LONDON — Big Ben rang out 12 times at noon on Monday before halting its regularly scheduled bonging for four years to allow for major renovations at the Houses of Parliament.
The 13-ton bell will still sound for special occasions such as New Year’s Eve, but parliamentary officials say the bonging must be muted while the repair work is being carried out. The Elizabeth Tower, the official name of the tower that many call Big Ben, is already partially covered in scaffolding.
Few question that the Palace of Westminster, the Gothic castle on the northern banks of the River Thames that is home to Britain's Parliament, is in dire need of renovations. But many have asked why they will take so long.
Until noon Monday, Big Ben bonged every hour, while four quarter bells — now also silent — rang out every 15 minutes. At the appointed hour, hundreds gathered in Parliament Square to hear the final ringing of the regular bongs, many with smartphones held aloft. A round of polite applause rippled through the crowd once the last bong had faded away.
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“It was very emotional,” said Jess Fulcher, 35, a Londoner who said she can hear the bongs from her home about three miles away. “The atmosphere is sad, but a happy sad,” she said, noting the urgency of the repairs slated for the tower.
“At least it’s still standing,” she added.
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Last week's announcement that Big Ben will be silenced for four long years sparked a backlash from some politicians and sections of the British media.
“It can’t be right,” said Prime Minister Theresa May, who urged a review of the decision.
David Davis, Britain’s Brexit secretary, said it was “mad” that the bells should be silenced for so long and opined that workers should “just get on with it.”
Parliamentary authorities, buckling under the pressure, said last week that they will review the length of time the bells will be out of action. But they insist that the silence is necessary to protect the hearing of workers carrying out the renovations of the Elizabeth Tower and the Great Clock. As it stands now, the bells won’t resume their regular ringing until 2021.
Big Ben has been silenced before, most recently for six weeks in 2007 for maintenance work. But for the most part it has operated almost continuously for its 157-year history, including during World War II.
“How little Hitlers of elf'n'safety succeeded where the Fuhrer failed,” ran a headline in the Daily Mail, using a common British-tabloid phrase for health and safety regulations.
Other papers have argued that with Britain’s exit from the European Union looming, the chimes of Big Ben are more important than ever.
“Now more than ever we need icons of national pride rooted in our traditions of liberty and the rule of law,” the Daily Telegraph said in an editorial.
Some Brexit-backing members of Parliament have said that Big Ben should bong Britain out of the European Union on Brexit day, the day it officially leaves the bloc. Britain is expected to leave the E.U. on March 29, 2019.
Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn said that the safety of workers should be paramount.
“If we have to miss Big Ben in reality for a while so the work can be done, well, it’s something we have to go through,” he told LBC Radio. “It’s not a national disaster or catastrophe.”
George Major, an 80-year-old with hearing aids who was in Parliament Square on Monday, wasn’t so sure.
“It’s important, it’s part of our history,” he said.
But he added that he had a solution: “Hire people like me who are stone-deaf to do the repairs. I’d volunteer to do it.”