How Two of the Most Famous Bells in History Got Cracked

June 3, 2021

The Liberty Bell

The Liberty Bell and Big Ben, two of the most famous bells in history, have two things in common. Both bells were cast by the same bell foundry, and each bell has a renowned crack.

The bells were cast at London’s Whitechapel Bell Foundry, which was established in 1570 and continues to operate today. It is the oldest continuous business in Great Britain.

The Liberty Bell

The Liberty Bell was originally made for the Pennsylvania Provincial Assembly in 1751. They paid 100 pounds for it, and it arrived in 1752. Many believe that it cracked on the first test strike. Two local workmen named John Pass and John Stow (whose names appear on the bell) melted down the bell and recast it, adding copper to make it less brittle. 

In 1753, the bell was finished and rung again, but the tone wasn’t right. Pass and Stow recast the bell again. A replacement bell had arrived from Whitechapel in the same year, but it was agreed that it didn’t sound as good as the Pass and Stow bell. It wasn’t known as the Liberty Bell until 1835, when the name appeared in a pamphlet by the New York Anti-Slavery Society. 

There is much debate about how and when the crack we know today really happened. It could have been from heavy use over the years that weakened the bell, but the most widely held view, it seems, is that the bell had its last ring to commemorate Washington’s birthday in 1846. 

A crack had developed prior to this time which had been repaired by widening the crack more so the sides wouldn’t vibrate together. But the bell cracked again and was never rung another time.

The Big Ben Bell
UK Parliament/Flickr CC BY-NC 2.0

Big Ben

Big Ben, located in London, is the nickname of the bell of the clock in the tower over the Palace of Westminster and not the tower itself, like many believe. It was cast at John Warner & Sons at Stockton-on-Tees in 1856. This bell cracked before it was ever installed in the tower.

It was broken up and recast at the Whitechapel Bell Foundry and had its first ring in 1859. But it lasted only a few months before it cracked. The blame seemed to fall on what was striking the bell, however. The hammer installed to strike the bell was thought to be too heavy, and it resulted in the cracking of the bell. 

Unlike the Liberty Bell, Big Ben was successfully repaired, and the hammer strike was modified. The bell was turned a quarter so the hammer would strike a different area, and the hammer was replaced with a lighter version. A small square was also cut into the rim of the bell to prevent the crack from growing. Big Ben has been ringing ever since with the crack intact, though it has a different tone than when it started. 

It’s not precisely known how Big Ben got its nickname, but two theories exist. One theory is that the bell was named after the first commissioner of works named Sir Benjamin Hall. He was a large man known by the nickname “Big Ben.” The other theory is that the bell is named after a bare-knuckle boxer named Benjamin Caunt. He became the Heavyweight Champion of England in 1841. His nickname was also “Big Ben.”

Sources: History, US, NPS, How Stuff Works, UK Parliament, Visit London 

About the author 

Daniel Ganninger - The writer, editor, and chief lackey of Knowledge Stew, the author of the Knowledge Stew line of trivia books, and editor of Fact World and the Knowledge Stew sister site on Medium, our ad-free subscription sites. I hope you learn many new things here that add to your knowledge.

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