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Big Ben's bongs are going to be silenced for months (and not for the first time)

By Louise Schwartzkoff

In London, it's a sound as regular as, well, clockwork. The bells of Big Ben ring out across the river every 15 minutes, accurate to the second. Even as bombs pelted down during the raids of World War II, the clock kept time and continued to chime.

But the great clock will stop during a three-year conservation and repair programme, scheduled to begin early next year and estimated to cost £29 million. After more than 157 years of faithful service, it's hardly surprising that Big Ben is in need of some loving care. There are worries about the pendulum's accuracy. The suspension spring, which holds the pendulum in place, needs replacing. That can't happen without stopping the clock.

There will be repairs to the Elizabeth Tower's water-damaged masonry and iron work. The clock could also be in for a facelift, with plans to swap the black-and-gold paint applied in the '80s with the green and gold thought to be original. (Who didn't make the odd make-up faux pas in the '80s?)

As the clock stops, it might feel like Armageddon is nigh, but it's not the first time Big Ben has fallen still. Here are some moments when London's most iconic landmark has malfunctioned, broken down or been interrupted by circumstances.

World War I

The bells fell silent and the clock faces stayed dark for two years during World War I. Best to avoid creating a gigantic clock-shaped beacon for German attackers.

World War II

The bells bonged on, but the clock faces were darkened. Despite the precautions, there was some bomb damage in 1941 to two of the dials and sections of the tower's roof. Thanks to all this drama, the clock was deliberately stopped for 12 hours in June 1941, after a workman repairing the damage dropped a hammer into the works. Whoops.


A flock of starlings perched on the minute hand and slowed the clock by four and a half minutes. Yes, really.

New Year's Eve, 1962

The first bong of the new year was ten minutes late, thanks to heavy snow and ice on the long hands.

Winston Churchill's funeral

The bells were silenced during the big guy's funeral in January 1965. Fair enough, really. 

Major meltdown, 1976

The Great Clock gave up the ghost for the first time in more than a century's use. The chiming mechanism broke from 'torsional fatigue'. No idea what that is but it sounds nasty. It shut the clock down for 26 days over nine months, but the folks at BBC Radio 4 stepped up to the plate and broadcast the pips.

Heatwave, 2005

London doesn't do well under extreme weather and it seems the city's clock is no different. Temperatures had topped 31C in May, when the clock stopped just after 10pm. Anyone who has ever ridden the tube on a hot summer's day will sympathise.

Margaret Thatcher's funeral

Another big funeral, another quiet time for the bells. They were silenced on April 17, 2013, as a mark of 'profound dignity and deep respect' for the Iron Lady.

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