Church Bells


Bell History & Methods of Casting
The origin of the Bell as an instrument of Music is, one may almost say, lost in Antiquity. Its use is, moreover, widely spread over the whole World.  We trace its history & uses in the Christian Church, and more particularly in the Church of England.

The word “Bell” is said to be connected with “bellow” and “bleat” and to refer to its sound; the later Latin Writers call it, among other names, Campana, a word with which we are familiar, not only as frequently occurring in old Bell Inscriptions, but as forming part of the word “Campanalogy,” or the Science of Bell-ringing.  The French & Germans, again, call it clocheglocke respectively, the words being the same as our “clock”; but that is a later use, and they really mean “cloak,” with reference to the Shape of the Bell, or rather of the Mould in which it is Cast.  Modern Bell-Founders, it is interesting to note, speak of the Mould as the Cope, which again suggests a connection with the form of a Garment.

It is not known exactly when Bells were introduced into the Christian Church; but it is certain that large Bells of the form with which we are familiar were not invented until after some Centuries of Christianity. The small and often clandestine Congregations of the Ages of Persecution needed no audible signal to call them together; but with the advent of peaceful times, and the growth of the Congregations, some method of summons doubtless came to be considered necessary. Their Invention is sometimes ascribed to Paulinus, Bishop of Nola, in Italy, about AD400; sometimes to Pope Sabinianus (AD604), the successor of Gregory the Great.  At all events, from the beginning of the 7th-century notices of Bells of some size become frequent. The Venerable Bede in 680 brought a Bell from Italy to place in his Abbey at Wearmouth and mentions one as being then used at Whitby Abbey.  About 750, we read that Egbert, Archbishop of York, ordered the Priests to Toll Bells at the appointed hours. Ingulphus, the Chronicler of Croyland Abbey, mentions that a Peal of 7 Bells was put up there in the 10th century and that there was not such a harmonious Peal in the whole of England; which implies that Rings of Bells were then Common.  If any doubt on the matter still remained, it would be dispelled by the existence to this day of some 100 Church Towers dating from the Saxon Period, and evidently, by their size & construction, intended to hold Rings of Bells.

“Rings of Bells” that is a more correct term than “peal,” which refers to the sound they make – but it must be remembered that in those days bells were not rung as in modern times. At best they were “chimed,” i.e., sounded without being rung up; but change-ringing, which implies the full swinging round of the Bell through a complete Circle, so that the Clapper strikes Twice in each Revolution, was only introduced in the 17th century, and moreover has always been peculiar to this Country.

With one or 2 exceptions, Bells did not begin to bear Inscriptions until the 14thC, and even then we do not find dates upon them. The only early-dated Bells in England are at Claughton, in Lancashire (1296), and Cold Ashby, Northants (1317). There are, however, here and there Bells of a peculiar shape which it is possible to assign to a period previous to the 14th century. They are long and cylindrical in form, with hemispherical or square heads, and usually very unpleasing in tone, as the straight sides check vibration. One such Bell, formerly in Worcester Cathedral, and now in the possession of Lord Amherst of Hackney, must belong to the Ring put up by Bishop Blois in 1220 in honour of our Lord and His Mother. Even more remarkable is a Bell at Caversfield in Oxfordshire, dedicated “in honour of S Lawrence,” a long inscription on the edge showing that it was given by Hugh Gargate, Lord of the Manor in the Reign of King John (about 1210), and Sybilla his wife. Such an inscription is very rare at this early date; and it is interesting to note that it is in plain Roman or Saxon Capital Letters, whereas all the later inscribed Bells have what is known as Gothic or Lombardic letters, which came in about the end of the 13thC. Most counties possess examples of these long, narrow Bells; they are especially common in Shropshire & Northumberland.

The earliest Bells were probably not Cast, but made of metal plates riveted together, like the modern Cow-bell.  Not a few Bells of this kind have been unearthed at different times, but they are all mere hand-bells of very remote date, i.e., before the Norman Conquest, and the process of casting must have been introduced in very early times into England.

Bell-metal is a compound of Copper & Tin, in varying proportions, but usually 3 to 4 parts of copper to one part of tin. The former metal adds strength and tenacity to the bell, the latter brings out its tone. The popular superstition that Silver improves the tone of Bells is not only entirely baseless but in point of fact, it has just the opposite effect! The numerous stories which are current, of silver being thrown into Bells at their Casting, of which Great Tom of Lincoln is an example, must therefore be discredited. In recent years Steel Bells have been made by one English firm, but they are only one degree less objectionable than the tubes of metal which are sometimes also dignified by the name.

The process of Casting a Bell, as employed both by ancient and modern Founders, may be described somewhat as follows:-
The 1st business is the construction of the Core, a hollow cone of Brick somewhat smaller than the inner diameter of the intended Bell, over which is plastered a specially-prepared mixture of Clay, bringing it up to the exact size and shape of the interior of the Bell. This was usually modelled with the aid of a wooden “crook,” something like a pair of Compasses; but is now done with an Iron Framework called a “sweep,” which revolves on a pivot and moulds the core by means of metal blades.  This Clay mould is then Baked hard by means of a fire lighted within it. The next Stage was the construction of the Cope or outer casing of the Mould, which used to be also made in hard Clay, its inner surface following the outer shape and dimensions of the Bell.  The “thickness” of the Bell itself, i.e., the part to be occupied by the molten metal, was formed in a friable composition which was laid over the Core and then destroyed.  In modern times the “thickness” has been dispensed with, the Cope being formed by lining a casing of Cast Iron with Clay shaped to the external Form & Dimensions of the Bell. The Mould is now complete, except for providing for the Cannons or metal Loops which attach the Bell to the Stock, and the Loop to which the Clapper is suspended inside.  Every care having been taken to adjust the respective positions of the Cope & Core with exactness, the molten metal is then poured in through an opening, and left to cool, after which the Bell comes out completely. The process is analogous to that known as cire perdu, employed by Sculptors for the casting of Bronze Statues.

Inscriptions & Ornaments are produced in relief on the Bell from Stamps, also in relief, which are pressed into the Mould, making a hollow impression in it.  Copies of coins were often produced in this way by the older Founders. Down to about the end of the 17thC each letter, or sometimes each word, was placed on a separate patera or Tablet of metal.  The usual place for the Inscription is just below the “shoulder”-angle; but modern Founders prefer the middle or “waist.”

The English Bell-founders
In early Mediaeval Times, it is probable that Bell-founding was largely the work of the Monastic Orders. It was regarded rather as a fine Art than a Trade, and Ecclesiastics seem to have vied in producing the most ingenious and recondite Latin rhyming verses to adorn their Bells.  St Dunstan, whose skill as a Smith is familiar to all, is known to have been instrumental in Hanging, if not in Casting Bells; and at Canterbury, he gave careful directions for their correct use.  St Ethelwold, Bishop of Winchester 963–984, Cast Bells for Abingdon Abbey.  In the Museum at York, there is a Mortar of Bell-metal Cast by Friar William de Towthorpe, with the date 1308; but this belongs to later times when a class of Professional Founders had sprung up and is therefore exceptional. We read, however, of Sir William Corvehill, a Monk of Wenlock Priory, who died shortly after its dissolution, in 1546, that he “could make Organs, Clocks, & Chimes,” and was “a good Bell-founder and maker of the Frames for Bells.” It has not been possible to trace his work in any existing Bells.

Inner Moulds or Cores for Casting a Ring of 8 Bells

The 1st London Founders of note were a Family of the name of Wymbish, residing in Aldgate, which was always the Bell-founders’ Quarter, as the still existing name of Billiter (or Belleyetere) Street implies. There were 3 Wymbishes – Richard, Michael, & Walter – covering the period 1290–1310. Richard Cast Bells for the neighbouring Priory of the Holy Trinity, and has left his name at Goring, in Oxfordshire, and on other Bells in Essex, Kent, Northants, & Suffolk; Michael cast 5 Bells still remaining in Bucks; and Walter, one in Sussex.  Other important Founders of this Century are Peter de Weston, William Revel, & William Burford.  John & William Rufford, who may have had their Foundry at Bedford, were known as “Royal Bell-founders,” and placed upon their Bells the Heads of the Reigning King, Edward III, and his Consort, Philippa. These Stamps have a very curious history; and were successively the property of Founders at King’s Lynn, Worcester, Leicester, & Nottingham. At the latter place, they remained in use from about 1400 down to the end of the 18thC; and their last appearance is in 1806, on a Bell at Waltham Abbey, cast by Briant of Hertford.

Outer Moulds or Copes for Casting a Ring of 8 Bells

Between 1370 & 1385 there was a Founder in Kent whose name was Stephen Norton; he used very richly-ornamented letters, which may be seen on one of the old Bells of Worcester Cathedral, Cast by him when the Tower was rebuilt. The other principal Foundries of this century were at King’s Lynn, Gloucester, & York.

Inner & Outer Moulds clamped together; molten metal is poured through an Aperture at the Top

The Gloucester Foundry was successively in the hands of “Sandre of Gloucester” (1300–1320) and “Master John of Gloucester” (1340–1350). The latter’s reputation apparently extended to East Anglia, as in 1347 he was commissioned to cast 6 new Bells for the Cathedral at Ely, which were conveyed thither from Northampton by way of the Nene & Ouse. The largest Bell, called “Iesvs,” weighed nearly 2 tons, and the 4th was named “Walsingham,” after the famous Prior Alan who constructed the central Octagon of the Cathedral.

Finished Ring

Of the York Founders, the most famous is Richard Tunnoc, commemorated in the remarkable “Bell-founder’s window” already described. He was MP for the City in 1327, and died in 1330. The names of other known Founders of this City extend from Johannes de Copgrave, in 1150, down to the time of the Reformation. A Bell at Scawton, in the North Riding, has been thought to be the work of Copgrave, and, if so, is by far the earliest existing Church Bell in England, if not in Europe.

14thC Bell

In the 15thC (with which we may include the whole period down to the Reformation) the Bell-foundries increase not only in importance but in numbers; and those already mentioned find rivals springing up at Reading, Wokingham, Exeter, Bristol, Leicester, Norwich, Nottingham, Bury St. Edmunds, Salisbury, & Worcester. The character of the inscriptions now changes, and in most cases (though not invariably) we find “black-letter smalls,” with Initial Capitals, substituted for the old Gothic Capitals used throughout. There is also a great increase in the number and variety of the crosses and other Ornamental Devices used by the Founders, and many introduce Foundry-shields or Trade-marks, with quasi-Heraldic or punning devices.

The London Foundries, however, still maintain their place at the head of the Craft, and their Bells are found all over England from Northumberland to Cornwall. Two Founders of the 15thC, Henry Jordan & John Danyell, whose date is about 1450–1470, Cast between them about 200 Bells still existing. These are adorned with some beautiful and ingenious devices, such as an elegant Cross surrounded by the words ihu merci ladi help and the Royal Arms surmounted by a Crown.  Jordan’s Foundry-shield bears, among other devices, a Bell and a Laver-pot as symbolical of his Trade, and a Dolphin with reference to his Membership of the Fishmongers’ Company.  Another remarkable device is that used by William Culverden (1510–1523), with a rebus on his name (culver = “pigeon”). Thomas Bullisdon is remarkable as having cast a Ring of 5 Bells for the Priory of S Bartholomew in Smithfield about 1510, all of which still exist there.

To tell of the Works of Roger Landen of Wokingham, Robert Hendley of Gloucester, John of Stafford (a Leicester Founder), Robert Norton of Exeter, or the Brasyers of Norwich, would require a volume.  The Brasyers seem to have been the most successful workers outside London, and no less than one 150 of their Bells still exist in Norfolk. Their Trade-mark was a Shield with 3 Bells and a Crown, which after the Reformation went to the Leicester Foundry, and some of their Inscriptions, in rhyming hexameters, are very beautiful.  A Bristol Founder of about 1450 used for his mark a Ship, the Badge of his native City.  The Bury Founders were also Gun-makers, and place on their Trade-mark a Bell and a Cannon, with the Crown & Crossed Arrows of S Edmund.

Very few Bells of this period are dated, but we find examples at Worcester, perhaps Cast by the Monks there, with the dates 1480 & 1482; and at Thirsk (1410), on a Bell which is said to have come from Fountains Abbey. There are also some Bells in Lincolnshire, dated 1423 & 1431, by an unknown Founder, but remarkable for the extraordinary beauty of the lettering.  Dated Mediaeval Bells are more commonly from Foreign sources, as at Baschurch, in Shropshire, where is a Dutch Bell by Jan van Venlo, dated 1447, which is said to have come from Valle Crucis Abbey.  At Whalley Abbey, in Lancashire, is a Belgian Bell of 1537, by Peter van den Ghein, and at Duncton, in Sussex, a French Bell dated 1369.

The period of the Reformation, down to about 1600, was, as has been said, “a really bad time for Bell-founders,” and several of the important Foundries, as at Bristol, Gloucester, and elsewhere, appear either to have been closed for a time or died out altogether. The chief cause of this was doubtless the Dissolution of the Monasteries, coupled with the operations of Edward VI’s Commissioners, large numbers of Bells being sold or converted into secular property. These were distributed among the Parish Churches, and many instances may be traced of 2nd-hand Bells still existing, as at Abberley, in Worcestershire, where there is an Ancient Bell from a Yorkshire Monastery. It should also be remembered that very little Church-building was done in the latter half of the century. On the other hand, the statement which has gained some currency, that the commissioners only left 1 Bell in each Parish Church, is not borne out by facts. Many Churches still possess 3 or even 4 Mediaeval Bells which must have hung untouched in their Towers before and since the Reign of Edward VI.

But this lapse in Bell-founding was not invariable; the Foundries at Leicester, Nottingham, Bury St. Edmunds, & Reading actually seem to have received a new Lease of Life, and 1560–1600 is almost their most flourishing Period. This is especially the case at Leicester, where a well-known Family named Newcombe were at work succeeded by an equally celebrated Founder named Hugh Watts, whose fine Bells were deservedly famous. At Nottingham we have the Dynasty of the Oldfields, lasting from 1550 to 1710; and at Reading a series of Founders of different names, ending in a succession of Knights down to 1700. The Hatches of Ulcombe, in Kent, were another prosperous Family, as were the Eldridges of Chertsey.


Their great Rivals of modern times, the Taylors of Loughborough, cannot emulate them in Antiquity, though they can still boast a respectable Pedigree, dating from Thomas Eayre of Kettering, in 1731. After moving to St Neots, Leicester, & Oxford, the Firm finally settled, about 1840, under John Taylor, at Loughborough, where his grandsons carried on the Business.

The Tuning of Bells
A vibrating Bell produces many frequencies of sound, each produced by a different vibrational mode of the Bell. Once a Bell has been Cast, the partial frequencies are tuned by removing metal in annular rings, usually from the inside.  The Bell can never be tuned up, it must be tuned down to the note as the act of shaving the metal from the inside of the Bell increases its volume thereby lowering the note of the Bell.  In fact, it is usually not possible to tune a single-partial (harmonic) in a Bell. The Bell-founder’s skill is needed to accurately bring the partials into tune with themselves, and the Bell in tune with others, because removing metal from one place inside the Bell affects more than one partial.  The basis of true-harmonic tuning is that the 5 lowest partials (the hum, prime, tierce, quint & nominal) should be related as simple musical intervals. This was a rediscovery of knowledge obtained by Bell-founders by rule of thumb. The Hemonys working in the 17thC could measure & tune partials to within 3 cents (100th of a Semitone) and tuned to true-harmonic principles. Some continental Bells from the 19thC are true-harmonic.  However, the tradition in the UK up to the end of the 19thC was to produce non-true harmonic (old-style) Bells.  Taylors, following visits abroad and a series of experiments, were the 1st UK Founders to adopt the Continental practice of true-harmonic tuning.  Although a Bell sound can contain many partials, the overall impression on the ear is often of a single pitch. This frequency (the strike note) often does not appear in the list of partials.  The frequencies of partials are usually determined by beating them against tuning forks, a frequency generator or stroboscopic discs – or sometimes nowadays, using an audio frequency spectrum analyser.

Using a Lathe, metal is shaved from inside the Bell at various points until the proper tuning is achieved.  The Bell Founder must Tune the 5 lowest Partials, at a minimum, to the standard of A3=440 vibrations per second.

Partial Interval Interval in Cents
Hum 2 Octaves below nominal -2400
Prime 1 Octave below nominal -1200
Tierce Minor third above Prime -900
Quint Perfect 5th above Prime -500
Nominal 0

Although the Profile & Tuning process works to intensify the Prime while subduing the Tierce (minor third), it is the Minor Third that gives Bells their beautiful, melancholy, plaintive & compelling sounds.

The Mears Bell shows typical old style tuning; a hum which is sharp (in this case by just over 1.5 semitones), a prime which is close, a tierce which is sharper than a minor third & a quint which is somewhat out from the theoretical.  Finally, note the many other partials for both Bells. A musical ear can probably hear several of the lowest 5 partials in a Bell, especially the hum, tierce & prime which often last for quite a while (many seconds) after the Bell has been struck.  Finally, the practical difficulties of re-tuning large numbers of partials, controlling their relative intensities, and an understandable reluctance to take metal off the outside of a Bell, is such that Bells depend as much on their profile as the work of the Tuner for their quality.  Analysis of Taylor Bells cast in the late 19thC suggests that they had already begun to change their profiles and the timbre of their Bells.