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When Did Big Ben First Bong?
101 Questions Answered about the Greatest City on Earth
By David Long
The History PressCopyright © 2011 David Long
All rights reserved.
ART & ARCHITECTURE
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What is the earliest known image of London?
It appears on the reverse of the fourth-century, gold 'Arras Medallion', a replica of which is in the British Museum.
In AD 286 one Marcus Aurelius Mausaeus Carausius, a successful Roman military commander who had been appointed provincial governor, rebelled against his masters and declared himself to be the new emperor of Roman Britain and Northern Gaul. Under the circumstances his reign proved surprisingly enduring, lasting for seven years before he was murdered by his treasurer Allectus. The former finance minister in turn announced that he was now emperor, and even commenced construction of a magnificent Imperial palace close to St Peter's Alley, Cornhill, although work on this stopped when he was himself eventually overcome.
The restoration to legitimate Roman rule came in 296 when the loyal general Constantius Chlorus arrived in Britain to find Londinium being sacked by gangs of Frankish mercenaries in the pay of Allectus. Determined to call a halt to this, he had a flotilla of Roman warships known as the Classis Britannica sail up the Thames. Upon reaching their destination – to quote the words of a later panegyric to Constantius – the force 'found the survivors of the barbarian mercenaries plundering the city, and, when these began to seek flight, [the Romans] landed and slew them in the street. Not only did they bring safety to your subjects by the timely destruction of the enemy, but, also induced a sentiment of gratitude and pleasure at the sight.'
The attractive nine solidi medallion was struck to commemorate this momentous event, showing Constantius Chlorus on one side accepting acclaim as REDDITOR LVCIS AETERNAE, the Restorer of Eternal Light. On the reverse a woman representing the spirit of London is seen kneeling at the Roman city wall welcoming a mounted Roman soldier and thanking him for terminating the rule of Allectus. Despite the object's relevance locally, the name derives from its discovery in the French town of Arras in September 1922, with the medallion thought to have been minted in about AD 310 in Trier on the Moselle river, one of the oldest cities in modern Germany.
Where is London's longest tunnel?
Somewhat incredibly, until 1988 a branch of the Northern Line was the longest railway tunnel in the world with the route from East Finchley to Morden via Bank running for 17 miles and 528 yards to serve no fewer than twenty-four stations. However, today it is not even longest tunnel in London as this record belongs to another subterranean network altogether; one which runs far deeper underground than the Tube ever did, which extends considerably further than the Channel Tunnel, and yet which these days is used for nothing more than transporting tap water around the capital.
If that makes the Thames Water Ring Main sound like a mere pipe, however, this is a misconception which needs correcting straight away. For one thing, it is truly enormous: 50 miles all the way round, at least, and still being added to with many miles of extensions being planned as far ahead as 2025. It took years to build as well, with work on the first stage alone taking from 1988 until the summer of 1994. And so far it's cost us around a quarter of a billion smackers which is way more than most of us would stump up to sink a little ducting.
It's also as fat as a proper tunnel, the diameter of 8ft 4in putting it close to that of, say, the Greenwich Foot Tunnel or Tower Subway and meaning it's plenty big enough to run trains through. Indeed during much of its construction it was fitted out with a bespoke narrow-gauge railway to ferry workmen and tools around, as well as later being used as the venue for a charity bicycle race once the tracks had been taken up and the trains towed away.
Perhaps because it's lost to public view – above ground the most visible part is Damian O'Sullivan and Tania Doufa's thrilling, RIBA award-winning tower on Holland Park roundabout – most Londoners don't know it's down there and of those who do, one suspects, hardly anyone stops to consider what a triumph of engineering it is. Did the project overrun? No idea. Was it over budget when they had finished? Who cares! Instead, now the bulk of it is completed, it's a wonder to behold, constructed on the scale of Sir Joseph Bazalgette's famous sewers (albeit without quite the same aesthetic finesse) and able to pump clean water from the Thames and Lea river systems around Greater London at a sufficient lick – 300,000,000 gallons a day – to fill an 50m Olympic swimming pool in just over 25 minutes or, so they say, the Royal Albert Hall to the rafters in only three hours.
It's also a technical tour de force. Hailed as the most sophisticated water-control system of any major world city when it was opened by Her Majesty in November 2004, its £3.2 million Hampton control HQ in south-west London is able, remotely, to continuously monitor water pressures, flows, reservoir levels and even quality for millions of homes and businesses across the entire spread of Greater London. Hitherto this had taken a dozen different centres, none of which could communicate with any of the others, and required miles and miles of bespoke fibre optic cable from Norway – apparently the ordinary stuff rots in normal drinking water – in order to transmit gigabytes of data every day between Hampton and a network of eleven pumping stations which raise the water up from 130ft below to the local pipe network.
The same cabling collects information about the water pressure and quality and can even carry closed-circuit television pictures from the network's security cameras, a uniquely high level of monitoring being vital because the water moves through the main – it can go either way – using gravity rather than external pumps. This requires the tunnels to be full of water at all times, meaning the operators have to know exactly how much water is being used minute-by-minute by Thames Water's seven million customers – and to know precisely how to react when yet another piece of rusty old Victorian pipe-work fractures to flood the road and throw everything out of kilter.
When did Big Ben first bong?
Big Ben's first bong rang out across Westminster on 11 July 1859, an occasion marked exactly 150 years later when, at 10 p.m. on the same day in 2009, a special light show commemorating the great bell's birthday was projected onto the south side of the 315ft-high St Stephen's Tower.
There had been a clock tower on the site since about 1288, but the present edifice in Augustus Pugin's ebullient, largely self-invented Gothic Revival style – he had earlier produced something similar for a Lancashire baronet at Scarisbrick Hall – formed part of Charles Barry's design for a new legislative building following the near-total destruction by fire of the old Palace of Westminster on the night of 22 October 1834.
Pugin claimed never to have 'worked so hard in my life for Mr Barry for tomorrow I render all the designs for finishing his bell tower and it is beautiful' – and shortly after completing the project he subsided into madness, collapsed and died at just 40 years of age.
Barry's end of things was technically hugely advanced for its day, the cast iron, brick and limestone-clad tower standing on an immense raft of concrete almost 10ft thick. It has, even so, subsided slightly over the years so that today, with the Jubilee Line Extension tunnellers in no small part responsible for the shift, the tower leans slightly to the north-west. Indeed, at clock face level, it is now nearly 9in off true.
Equivalent to a sixteen-storey building, St Stephen's has long been one of the world's most famous buildings, and is instantly recognisable as perhaps the single most important icon of London. This remains so even though it is not easy for the general public to visit – with no lift it takes a hike up 334 steps for the lucky few to reach the summit – and most people, Londoners and visitors alike, continue to get its name wrong.
Why the Great Bell's nickname should so consistently be applied to the tower remains a complete mystery, as indeed does the origins of the name Ben, especially given the rarity with which most bells – even jolly big ones like this – are accorded nicknames. It could be named after Ben Caunt, a noted bare-knuckle boxer and sometime English Heavyweight Champion, or more probably the noted civil engineer Lord Llanover (otherwise Sir Benjamin Hall Bt) who oversaw its construction in his role as First Commissioner of Works.
Either way the item in question was indeed a very big bell, the first such being a 16-ton monster which was cast on in August 1856 at Stockton-on-Tees and transported to the tower on a trolley drawn by sixteen horses. Unfortunately this one cracked beyond repair before it was even rung officially and a 13 ½-ton replacement was commissioned from the Whitechapel Bell Foundry (q.v.) in the East End. When completed it was winched 200ft up to the belfry, a feat which took more than 18 hours, but this one also cracked under the hammer, barely two months after that all-important first bong. A repair was effected – during which time it was out of commission for an incredible three full years – but even now the effect of the crack can still be heard in its distinctive and much-loved tone. No-one seems to mind, however, nor for that matter do they care that London's most famously big bell was quickly overtaken, in 1881, by the 16 ¾-ton 'Great Paul' which was hoisted above the cathedral of that name and hangs there still.
Which is London's largest square?
Ask most Londoners and the chances are they'll tell you the answer is Trafalgar – although, paradoxically, this same square is also popularly supposed to cover exactly 1 acre when the actual measure is closer to 5. In fact the largest public square in the capital is some way distant: Lincoln's Inn Fields, at 12 acres, an area dwarfed by the likes of Tiananmen (which is more than 15 times the size) or even the Place de la Concorde in Paris.
It is still a substantial enough spread if you go and take a look, however, and said to have been the inspiration behind New York's Central Park, the design for its layout came from Inigo Jones in the seventeenth century. Unlike Trafalgar Square, however, which was public from the start, the masses had to wait until the end of the nineteenth century to be admitted to Lincoln's Inn Fields when the square was acquired by the London County Council. The previous owners had been the Honourable Society of Lincoln's Inn, one of the four great Inns of Court, whose students had hitherto had the run of two areas of wasteland called the Purse Field and the Cup Field. With their ownership dating back to the fourteenth century, such scholars who walked and talked here before the public moved in in 1895 would have included many famous names including those of Oliver Cromwell, Sir Thomas More and no fewer than seven future Prime Ministers.
Of these only one warrants a plaque overlooking the park, and that is poor old Spencer Perceval (1762–1812) – the only British Prime Minister to have been assassinated. Shot dead by a berserk merchant broker from Liverpool, actually within the walls of the Palace of Westminster, his murder was foreseen nine days earlier by John Williams of Redruth (in a dream full of vivid detail) but the Cornishman's family dissuaded him from journeying to London to warn the authorities and disaster ensued.
Peaceful now, despite the proximity of noisy High Holborn, it is hard to believe this is the place where tens of thousands gathered to witness the grisly execution of fourteen Catholic traitors in the 1580s. Sentenced to be hanged, drawn and quartered for a plot against Good Queen Bess, contemporary accounts say that the plotters' leader, Sir Anthony Babington, was still alive and aware when his agonising evisceration began.
By contrast London's smallest square is away to the West, buried away in smart St James's. Accessed via a narrow eighteenth-century oak-panelled tunnel squeezed between two of London's oldest and most picturesque shop fronts – and covering just a few square metres – the worn flagstones of Pickering Place are popularly held to have witnessed the last duel ever fought in England. Proving such a claim is never easy – whatever the outcome these things were rarely advertised attractions – but its seclusion would certainly have suited a little illegal sword – or pistol – play, while its proximity to White's, Arthur's, Brooks's and Boodle's would have made it a most convenient place for the disgruntled gamblers and young blades of London clubland to settle a few personal scores.
Where is the Great Pyramid of London?
The short answer is that it never got built, or perhaps that should be they never got built since – strange but true – more than once someone, somewhere has proposed building something akin to Cheops right here in the capital.
In 1815, for example, flushed with pride at the defeat on land and on water of the dastardly Bonaparte – and with the fashionable new style of the Nile riding high after a successful Egyptian campaign – a certain Colonel (later Major-General) Sir F.W. Trench MP conceived a plan for a giant pyramid on what is now Trafalgar Square. Large enough to cover virtually the entire square, and at 364ft high, considerably taller than the dome of St Paul's, Sir Frederick estimated that his vast, stepped ziggurat – 22 storeys high, with one tier for each year of the war – would cost a cool £1,000,000, a sum he felt was unlikely to be 'burthensome to the nation'.
Parliament happily disagreed and the scheme got no further, but then in 1829 up popped another one. This time it was to be even larger – considerably larger, in fact, capable of dwarfing even the Great Pyramid itself – with its promoter Thomas Willson declaring his intention to erect on Primrose Hill a pyramid-shaped mausoleum large enough to hold 5,167,104 of London's loved ones.
Trench is these days dismissed as almost the patron saint of architectural lost causes – besides wishing to build over Hyde Park he proposed defiling the river view with a wooden overhead railway – but Willson was far from a crank. The winner of the Royal Academy Schools Gold Medal, his pyramid was nothing if not well thought out with 215,296 catacombs – each large enough to take two dozen dead – an internal chapel for mourners, and accommodation for a keeper, his clerk, a sexton and a superintendent.
Designed with four separate entrances, one on each side, a central ventilation shaft and ramps instead of stairs to facilitate the easy transportation of coffins around what inside looked not unlike a beehive, Willson further promised to provide exceptionally hygienic surroundings with 'every deposit hermetically sealed for ever' in place of London's traditionally pestilential churchyards and plague pits. Also, he said, his scheme would 'beguile the hours of the curious and impress feelings of solemn awe and admiration upon every beholder.'
His trump card, though, was as much financial as aesthetic. With the catacombs rented out at £50 a vault, and 40,000 'customers' a year, Willson estimated that London as a whole would save £12,500 annually against the cost of conventional burial; investors in his Five Per Cent Pyramid Stock would meanwhile see an eventual return of £10,764,800. It sounded too good to be true, and so indeed it was to prove, with the purchase of 54 acres at Kensal Green by the rival General Cemetery Company quickly dishing his plans before the first brick had even been laid.
For pyramids, however, it was not quite all over and in 1903 Dr David Walsh reopened the old argument by calling for a smaller (but uglier) pyramid to be sited atop a hefty plinth 'say, in Hyde Park' with large sloping windows to admit light, a sort of druids' temple at its core, and the planned reburial within of various long-dead kings and queens of England to get the place off to a good start. The public, said Walsh, would be invited to contribute according to their means, with the poor paying for just one or two bricks while the rich would be expected to cough up for a hundred thousand or even a million. The invitation, thank heavens, was declined almost universally so that today the most prominent pyramid in London is Hawksmoor's strangely elongated one on top of St George the Martyr, Bloomsbury. Modelled on the tomb of King Mausolus at Halicarnassus – the original 'mausoleum', and one of the original Seven Wonders of the World – it is indeed so strange that when you get there you'll wonder how you've never noticed it before.
Where is London's oldest church?
In Queen Victoria Street in the City the relocated Roman Temple of Mithras dates back to the third century. Early records relating to the foundation of St Paul's Cathedral by Mellitus suggest a date of AD 604. The Church of All Hallows by the Tower contains a Saxon arch built of Roman bricks, and a charter of AD 951 mentions the church of St Andrew's, Holborn, although the present edifice – being by Wren – is clearly not that old.
Excerpted from When Did Big Ben First Bong? by David Long. Copyright © 2011 David Long. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
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Table of Contents
Also by David Long,
1. Art & Architecture,
2. The River,
3. Royalty & Ceremonial,
7. Sport & Leisure,
10. London at War,