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Irma bring Big Ben traditions to mind
An English Rose in Georgia
Lesley Francis - 2016
Lesley Francis grew up in London, England and made Georgia her home in 2009. - photo by Photo provided.

As I write this we are under a mandatory evacuation order thanks to Hurricane Irma, but it looks like she is veering westwards, so we watch, wait and pray. By the time this goes to print, old Irma will have passed, and we will all be dealing with the aftermath. I can honestly say that sometimes hurricane season does make me miss the gray but relatively boring English weather!

This hurricane season has caused me to reflect a bit on the longevity of buildings and historical structures which have stood the test of time. In particular, all Brits are a little sad about the silencing of a great British institution — the bongs of the famous clock known as Big Ben in London. These will not ring again until 2021 while major repair works costing almost $40 million are being carried out on the tower and clock in central London because authorities have ruled that it is ‘unacceptable’ to expose workers to the noise – even if they wear hearing protection (which Brits call "ear defenders"). Officials have confirmed that Big Ben will only chime during the renovation period to bring in the New Year and on Remembrance Sunday in November (the British equivalent of Veterans Day).

I lived and worked in London for years, and regularly saw and heard this iconic clock tower. Like most other Londoners, I pretty much took it for granted as I rushed to meetings or social engagements. Tourists, on the other hand, have gathered by the hundreds each and every day for over a century, coming to hear the twelve famous "bongs" at noon…. but not for the next four years or so. Visit for more information

The massive bell at the north-eastern end of the Houses of Parliament in Westminster in London, has marked each hour with almost unbroken service since 1859, even during World War II when the Nazis were attacking London with bombs day after day, night after night. Big Ben is an absolutely integral part of "being British," and its image and sound is tightly woven into the fabric of English culture, heritage and history.

Big Ben’s origins go back to 1834, when a fire destroyed the old Palace of Westminster, which housed the offices of government. After a competition, a new design incorporating a large clock tower was selected, and the architect Charles Barry began work. After 25 years and a few false starts, the clock finally became fully operational on Sept. 7, 1859. There were a few issues early on, but within a few years Big Ben developed a reputation for great accuracy. In 1906, the gas lighting of the dials was replaced by electric lighting, and an electric winding mechanism replaced the pulling of huge ropes in 1912. The whole thing was overhauled in 1934 and 1956.

Where did the nickname "Big Ben" come from? This is a mystery that has never been definitively solved. Some say it came from Benjamin Caunt, England’s heavyweight boxing champion in the mid 1800s, who was known as "Big Ben" or "The Torkard Giant;" others attribute it to Sir Benjamin Hall, who was responsible for the installation of the Great Bell. This is all speculation, and the absolute answer has been lost in the sands of time.

Originally known simply as the Clock Tower, the 315-foot-high structure was officially renamed the Elizabeth Tower in 2012, in honor of the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee. Big Ben strikes on the hour in the note of E. There are four smaller bells beneath it that ring on the ‘quarter’ hours. They strike the notes G sharp, F sharp, E and B. Now over 160 years old, the tower and clock need work to preserve it for future generations. This includes the repair of masonry, as well as fixing heavy corrosion to the cast-iron roof, belfry, and frame that holds the huge bells. The clock’s inner mechanical workings, called the "movement" or the "caliber," has never been properly serviced, and will be taken apart for the first time. The great clock will be dismantled piece by piece with each cog examined and restored. The four dials will be re-glazed, the cast-iron framework repaired and the hands will be removed and refurbished. One working clock face will be visible to the public throughout the repairs, the hands of which will be driven by a temporary electric motor

Feeling a little homesick for London, I say goodbye this week with a quote from the 1700s, and from one of the greatest names in English literature, Samuel Johnson: "When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford."

God Bless America!

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