The Church Bells of the City of London

Bells and Their Associations
(from Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, March 27th, 1858)

This article is reproduced from Frank Leslies Illustrated Newspaper, 27th March 1858,
from the copy in the ASCY archives.

"Ringing the old year out and the new one in" at Cripplegate Church, London.

We have all the familiar sound of bells ringing in our memory - some joyful, some melancholy, and others associated with stirring events. Their tones reach us everywhere - across hayfields and clover meadows, from the belfries of quiet country churches, and pealing, like a voice of warning, from the steeples of our crowded cities.

Their effect is beautifully described by Stephens, in his “Incidents of Travel". He mentions the bells of Moscow as follows: “To one who a long time had been a stranger to the sound of the ‘church-going bell’, few things could be more interesting than a Sunday at Moscow. Anyone who has rambled along the maritime Alps, and has heard from some lofty eminence the convent bell ringing for matins, vespers and midnight prayers, will long remember the not unpleasing sounds. To me there is always something touching in the Bound of the church bell; in itself pleasing, by its effect upon the sense, but far more so in its associations. And these feelings were exceedingly fresh when I awoke on Sunday in the holy city of Moscow. In Greece and Turkey there are no bells; in Russia they are almost innumerable; but this was the first time I had happened to pass the Sabbath in the city. I lay and listened, almost fearing to move, lest I should lose the sounds; thoughts of home came over me - of the day of rest - of the gathering for church, and the greeting of friends at the church door. But he who has never heard the ringing of bells at Moscow does not know its music. Imagine a city containing more than six hundred churches and innumerable convents, all with bells, and these all sounding together, from the sharp, quick hammer note to the loudest, deepest peals that ever lingered on the ear, struck at long intervals, and swelling on the air as if unwilling to die away!"

The history of bells dates back to the Anglo-Saxon times, when the far-famed curfew was wont to be tolled in the shadows of dark old abbeys, among the carved effigies of stem old warriors, and was the signal for travellers to hasten home, and for lights and fires to be extinguished on every surrounding hearthstone. We have a legend, also, that in the year 610, during the reign of Clothaire II, King of France, that king's army was terrified from the siege of the city of Sens by ringing the bells of St. Stephen's church,

It is an old English custom to ring the bells for persons just expired. This passing bell "was for two purposes - to bespeak the prayers of all good Christians for a soul just departing, and to drive away the evil spirits who were supposed to stand at the bed's foot. It was fancied that all demons had an especial dislike and horror of bells, The custom of ringing bells at the approach of a thunder-storm is of great antiquity, but the design was not so much to shake the air and so dissipate the thunder, as to call the people to church, to pray that the parish might be preserved from the terrible effects of lightning,

Some of the epigrams or legends inscribed on bells are most singular and curious. It is said that at St, Michael's, Coventry, one is inscribed;

"l ring at six to let men know
When to and from their work to go!

And on another are the lines,

“I ring to sermon, with a lusty tone,
That all may come, and none can stay at home!

At St. Peter's, in Oxford, a large bell was put up in 1792, bearing the inscription

“With seven more I hope soon to be
For ages joined in harmony!"

But unfortunately this very reasonable and proper wish has not yet been realised, and to this day the old bell peals in solitude.

A famous bell called “Tom of Westminster " formerly hung in a strong clock tower opposite the great door of Westminster Hall. About the beginning of the last century it was granted to St. Paul's, whither it was removed, and stood under a shed, in the churchyard, many years before the steeple was cleared of the scaffolding and fitted for such an ornament. Its enormous clapper was broken by announcing the death of the Princess Dowager of Wales, Feb. 8th, 1772, and a new one, weighing one hundred and eighty-six pounds, was placed in its stead, and used at her funeral.

It was formerly the custom to baptise or christen bells, but there are only two bells in England that are known by their Christian names - and both rejoice in the appellation of “Tom” - the famous “Westminster Tom" and “Great Tom of Oxford”. The latter, however, was originally christened Mary during the reign of the bloody Queen of that name. The ceremony was performed by Fresham, the Vice-chancellor, and in its first summoning lines to mass, he is reported to have exclaimed, “Oh! beautiful Mary! how musically she sounds! how strangely she pleaseth my ear!"

But another incident that happened to this “beautiful Mary” who lost her individuality in the more common name of Tom, is recorded. It occurred in March, 1806, and was described as follows in a letter of that time: “An odd thing happened to-day about half past four. ‘Tom' suddenly went mad. He began striking as fast as he could about twenty times. Everybody ran out, doubting whether there was an earthquake, or whether the Dean was dead, or the college on fire. However, nothing was the matter but that Tom was taken ill – in other words something had happened to the works, but it was not of any serious consequence.”

We can all remember the nursery tale of what the bells said to Dick Whittington, and their prophetic import, and it is said that another important question was referred to these same arbiters by a certain father-confessor in the Netherlands, when consulted by a buxom widow on this perilous question, whether she should marry a second husband, or continue in single blessedness. The prudent priest deemed it too delicate a point for him to decide, so he directed her to attend to the bells of her church when next they chimed (they were but three in number), and bring him word what she thought they said. He also exhorted her to pray in the meantime to understand them rightly, and he, on his part, would pray for her. She listened with mouth and ears the first time that the bells struck up, and the more she listened the more plainly they said “Nempt enn man! Nempt een man!” Take a spouse! Take a spouse!

“Ay, daughter,” said the confessor, when she returned to him with her report, “if the bells have said so, so say I!” and the widow got married straightaway.

The pleasantest and most melodious of all the famous London chimes are those of Cripplegate church, where repose the immortal ashes of Milton, who, during his lifetime, had often listened to their delicious sounds. At this church the good old custom still prevails of “ringing the old year out and the new year in,” and our engraving is an excellent representation of the scene in the belfry towards midnight of the last day of the year. The sturdy bellringers, cheered by any quantity of foaming ale, work vigorously at their occupation, while the flicker of a circular row of candles illumes the dark arches and niches where sit their companions in the festive labor.

N.P. Willis relates an affecting story of the music of church bells. “The chimes of a church in Italy were made by a young Italian artisan, and were his heart’s pride. They had become famous all over Europe for their peculiar sweetness and solemnity, but during the war the place was sacked, and the bells carted off. After the tumult was over, the poor fellow returned to his work, but the solace of his life was gone. At length he left his home, determined to wander over the world and hear them once again before he died. He went from land to land, till the hope that sustained him began to falter, and he knew at last that he was dying. He lay one evening in a boat that was slowly floating down the Rhine, almost insensible, and scarce expected to see the sun rise again that was setting so gloriously over the vine-covered hills of Germany. Presently the vesper bells of a distant village began to ring, and as the chimes stole faintly over the river, he started from his lethargy. He was not mistaken; it was the deep solemn music of his own bells, and the sounds he had thirsted for years to hear, were melting over the water. He leaned from the boat with his ear close to the calm surface of the river, and listened. They rung out their hymn and ceased, and he still lay motionless in his painful posture. His companions spoke to him but he gave no answer; his spirit had followed the last sound of his vesper chimes!”