bombs. It was such a relief when that war was finished.
In 1923 the BBC installed a special microphone next to my big bell so they could broadcast my chimes to ring in the New Year of 1924. Afterward, they left the microphone in place, and it would come in handy during the Second World War.
That’s right, we didn’t have long to wait before the horrors of war started up again. World War II brought more airplanes and even more bombing. The Nazis had invaded most of Europe and all that separated them from us was a little twenty-mile stretch of water. They were determined to add us to their list of conquests and launched the London Blitz. From September 1940, our city was bombed 57 consecutive nights. Hitler was trying to frighten us into surrender, but he obviously didn’t understand our British determination.
It was terrifying, but we refused to give in. Children were sent to the country, while parents stayed and attempted to keep calm and carry on – that’s not just a cliché you know, it’s part of the British character. Every night London was bombarded and we never knew what parts of our city would still be standing the next morning.
I know I look big and strong, but I have to admit that during that time, I was afraid. Afraid of what might happen to our country, our way of life, and our beloved freedom and ideals. Just like everyone else, I was terrified as explosions shook the ground and fires blazed around me every night. But, like my compatriots, I gathered up all my courage, stood tall, and carried on. As I watched those brave Londoners on the streets below, I was never prouder to be British.
I wanted to do my part too – so I did the only thing I could. Every hour, I rang my heart out to reassure the British people, and the world, that London was still free. The BBC used that microphone to broadcast my chimes out to every home, and I like to think that my reassuring bells gave people courage and strength.
Before the United States came to our aid, we were standing almost alone against all of Europe for freedom and justice. Winston Churchill called it our finest hour, and I have to agree with him. When that bloody war was over, the United Kingdom was badly bruised, and London lay in rubble. Not much of the city had escaped the bombs, but I was pretty lucky – only two of my clock faces and part of my roof were damaged. The British people dug in and started to put our country back together. Times were hard, but slowly we recovered
Even if, as Churchill said, our conduct during World War II was our finest hour, there have been many times since then that have made me puff out my chest.
For 157 years, I’ve been carrying on – ringing my bells and watching over my glorious city. I’ve seen her at her best and at her worst, and I plan to stand here watching over her for many more years to come!
After all, there are lots of people who want to come and see me.
You can read the full story in the book, The Wisdom of Monuments.