Bells have been part of the English way of life for many years. They have been used as a means of warning (especially from a church) and horses had them on their harness to herald their approach. Court jesters wore tinkling bells. Public clocks announced the hours to those without a clock of their own. Churches used them (and still do) to call the faithful to worship and to remind others that a service was about to take place. Church bells were used to call people to the fields. There was a Seeding Bell, a Harvest Bell and a Gleaning Bell to warn that it was time to start or finish work. A Pancake Bell was rung to remind of Lent and an Oven Bell to warn that the Lord-of-the-Manor's ovens were hot and they could bake their bread. Curfew bells were also sounded. William I had one rung to warn all men to put out their lights at 8 pm and to rest, although this was later abolished by Henry I in 1100. It is said that the ringing of a bell told sightseers at "Bedlam" (the Hospital of St Mary of Bethelem which was at Bishopsgate, London, until 1815) that the inmates of the asylum could be seen. Visiting an asylum to watch the antics of its inmates was a recognised form of entertainment.
Small bells attached to certain public clocks gave free entertainment. These performing clocks go largely unnoticed. Few have time to watch the giant wooden figures (known as "jacks") on the Church of St Dunstan-in-the-West, in London's Fleet Street, strike the quarter hours. The same is true for the Grenadier at Wimborne Minster, the contest of the two Knights at Wells and the two soldiers on Carfax Tower in Oxford.
When bells are mentioned, one tends to think of those which hang in churches, rather than those found elsewhere. Church bells, the bitter-sweet sound of just one or the majesty of a whole peal, have been mentioned in poetry and song. They have become part of the English heritage. A visitor to a church may have seen a band of ringers pulling the ropes, the bells and their inscriptions or the peal boards on the walls, and have become curious about this ancient English tradition. It is for the curious that this account has been written.
Types of bell
Tubular Bells consist of metal tubes, of various lengths, mounted on a frame. To produce a sound they are struck by hammers. Many orchestras have a small set in their percussion section. St Barnabas Church, Oxford has ten and the Aldershot Garrison Church has twelve.
Bar Bells are solid metal bars which are struck by hammers. Allerton-Bywater, Yorkshire has eight of these.
Hemispherical Bells look like one half of a hollow, metal ball. Although few exist, Portland Chapel, St Marylebone, has five and St George's, Tufnell Park, has eight.
Note that a church bellringer would not regard any of the above as being true bells at all.
Handbells are small and cup-shaped, usually of brass and having leather handles, which can be held in the hand and sounded by moving the arms or flicking the wrist. The first known bells were of this type.
In early days, handbells had many uses - in ringing for the dead to keep evil spirits away; by the Egyptians at the festival of Isis; by the Romans to announce the hour of bathing, the opening of markets and at the head of a funeral procession to warn their priests so that they would not be "defiled" by coming into contact with the dead; by the Greeks in their camps; by wandering preachers to call their congregations together; by Christians at their funerals; and by prison warders as a criminal was taken to his place of execution.
Handbells have been known in Britain for hundreds of years. They were rung from the top of the Round Tower of Brechin Cathedral in Angus, Scotland, to call people to worship. This tower dates from 1000 AD. They reached the height of their popularity in the reign of Queen Victoria and were played in her presence on many occasions at Osborne House (Isle of Wight) and at Windsor. In 1848, a Lancashire team rang at the French court and in Spain.
Today, handbells are used for change ringing and for playing tunes. In change ringing, each person has one or two bells, while in tune ringing, each may have two or more. The tunes vary in complexity, with the most usual ones being of popular carols, often played in several parts. At the time of writing, one of the better known groups or "bands" is that of the Launton Handbell Ringers near Bicester in Oxfordshire.
Church Bells When bells are mentioned, most English people think of those of a church, which are cup-shaped and hang in cotes, turrets, campaniles or towers. A campanile is a detached bell-tower and their first mention was in 6th century AD Italy. The most famous are St Mark's in Venice and Gioltos in Florence. The best known campanile in England is at the Loughborough bell foundry.
Church bells are mounted in a strong frame made of wood, iron or steel. They are sounded by ropes or by mechanical means. Those of East Bergholt are hung in a cage, in the churchyard, and sounded by hand.
Foreign Bells Most of the bells to be found in Britain have been made here. Some, however, originated elsewhere in the world. Lye in Worcestershire has a 3.5 cwt (20 cwt is 1 imperial ton) ring of eight which were made in Belgium. Eight French bells (25 cwt) are found at Leigh-on-Sea Roman Catholic Church. Thirteen American bells are at the "Auld Kirk" in Falkirk and Pinner Hill House, Middlesex, has five Russian ones. In addition, some Scottish churches contain a single Dutch bell.
Carillons A Carillon is not a type of bell, but a set of fixed bells. The hammers are attached to a keyboard which is played by one man (a carillonneur) who wears leather gloves because of the great pressure required to push the keys. On a carillon, which might have as many as seventy-five different notes, a variety of tunes (folk, classical or religious) may be played.
They are found in many countries. Belgium (the home of the carillon), Holland and Northern France are well known for theirs. The most famous is probably that at Bruges in Belgium. Britain has few, although many churches have apparatus for chiming simple tunes. St Nicholas Church in Aberdeen has the heaviest British carillon, the largest of its 48 bells weighing 89 cwt. Eaton Hall has 28 Belgian bells, with the heaviest at 48 cwt. One of the best known in the UK is at Bournville School, Bournville Village, Birmingham. This plays 48 notes, the largest being 64 cwt. It is heard by 100,000 people a year when they visit Cadbury Brothers Ltd.
Carillons have existed in Britain since 1698 at least. It is known that St Giles, Edinburgh, had a 23 note carillon at that time. It was probably removed by about 1900, because St Giles had eight steel bells installed shortly after.
The hanging of bells in British churches spread quickly. The Venerable Bede (c. 673-735) tells us of one imported from Italy by Benedict Biscop, Abbot of Wearmouth, to hang in his abbey. Bede also mentions the bell which was hung in Whitby Abbey in 680. These two instances show that at least one was being hung in some abbey churches.
By 750, they were sufficiently common for Egbert, Archbishop of York, to order all priests to toll their bell at certain times. More than one was being hung by 930. Abbot Tucketul hung bells at Croyland (or Crowland) Abbey in 930. By 960 these had been increased to a peal of seven, each having a name, the tenor bearing the name of the patron saint of the abbey. St Dunstan (Abbot of Glastonbury, Bishop of Worcester, Bishop of London and Archbishop of Canterbury) hung bells in all churches under his care (in about 954) and gave rules for their use. In 960, St Ethelwold (Abbot of Abingdon and Bishop of Winchester), hung them in the restored Abbey Church at Abingdon. Oseney Abbey in Oxford had a named peal of six by the early 1300's. It is possible that the huge clock bell, Great Tom (also called Old or Mighty Tom), which today hangs in Tom Tower, Oxford, was at Oseney Abbey too. St Chad's of Claughton in Lancashire has the oldest dated bell of 1296. It is sixteen inches high and has a diameter of twenty one inches at the mouth.
The first in England were probably quadrangular or wedge-shaped - broad and square at the mouth, rising to a ridge at the crown. St Ninian's and St Patrick's bells (of 465) are examples. The shape and size altered much between the 5th and 13th centuries. Mediaeval bells were longer and narrower (more cylindrical) than present day examples. Most of the ancient bells (ie. cast before 1535) were lost when Henry VIII's minister and vicar, General Thomas Cromwell, dissolved the monasteries and abbeys between 1536 and 1540. Waltham Abbey was the last to surrender, in March 1540, and most of its bells were melted down to obtain their metal. Great Tom, a pre-Reformation bell (the Reformation being c. 1515), was removed from an abbey (probably Oseney) and taken to Christ Church College in Oxford, at the command of Henry VIII. Great Tom was re-cast in 1680 and was the largest (147 cwt) in England at that time.
The largest in England today is Great Paul in St Paul's, London, which weighs 334 cwt or 16.7 tons. Big Ben is 13.5 tons. The heaviest full-circle ringing bell, at 4.1 tons, is the tenor at Liverpool Cathedral. The last bell of note cast in England was the 21 cwt Festival Bell, which was made for the South Bank Exhibition in 1951. Its casting was shown on TV and it now hangs in Kelvedon Church in Essex.
As monastic houses and churches increased in number, bellfounding fell into the hands of a professional class. The first of this class worked for the local abbey and cast bells for churches owned by the abbey. Later, members worked for themselves and sometimes had another trade as well. The first known founders outside the church were Master John (1229) and Master Thomas (1333) of Lynn in Norfolk. In the 14th century, York, Gloucester, Nottingham and London became the chief centres for bellfounding. Later in time, local foundries came into existence - Henry Knight of Reading and Richard Keene of Woodstock are examples. Many of the early founders wandered the countryside casting bells where they were required. They were made in churchyards (eg. Empingham) and in the church itself (eg. Haddenham). One of the more famous of these founders was Richard Merston.
When bellringing was in its infancy, many founders were required to meet the demand for bells. At first churches had one, two or three bells. As bellringing grew, these rings were augmented to four, five, six or even eight, thus making change ringing possible. The introduction of change ringing caused many churches to have their bells re-cast or replaced by ones tuned to the notes of a major scale. Before the advent of change ringing, bells were swung through part of a circle and sounded at random, as they are on the continent today, instead of evenly and rhythmically. Random sounding did not require perfect tuning.
Only two of the large number of bellfounders who once practised their craft have now survived - Taylors of Loughborough (established in 1400 in Freehold Street) and Mears and Stainbank of Croydon (the Whitechapel Foundry, established in 1570). These two did casting for churches in both Britain and overseas.
A perforated cast iron case, called a cope, is placed mouth upwards and lined with the clay. The clay is then formed to the shape of the exterior of the bell using another template. An inscription may then be added. The clay is dried hard and lowered over the core. The cope is secured in position, with great precision, to prevent one side being thicker than the other. The mould is next placed upside-down in a pit. Then the metal is made. Copper is melted and tin added. The metal is poured carefully and slowly into the mould. It is left to cool and become solid. The cope is removed and the bell is hoisted from the core. It is hung temporarily so that its tone can be tested. A cast iron clapper, which has been made carefully to certain specifications, is later fitted inside. A clapper which is too heavy will destroy the tone and may crack the bell, while a clapper which is too light will fail to bring out the fullness and richness of the tone.
After casting, the bell is tuned and tested. If all is well, it is taken to the place in which it is to be hung, ready for use. Later it is consecrated and is ready to be rung to the glory of God. Sometimes whole rings are consecrated together.
Others have the name of the founder, the donor, a very simple inscription or a date. One at St Mary the Virgin, Oxford, has an inscription which reads "Be yt knowne to all that doth me see, that Newcombe of Leicester made me, 1612". Another at St Nicholas Church, Marston is inscribed "John Taylor, Loughborough, 1823". Leeds has one inscribed "Re-cast as the gift of Clorinda Woodhouse in memory of her parents Edwin and Charlotte Woodhouse of Leeds 1932".
At one time, a bell was tuned by the chipping away of metal from the mouth. Today it is cast "sharp", and then tuned down in frequency by a lathe to remove metal from the inside, making its internal profile larger and thus lowering the note. Modern bells are more tuneful and more pleasant than older ones. This may be due to the alteration in shape and to the method of modern tuning, as pioneered by Taylors.
Using a lathe gives control over the harmonic tones. These include the:
- hum (lowest) note;
- fundamental / prime / struck note - one octave above the hum (twice the hum note);
- minor 3rd (tierce) interval (three semitones) above the fundamental;
- fifth (quint) interval (seven semitones) above the fundamental (3 times the hum note);
- nominal - one octave above the fundamental or 4 times the frequency of the hum.
Hum D0 · Prime D1 · Tierce F1 · Quint A1 · Nominal D2
The fact that the fundamental is an octave higher than the hum (the lowest note) is due to the complex mode of vibration within. The hum persists for longer than the other tones and may be heard for some time after striking. Here is an example of the eight bells of Kidlington in Oxfordshire, after ringing down, chiming in the order 1, 3, 5, 7, 2, 4, 6, 8. This sequence is known as Queens. For how long you can hear the tenor's hum note continue?
|Listen to the bells of
Kidlington chiming Queens
An explanation of the tuning of church bells, and of musical temperament in general, can be found on Nigel Taylor's website (this link is unfortunately now dead), the head tuner at the Whitechapel Bell Foundry in London.
Growth and organisation
In 1667, Fabian Stedman of Cambridge published his "Tintinnalogia", which he dedicated to the Ancient Society of College Youths. In this book, Stedman outlines his famous principle for five bells, the Stedman Principle, which he invented in 1657. To Stedman is owed that complex system of changes which makes a "peal". Because of this, Stedman is called "The Father of Modern Bellringing". The oldest system of change ringing is Grandsire Doubles (formerly Grandsire Bob), which is rung on five bells. From these two, Grandsire and Stedman, change ringing on five evolved. Later on, change ringing was extended to a greater number of bells.
The late 17th and early 18th centuries saw the lowering of change ringing in social esteem. Some belfries and their ringers, neglected by the church authorities, became notorious. In spite of efforts by reputable societies, matters became worse. Belfries became the meeting place of the village riff-raff, who indulged in heavy drinking and riotous behaviour. Some towers were closed by the incumbents, but the ringers often broke into the belfries to ring or drink. History tells of many a scuffle between the incumbents and the ringers. Some incumbents, who had learned to ring, dismissed the ringers and started bands of their own. In this way, the incumbent gained control. At first the ringers were allowed to practise only, but later were allowed to ring for Sunday service.
At the end of the 19th century, a great revival resulted in the formation of diocesan and county associations for the promotion of ringing. These had rules which controlled the behaviour of members and misbehaviour became a thing of the past. The associations set up a body (to which each association sent representatives) known as the Central Council, which was to govern ringing as a whole. Both priests and laymen could become members of the council and its associations. Matters which affected church ringing were talked over between the two and agreement was reached.
Diocesan and county associations are self-governing, although they have agreed to observe the decisions of the Central Council. Each association differs a little from the next, but in general, they have a patron or president, a master, a secretary, a treasurer and a committee of representatives of the individual branches (which make up the association). Branches have a chairman, secretary, treasurer and a ringing master (who controls the ringing at branch meetings). Several towers make up a branch and each tower has a captain or foreman, elected by the ringers with the approval of the incumbent. Towers also have a secretary and a tower keeper, whose job it is to look after the bells and the tower.
Members are elected to the association at branch meetings. Membership consists of two types - resident and non-resident. Non-resident membership is for those outside the boundaries of the association. Non-resident members may be elected at branch meetings or before peals. This type of membership encourages progress in ringing due to the fellowship it invokes.
The associations have brought together men and women, of all ages and from all walks of life (whether religious or not), into a wonderful fellowship. No matter where a ringer goes, he is assured of a cordial welcome by others. This companionship is fostered by the regular meeting of members at branch and association events. These may take the form of ringing followed by a service, tea, the meeting, and finally ringing again. Sometimes ringing is followed by a social evening. Some branches and towers organise ringing tours of the countryside, visiting other towers and meeting ringers from outside their own area. Apart from ringing, some arrange visits to theatres, cricket or tennis matches, trips on the river, and many other activities to foster a spirit of comradeship amongst members.
Chiming and ringing
The process of full-circle ringing is illustrated by the animations above from the Oxford University Society's website [OUS]. It is possible to follow the flight of the clapper in the slower animation to the right. To ensure that the bell does not swing completely over while the ringer rests, a piece of wood (usually of ash and known as the stay) projects vertically from the headstock (at the closed end) of the bell, and rests against another piece of wood (known as the slider). The slider is pivoted on the frame below. The free end of the slider moves between two blocks (note that the stay and the slider are not shown in the animation). When the bell is at rest, with its mouth pointing upwards, it is said to "stand" or to be "set".
In ringing, each pull of the bell rope causes it to swing in an almost complete circle, altering the length of rope in the ringer's hands. It is set, usually at "handstroke", when the hands are holding the coloured, tufted part of the rope (known as the "sallie" or "sally"), which is some four feet from the end of the rope. At "backstroke" the hands hold the end of the rope only, since some of the rope has coiled around the wheel which is attached to the bell (thus the sally has moved upwards, beyond reach). Little "brute" strength is required once the art of ringing has been mastered.
When change ringing has completed, it is usual practice to ring down. As the arc through which each bell's swing decreases, its striking speed increases and it becomes more difficult to control. Towards the end, however, the clapper begins to chime on just one side of the bell, and so the striking suddenly slows down and becomes louder. It is usually then possible to give a final chime, in any order, chosen by the person who is leading-down from the treble. In the recording, this final chime is again rounds (1, 2, 3, 4, 5 then 6).
Learning to ring
|Even-bell methods||Odd-bell methods|
In odd-bell methods, the tenor (lowest note) is rung last, and remains in that position while the others are changing before it. This is because bells are usually hung in even numbers and the only odd-bell towers are those having five or fewer. So that ringers can recognise individual members of the family, the methods in each group have "Christian" names. Grandsire, Canterbury and Beverley are examples. Oxford Doubles and Marston Doubles both belong to the same family, but ringers know which one to ring by their Christian name.
A peal consists of one or more methods containing at least 5000 changes in total. They must be rung, one after another, without pause. With fewer than seven bells in the peal, some of the changes must be repeated, because their possible number is less than 5000 (see the table above). However, for seven or more bells, the peal is not considered valid if just one change is repeated (though it will always begin and end with rounds). Similarly, a quarter peal comprises at least 1250 changes. The time taken to ring a peal (about 160 minutes) or a quarter peal (about 40 minutes) depends upon the weight and the ease with which the bells run. In general, the heavier the bells, the longer it takes.
More information may be found at Wikipedia.
Editor's note For odd-numbered methods, the Family Name or Stage Name is derived from the number of pairs of bells which can change from one row to the next. Therefore, in Singles, only a single pair can change at a time. The remaining bell must therefore keep its place. It may, of course, change with its neighbour the next time. Plain hunt on three or fewer allows all possible changes to be sounded. This is not true for higher numbers. The name Caters is derived from the French word for four (quatre). Similarly, Cinques (pronounced Sinks) is from the French number cinque (five). For Sextuples, six pairs can change while one remains stationary. This numbering convention is retained for higher numbers (Septuples, Octuples, Nonuples, Decuples, Undecuples & etc.). Caters and Cinques are therefore the odd ones out, in that they do not use the normal Latin names. In the case of even-numbered methods, with two or more than 12 bells, the name is merely their number (e.g. 2, 14, 16 & etc.). The remaining names are shown in the table above.
The standard of ringing is rising steadily. What was thought to be a good standard some years ago is no longer so. Since the 1939-1945 War, the number of ringers has increased rapidly. The number of young ringers is, at the time of writing, greater than it has ever been. Bellringing was once thought to be a man's prerogative, but the number of lady ringers has increased quickly. In some cases, a tower is completely "manned" by ladies, and in other cases the band consists of more ladies than men. Girls seem to be more interested in ringing than boys. If the present trend continues, the majority of the ringers in the future may be ladies! [Editor's note: this trend did not continue]