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bells & chimes

A clock that silently tells the time is known as a timepiece. One that strikes on the hour (or every half-hour) is called a striker. A chiming clock is one that plays out a short melody on the hour (and part of that melody on the quarter hours if it is a quarter-chiming clock).

In the UK, the most well known melody is the Westminster chime, which is the familiar one played by Big Ben. In point of fact, "Big Ben" is not the Westminster clock itself but the largest of the five bells in the Clock Tower, and there is quite an interesting tale about that.

The original 'Big Ben' was cast in 1856 by Mssrs Warner & Sons of Stockton and at 16 tons was two tons overweight compared to Edmund Beckett's design (but then Warner's quote of ten guineas per hundredweight was nearly 50% more than the usual rate so the extra weight just increased their bill). Warners also cast the other four bells that sound the Westminster melody. But this heavier bell supposedly needed a clapper twice the size of the original drawing and even then the tone sounded odd when it struck the hours. Within a few weeks it cracked under testing (the Tower was still under construction) and when it was broken up, a joint defect was uncovered. Despite a prior undertaking to recast for free if it was faulty, Warners wanted more to cast a replacement. There was an argument over the cause of the crack, some believing that the larger clapper was in fact too large. During this row, the strike played out on the fourth bell instead.

In April 1858, 'Big Ben 2' was eventually cast by Mr Mears of the Whitechapel Bell Foundry, whose history can be traced back to 1420. The bell was 9 feet in diameter and 7.5 feet tall and weighed around 15 tons. But this time it was the casting itself that was alleged to be faulty when Mr Mears' bell also cracked eight weeks later. On examination it was found to be porous but Mr Mears had filled the holes with cement, which he said was standard practice. Beckett blamed the foundry, saying it too brittle.

However, 'Big Ben 2' is the one you still hear today, and the crack gives it that characteristic off-key tone. Beckett 'solved' the problem by replacing his oversized clapper with a smaller one and turning the bell round so that the clapper struck a different part of the bell. American visitors to this site probably already know that the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia is also cracked but then it was also cast in the same foundry (as indeed was the Great Bell of Montreal).

Unconventionally, antique clocks almost always depict the four marker with 'IIII' so that it balances the VIII of the 'eight' opposite. So another interesting detail about the Westminster clock is the use of a true Roman 'IV' for the 'four' position on each dial. In the image on my Home page, this very unusual feature is hidden by one of the workers cleaning the dial but you'll find plenty of examples on the net.

But I digress. The real purpose of this page was simply to allow visitors to hear samples of the three most common chimes. To listen, just click on one of the underlined links below. They will take you to the music player on a new page of your web browser so you only have to close that page afterwards to return here again. Remember to turn your speakers on first.

  • The WESTMINSTER chimes are played on four notes so the clock would need only four chiming rods or bells (plus one for the hour, usually). Whilst always associated with the Westminster clock and Big Ben, they first appeared on the University Church clock of St Mary's the Great, in Cambridge (UK).
  • The WHITTINGTON chimes are more complex and require eight notes. They are associated with the Church of St Mary-le-Bow in London's Cheapside. They feature in the pantomime "Dick Whittington" when the young Dick Whittington (loosely based on Richard Whittington, who became Lord Mayor of London four times, first in 1398), hears them ring out "Turn again Mr Whittington, Lord Mayor of London Town" just as he is about to leave town with his cat to return home a failure.
  • The St MICHAEL chimes also require eight bells and have more significance across 'the Pond' where the Church in Charleston, South Carolina first rang them out in 1764. These bells are well travelled - the British, who originally made them, brought them home after the War but they were bought by a merchant and taken back to Charleston. Then they were sent back to London in 1823 to be recast after cracks appeared and returned the following year. During the Civil War, the bells were destroyed by Sherman's army in Columbia (where, ironically, they had been sent for safe-keeping) and the fragments came back to London yet again to be included in the alloy used to cast new ones for commissioning in February 1867.