The Church Bells of the City of London

by John Timbs
(from The Illustrated London News, December 21st, 1850)

This article is reproduced from the Illustrated London News, Dec 21, 1850
from the copy in the ASCY archives.

The Bow-Bell Peal on Christmas Eve

Far and loud Bow’s stupendous bells resound. - POPE.

A vast amount of antiquarian pleasantry and amusing research have been expended upon the history and practice of Bell-ringing. It was once a favourite pastime with grave and learned men, though there are few of us who care to recollect our forefathers as bell-ringers. Still, Sir Symonds D'Ewes, who was lord of the manor of Lavenham, in Suffolk, and one of the most accomplished antiquaries of his time, was fond of bell-ringing; as was Sir Matthew Hale, Lord Chief Justice of the Common Pleas ; as was also the great Lord Burghley, Lord High Treasurer to Queen Elizabeth. Time, however, rings as many changes as bells themselves: our high functionaries no longer seek recreation from their official cares in bell-ringing; and Sir Frederick Pollock and Lord John Russell are not very likely to ascend into the belfry of Bow, to shake off the unusual weight of the Common Pleas, or the weightier cares of Downing Street, by ringing a Christmas peal.

We must not be tempted to stray among the poets for their love of bells, else it may be as difficult to stop as the peal itself. Nor do we feel disposed to meddle with the quœstio vexata - when bells ought to be rung. Certainly, they are sometimes rung on very strange occasions, as when a gentleman, become very unpopular, has been most unjustly defeated in a lawsuit; and when the Beer Shop Bill was passed. We agree with a writer in the "Parish Choir," that there can be no harm in ringing the bells in honour of any important public event, or the arrival of any distinguished personage, or of any other event at which a Christian may lawfully rejoice ; whilst to ring them for any party triumph, or for any malicious purpose is abominable. "Let me," says this intelligent correspondent, “express my regret at that lamentable want of Christian feeling in the public and amongst parochial authorities, of which the prevalent abuses in the ringing of church bells afford an example. The weddings of the rich are graced by their mercenary sounds, whilst those of their poorer brethren are unheeded; and any political triumph or secular anniversary is greeted with merriment, whilst the leading events of the Christian year are passed over, unhonoured." From this kindly Indignation must, however, be excepted CHRISTMAS, when, although much of the custom of profuse hospitality has passed away, this is yet universally recognised as a season when every Christian should show his gratitude to the Almighty, for the inestimable benefits procured to us by the Nativity of our Blessed Saviour, by an ample display of good will towards our fellow-men. And we do not know how this feeling can be better quickened than by a joyous peal of Bells, "the poor man's only music," "the mosaic of the air." Dr. Burney, the great authority on matters musical, has pointed out the innumerable rich and strange melodic passages that flit across one's ear in Iistening to a good peal of bells, which the writer in the "Parish Choir" cleverly compares to a musical kaleidoscope.

The writer just quoted, “John Clapper," remarks that anyone who walks from the City of London westward at night (say on Christmas Eve) cannot fall to notice how vastly more soft and silvery are the tones of the City bells than of the more modern ones. The peal named at the head of this paper are a harmonious exemplification of this fact; and their history is of curious celebrity.

"The Church of St. Mary-le-Bow, or Bow Church," in the words of old Stow, "for divers accidents happening there, hath been made more famous than any other parish church of the whole City or suburbs." If not originally a Roman temple, as was once believed, it was one of the earliest churches built by our Norman conquerors. It has been destroyed by storm and by fire; was at one time garrisoned and besieged, and was afterwards the scene of an assassination. Our present business is, however, specially with Bow Bells, of which the citizens of London have ever been proud; and it was from their extreme fondness for them in old times, that a genuine Cockney has ever been supposed to be born “within the sound of Bow Bells. According to Fynes Moryson, "the Londoners, and all within the sound of Bow Bells, are in reproach called Cockneys and eaters of buttered toasts." Beaumont and Fletcher speak of "Bow Bell suckers," i.e. as Mr. Dyce properly explains it, "children born within the sound of Bow Bells." Anthony Clod, a countryman, addressing Gettings, a citizen, in Shirley's "Contention for Honour and Riches," says, "Thou liest, and I am none of thy countryman: I was born out of the sound of your pancake bell," i.e. the Apprentices' Shrove Tuesday Bell, when pancakes were in request, as they still are, and the London apprentices held a riotous holiday.- (Cunningham's “Handbook of London.")

" In the year 1649 (says Stow), it was ordained by a Common Council that the Bow Bells should be nightly rung at nine of the clock. Shortly after, John Donne, mercer, by his testament, dated 1472, gave to the parson and churchwardens two tenements in Hosier-Iane (now Bow-lane) to the maintenance of Bow Bell, the same to be rung as aforesaid, and other things to be observed, as by the will appeareth. This Bell being usually rung somewhat late, as seemed to the young men, ‘prentices, and others in Cheap, they made and set up a rhyme against the clerk as followeth:-"

Clarke of the Bow bell, with the yellow lockes,
For thy Iate ringing thy head shall have knockes.

As well as the clerk's reply-

Children of Cheape, hold you all still,
For you shall have the Bow bell rung at your will.

William Copeland, churchwarden, either gave a new bell for this purpose, or caused the old one to be re-cast in 15l5 – Weever says the former."

This ringing of Bow Bell, observed to the present day, is a vestige of the Norman curfew. It is also observed at Charter House; St. George the Martyr, in Southwark; and in a few other parishes of the metropolis. At the same time that the order was given, In 1649, for the ringing of Bow Bells, lights were to he exhibited in the steeple during the night, to direct the traveller towards London. The Bells, Steeple, and Church all shared the common fate in the Great Fire of 1666. The tower is shown in the View of London, 1543 (in the Sutherland collection in the Bodlean Library, Oxford); it is somewhat lofty, has a central lantern or bell turret, and a pinnacle at each corner. The church was rebuilt by Sir Christopher Wren; and on the steeple being finished, in 1679, part of 400 paid by the City to the united parishes for the site of Allhallows Church and churchyard, on which to build the present Honey-lane Market; was appropriated to a set of bells; Dame Dyonis Wilkinson having given 2000 towards erecting and beautifying the steeple. The belfry was prepared for twelve bells, but only eight were placed: these got sadly out of order, and after various repairs it was reported, in 1739, that the Great Bell was cracked; however, the peal was made good at the expense of 290.

In 1758, a petition was presented to the vestry from several respectable citizens, setting forth that on all public occasions the Bells of Bow are particularly employed, that the tenor bell is the completest in Europe, but the other seven are very much inferior, and by no means suitable to the said tenor, "Your petitioners, therefore, request that they may be allowed, at their own expense, to re-cast the seven smaller bells, and to add two trebles." This the parishes permitted, after an examination of the steeple by Dance and Chambers, the two ablest architects of the day, who reported that "such additional weight, nor any weight that can be put upon the steeple, will have any greater effect than the number of bells now placed there." Accordingly, the set of ten bells was completed by subscription, and was first rung June 4, 1762, the anniversary of the birth of King George III,

The weight of the Bells is as follows :-

cwt. q. lb. cwt. q. lb.
1st 8 3 7 6th 17 0 11
2nd 9 2 0 7th 20 2 26
3rd 10 1 4 8th 24 2 5
4th 12 0 7 9th 34 2 6
5th 12 0 24 10th 53 0 22

In 1820, the steeple was repaired, at a great expense, under the able direction of Mr, George Gwilt. The belfry was then surrounded with strong iron braces, both internally, and also in the masonry itself; the ashlar, or external face, being cut through to admit the same, and space being left to admit of the expansion of the metal: the weight of these braces is about six tons. At the above time it was said, or sung -

They've cut a yard off Bow Church steeple,

which was believed to be considerably lower than before the repairs: the fact, however, is, that, from some slight difference in the new work, the spire is four inches higher; the whole height from the bottom of the old Church being 239 ft, 6 in.

In the year 1822, some fear was expressed that the use of the bells would endanger the steeple; but, at a vestry, it was decided, by a large majority, to ring them for a trial; and as, from a subsequent examination of the steeple, there did not appear to be any cause for alarm, the amateurs of bell-ringjng, and the Cockneys at large, have often since been gratified by the sound of Bow Bells.

The present set is much heavier, and more powerful in tone, than the first peal of Bells. It requires two men to ring the largest (the tenor, 53 cwt., key C), inconsequence of its not being properly hung about two years since, on account of an accident having befallen it.

The ringers belong to a society called the "College Youths," founded in 1637 , by Lord Bereton [sic], Chief Justice Hale, Marquis of Salisbury, Lord Dacre, joined by several of the City Aldermen. The Society takes its name from the College of St. Spirit and Mary, founded by Sir Richard Whittington, on College-hill, Upper Thames-street, which was burnt down in the Great Fire. Its church had a peal of six bells; but the present church (St. Michael's), at the same place, has no bells. A book recording the names of the founders and members of "the College Youths," from 1637 to 1724, was lost about that time, and only recovered ten years since. It was found in the possession of a Bristol bookseller, who, having purchased it at a sale of a private library in Gloucestershire, advertised it in the Gentleman's Magazine, when it was repurchased by the members for six guineas. Each member subscribes 1d. a week for the expenses of keeping up the register hand-bells, &c.; the certificate costs 6d.; admission fee, 2s. 6d. All the members (who are competent) can ring if they choose. There are about 200 members in the society, residing in different parts of the country, and fifty in London; they ring principally at St. Saviour's, Southwark (twelve bells) ; but they formerly rung at St. Martin's for sixty years. They generally ring the peal for pleasure; but; on Christmas Day, and other holidays, they are paid two guineas among the eleven. They ring once a month for practice and to gratify the neighbourhood. On Christmas Eve they ring at nine; New Year's Eve, from half-past eleven to half-past twelve. At St. Saviour's, on Christmas Eve, they ring at twelve. Another society, called the "Cumberland Society," rang for a few years at Bow Church. There is a peal called the "Whittington Peal," which can only be rung onn twelve bells; and the College Youths are anxious to have two bells added to the present number, as the peal is considered incomplete.

The accompanying Illustration shows the Bow Church Belfry, during a peal ; and we agree with John Clapper, that “an awful thing it is to be in the bell-chamber, and witness the actual ringing of a set of Bells: what with the ponderous masses of metal swinging round and back again, the wheels in perpetual motion, the stunning sound, as the clappers fall, mixed with a constant hurtling humming sound, and the shaking of the tower itself, you might well be excused for feeling a little nervous."