When the bongs fell silent

(Image from https://regmedia.co.uk/2017/03/02/big_ben.jpg?x=1200&y=794)

The announcement that ‘Big Ben’ would fall silent on August 21st and remain that way for four years was greeted with a variety of responses, many unfavourable. The bongs with which the Great Bell strikes the hour and the chimes that mark the quarters have become somehow such a part of life that the needed maintenance that is required, and which will silence it, has become something of much greater metaphorical significance. Newspapers declared that it had never been silenced in 160 years – later adjusting that to almost never been silenced. In fact, it last fell silent in 2007 and before that, for major refurbishments between 1983 and 1985. As well as this, shortly after it had been put in place, the bell cracked so it rang out on 11 July 1859 but then was silent for the next four years while the problem was sorted out. It was also silenced during World War I

“due to fears of attack from low-flying Zeppelins: a silence which was only lifted to indicate the start of the armistice at 11am on 11 November 1918.” (https://www.theguardian.com)

Quite why silencing the bell would prevent it from being subject to attack by Zeppelin beats me but there we are. So the idea of Big Ben never have been silenced before and wasn’t it just shocking that they were going to silence it now is one of those fallacies that assume mythological status. Incredibly Big Ben has its own Twitter account

“that inexplicably has nearly half a million followers. All it does it tweet “BONG” on the hour.”


The history of Big Ben – even why it got its nickname – is fascinating and can be read about on http://www.parliament.uk/bigben which means that as well as its own Twitter account it also has its own website! Perhaps because it is (a) in London and (b) part of the Palace of Westminster, otherwise known as the Houses of Parliament, it has an iconic status. There are plenty of clock towers in other towns and cities in UK. The three below are examples – images from http://s0.geograph.org.uk/geophotos/02/77/18/2771839_363e3b84.jpg https://s-media-cache-ak0.pinimg.com/originals/89/cf/de/89cfde3140870ba57b44f6be456915d7.jpg https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/1/11/Herne_Bay_Clock_Tower_-_geograph.org.uk_-_1276184.jpg

And RMSG also has its own Clock Tower which, like Big Ben, is now so much a part of the School visually and aurally that we almost don’t notice it any more.

It chimes the hours from 7am to 10pm and can be heard, not only throughout the whole grounds but by a considerable portion of the neighbourhood surrounding the School, for whom it is a very effective timekeeper. In parts of the Garth, the sound has a curious echo which gives it a double chime so that twelve noon seems to have 24 ‘bongs’.

Like all the clock towers featured here, it is not just a stacked pile of bricks with a clock on the top but a carefully designed and decorated piece of architecture. It seems fitting then that, at some point the silk embroidery below was created – a piece of art reflecting a piece of art.

The RMSG clock tower is an integral part of the original design for the School created by the architect John Denman. He called upon other craftsman-artists to aid his design and Joseph Cribb was commissioned to sculpt the decoration that appears on the tower. Of particular note are the four anemoi high up on the tower:

These images were taken by Cribb himself and sent to the School by his grandson.

Anemoi (a Greek term; Roman equivalent is Venti) are the Greek gods of the winds, the four main ones being Boreas, Notus, Eurus, and Zephyrus. Boreas was the north wind and bringer of cold winter air and was depicted with shaggy hair and beard, with a billowing cloak and a conch shell in his hands. Notus was the south wind and bringer of the storms of late summer and autumn, depicted as pouring water from a vase. Zephyrus was the west wind and brought light spring and early summer breezes, usually shown as a beardless youth scattering flowers from his mantle. Eurus is the only one not specifically associated with a season and in fact there is not even agreement about whether he is the east wind or the south-east wind. He is sculpted as a bearded man holding a heavy cloak.

All of Cribb’s sculptures are identified with the name of the wind they represent although, interestingly, three of them have Greek names and one has a Roman name: Notus is given its Roman name of Auster. No one knows why.

After nearly eighty years at the top of a tower, exposed to all the elements, the sculptures are a bit more weathered but they are standing up to the onslaught very well.

Also at the top of the tower are the clock faces allowing the time to be seen from any direction. Very art deco in style, this must have seemed ultra-modern at the time (1934).


More prosaically, the top of the tower also has hidden water tanks to increase the water pressure on the site. And pigeons. As any tall structure seems to accumulate.

More of Joseph Cribb’s artistic endeavours can be seen over the doorway at the foot of the tower.

This frieze has yet more mythological references with Hesper and Phospher, the evening and morning stars (both actually Venus anyway) and the central symbol which appears to be a mixture between the Rod of Aesculapius (with medical associations) and the Caduceus carried by Hermes the Greek god of transitions and boundaries, which seems a bit more in keeping with a frieze above a doorway. There are also the letters Alpha and Omega, the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet often taken to represent the beginning and ending of anything, but also showing the cyclical nature of things. In modern colloquial language ‘what goes around, comes around’ or ‘if you stand still long enough, it will all come back to where you started.’

But to get back to the bongs. The School Clock Tower chimes the hours loud enough to be heard from some distance. It is even louder inside the building. Which is why it seems a very strange place to have put the library! Perhaps those studying for various exams throughout the years learned to attune their revision around the bongs that punctuated it. Fortunately, today’s pupils do not have that problem as the library is now housed in a separate building.

Like Big Ben’s bongs, the absence of them may well be more noticed than their presence. During the 1990s, the School’s clock mechanism faltered and the bongs were suspended while the problem was sorted. Eventually, it was decided that the GALMI principle should be brought into play: Get A Little Man In. A specialist was duly sought and he turned up in his van. Some of the Sixth Form, having as it were a ringside view as their accommodation was then opposite the tower, watched him arrive, assess the situation and then go to the back of his van. They waited with bated breath in the hope that what he would extract would be a very large key to wind up the clock.

Sadly, they were disappointed.

However, he did fix the problem and the clock resumed its regular bongs and has done ever since. Perhaps the BBC should use RMSG’s bongs to replace those of Big Ben?

Hmm – not anticipating BBC sound recordists turning up at School any day soon.