Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - London and Londoners in the Eighteen-Fifties and Sixties, by Alfred Rosling Bennett, 1924 - Chapter 11 - Big Ben Booms - Donati Looms

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Big Ben - Old and New Houses of Parliament - Donati's comet - Consternation - Signs and portents - 1858 extraordinary astronomical year - A clever coast-guardsman - B.C. 637 - A.D. 4353 - Fine summer - Pictures of comet.

IN 1860 was born a world-famous Londoner - Big Ben: of whose chimes I can claim to have been amongst the first hearers. The Houses of Parliament, as we know them - a group of buildings of the beauty of which few Britons seem to possess due consciousness - were at last nearly finished and the clock tower commenced its useful mission of keeping Londoners to time. We could hear the deep booming, not listened to without a certain feeling of solemnity, in the evening; earlier the traffic noises seemed to intercept the sound although themselves scarcely audible at our house. Then one day the tolling was missed. Big Ben had cracked! Another bell, slightly smaller, was cast and hung, spoke and-cracked! For some years afterwards the hours were struck on one of the quarter-hour bells and then an expert suggested that the 16-ton Big Ben should be turned so as to present a new surface to the 1-ton hammer. This was done and Big Ben has gone on ever since. But, in spite of his weighty utterances, please to remember that he is cracked! He derived his name from Sir Benjamin Hall, First Commissioner of Works, but not without opposition, for there were those who wanted to have him called Royal Victoria.
    As I write this in 1924 they are preparing to "broadcast" Big Ben and no doubt will sooner or later make his voice - and ticking too peradventure - audible in New York, Ootacamund and Dunedin. Do the same with Bow Bells and make every baby born anywhere a cockney! [-103-] The Westminster clock is the best public time-keeper in the whole world, varying only a second or two in a week. Its success was so marked that when it became necessary some years later to replace St. Paul's clock the new one was made a virtual copy of Westminster's. Strange to say, this great triumph was secured not by a clockmaker but a lawyer, Mr. Denison, barrister-at-law, who, with Sir George Airey, Astronomer Royal, was appointed to provide the new Houses of Parliament with a time-piece. He wanted his machine not to vary more than one minute a week - which all horologers declared impossible. But he invented a gravity escapement which achieved the marvellous result stated. Dent, of Charing Cross, built the clock under Denison' s supervision. Bravo Denison! It was a cruel fate that made even a good Lawyer of such a born engineer.
    My father took special interest in the new legislative buildings for he had, when just thirty years of age, witnessed the destruction of the old habitations of our Mother of Parliaments. It was his good fortune to be dining at Westminster on the evening of October 16th, 1834. Waiters brought word that the House of Commons was on fire and he and his friends beheld the sorry tragedy from a window. Parliament abolished tally-sticks and tally-sticks wiped out Parliament, so even fossils can play tit-for-tat occasionally.* (*It was supposed that the fire had been started by injudicious burning of condemned willow tally-sticks in the House of Commons' stoves.)
    If Big Ben's grave and distant voice inspired solemnity, then what shall I say about Donati's comet'? The English people of 1858 saw a sight the like of which has not been vouchsafed to later generations. The only comparable sensation in my experience was, when lying on the deck of a P. and O. steamer, I saw Stromboli in eruption lift from the horizon and grow and glow ever brighter and brighter through the darkness of a Mediterranean night. Dreamily watching, it was easy to imagine a chimney rising from the Infernal Regions with communicating furnaces stoked by Legions of incandescent devils urged on by Old Nick himself, like a Chief Engineer roaring out to the boiler-room for more steam.
   [-104-] In similar manner the comet grew bigger and brighter evening after evening as the autumn advanced until, from a scarcely noticeable star, it stretched across the heavens like a threatening fiery sword. Silent, flaring, menacing, mysterious, it made its nightly run, to the terror of many, the admiration of all. Crossing the Hill Street bridge of the Grand Surrey Canal one evening the reflection of the comet in the narrow waters made them look all on fire. How many things we boys learned from this fearsome visitor! What questions we asked!
    As the spectre approached nearer and nearer, it seemed that the current prophecies of imminent collision with the earth and the end of everything - even Old Moore's Almanac - might very well prove true. Luckily that modern theory that comets' tails are composed of carbon monoxide - and are therefore about as deadly as London gas  -was not known. It was reported that some good souls, sure that a smash would happen, ordered their coals in by the hundredweight only, just sufficient to keep them going till the date of the catastrophe. So when at last the comet began to recede not a few experienced relief, while some of the prophets no doubt felt aggrieved if not positively sorry.
    Commiseration was expressed for the poor folk on the planet Venus, for it was calculated that the stranger approached them so closely that they beheld him from only one-fifth of our distance, so that to the Venusians the apparition must have appeared a dreadful and alarming one indeed.
    I have seen it stated in print that subsequent comets nearly approached Donati's in size and brightness. Such allegations are simply - shall I say moonshine? The comets of 1861-74-80-81-82, all of which I saw, lumped together would not have rivalled Donati's. Looking back, I feel no astonishment at the consternation this superlative phenomenon caused or amazement that the people were apt to connect it with some impending disaster of colossal magnitude.
    But it did not come until the Crimean War and Indian Mutiny were over. Solferino and Magenta were in the near future, but not important enough to call for a portent so terrible: so, awful as it was, it did not seem to presage [-105-] anything particularly out of the common. But we may reflect to-day that only some three months after Donati reached his zenith - in January, 1859 - was born the Kaiser Wilhelm, author and organiser of the Armageddon of 1914. In that way the mighty comet certainly links up with fire and sword, sulphur and brimstone, calamity and ruin! Members of the Royal Astrological Society, please note.
    The ethereal wanderer was first detected, as a mere telescopic speck, by Astronomer Donati of Florence on June 2nd, 1858. It was only one of several phenomena destined to render the year astronomically memorable. In addition to the discovery of new asteroids between Mars and Jupiter, Encke' s comet reappeared, and several others of minor importance came within our ken. During the year no fewer than seven were detected, four of which - Donati, Encke, Faye and Tuttle - were simultaneously visible. The rare and beautiful occurrence of a ringed or annular eclipse of the sun took place on March 15th and, what was infinitely rarer still, was perceptible in England. Donati's capped the series and completed poor man's bewilderment. Such a succession of signs and portents had never been recorded before and would probably have driven credulous old Tacitus mad. Would the people of 1924 have taken them more philosophically than those of 1858? I doubt it very much.
    Early in September, when the comet was still only of the third magnitude and almost telescopic, it was observed by an illiterate coastguardsman in the Isle of Sheppey, who, without any knowledge of the Italian astronomer's discovery which, indeed, had attracted but little notice, its object being so distant and minute, realised its nature and took its bearings by erecting two sticks. He communicated his find in an ill-spelt letter to the Astronomer Royal. Good man! I am sorry that his name has escaped me.
    During September Donati waxed brighter and brighter with incredible celerity and early in October extended 30 or 40 degrees across the heavens. On the 10th it was computed to be at its nearest point to the Earth, 50,000,000 miles, and was magnificent indeed. People thronged the bridges, house-tops, open spaces and street corners. The [-106-] tail was estimated at 40,000,000 miles long, enough to go round the earth at the equator 1,600 times. The suddenness with which it grew from nothing to out of all comparison the mightiest object in the sky no doubt had much to do with the impression produced.
    An elliptical orbit with a period of 2,495 years was calculated, which, supposing our visitant had been this way before, would have made the date of its last appearance B.C. 637, Olympiad 35, when Rome was only some 130 years in being. Solon's laws had not yet been delivered, and Croesus, King of Lydia, the gentleman who would have been passing rich on the income-tax on his own revenue, was preparing to make his entry on the world's stage. Julius Caesar was not due in Britain for another 582 years! Donati will not be here again till A.D. 4353 when - but we needn't bother about that!
    The heat and dryness of the season were naturally ascribed to the comet's influence. The summer had been warm and dry - in some places, such as Guernsey, the driest on record to that time - and the harvest early and abundant. It was recollected that the great comet of 1811 had brought similar conditions. Still Donati didn't show up until the harvest was over, so his share in ripening it is at least obscure.
    Many pictures were published. Drawings, of course, since photography was not sufficiently advanced. Some were good, some bad. One, purporting to be as seen from Cambridge University, was sufficiently terrible, but nevertheless is the presentation that accords best with my recollection and impressions of the flaming sword of 58. Its appearance, however, varied markedly from time to time.
    I had heard of a prediction that the world having once been destroyed by water would on the next occasion suffer annihilation by fire. In spite of parental injunctions not to be frightened nor expect anything out of the common in our daily life I could not help pondering this luminous pronouncement; which, notwithstanding, had borne a comforting aspect on a previous occasion when heavy rain, which looked like continuing for at least forty days, had flooded everything around us.