The Church Bells of the City of London

The Steel Monster of Clerkenwell

by Dickon R. Love and William A. Hibbert, 2003

Photo DrL 27/9/02 It was outrageous: the largest Roman Catholic Church in the country built with apparent audacity a few hundred yards from St Paul’s Cathedral, not so long after Catholic Emancipation, provocatively dedicated to St Peter, and with a booming bell deeper than any in London outside Westminster including St Paul’s! For the "Italian Church" purchased a steel monster for its consecration that was quite the largest cast steel bell in the Kingdom.

St Peter’s Italian Church overlooks Hatton Garden on Clerkenwell Road. It was founded in 1846 completed in 1863 following the efforts of St Vincent Pallotti (he was canonised by Pope John XXIII exactly one hundred years later), Fr Raffaele Melia and Fr Giuseppe Faa di Bruno.

A hundred years prior to this, Roman Catholic religious services were officially forbidden to all except those attached to a foreign embassy. The oldest bastion of post-Reformation Roman Catholicism was the Chapel of the Ambassador of the Kingdom of Sardinia in Lincoln’s Inn Fields, which catered mainly for Roman Catholic members of the Diplomatic corps and for the more wealthy English recusants. However, with the increase in the Italian and Irish immigrant community, it was clear that a larger venue was required should it be permitted. Religious toleration ()did ease in the following century, Catholic Emancipation finally occurring by Act of Parliament in 1829. Permission was finally given for the building of a Roman Catholic Church in Clerkenwell as it was at the heart of the immigrant community. Most of the funding for the church (and associated schools) was raised over a long period of time from overseas sponsors. It was Pope Pius IX who suggested that the church be dedicated to St Peter and that rather than being an Italian church, as first envisaged, it should be a church for all nationalities to serve the wider Catholic community. In its subsequent history therefore, it has been known variously as the Italian Church or the Church of All Nations. Photo DrL 27/9/02
Although the original grand designs were never fully realised owing to a shortage of money, the final church built by J. M. Bryson proved to be pretty substantial. By the time it was completed, the nineteen metre high church had a capacity of two thousand and was the only church in the country to be built in the Roman Basilican style. The church seems to be jammed between various tall buildings, but it has a large and splendid interior. Today it has been accorded the status of a Grade II listed building.

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Larger than St Paul's

The church was equipped with a great bell cast in 1862 by Naylor Vickers of Sheffield which was one of several bells exhibited at the International Exhibition that year. The casting would have taken place under the watchful eyes of Col Tom E Vickers, who ran the foundry at Millsands (which is on the River Don in Sheffield). It was (and still is) one of the largest bells in England, (not the largest RC bell: Hosanna, Downside, Ampleforth, Liverpool RC Metropolitan are all larger). With a weight of approximately 87 cwt and a diameter of 90 inches (228.5 cm), this bell really is big. It is recorded that in "the large bell which is being shown by the firm in the International Exhibition, and which weighs nearly five tons, no less than 176 crucibles of steel had to be poured". At that time, the only other large bell in London (apart from Big Ben in Westminster) was Great Tom in St Paul’s, Cathedral. At over 102 cwt, Great Tom is a heavier bell, but is nonetheless 7 inches smaller than the steel one. However, it is well known that steel bells give out a deeper note than bronze ones of the same diameter, being proportionately thinner so the boom from Clerkenwell proved deeper than the boom from Ludgate Hill!

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Cardinal Wiseman consecrated the bell (which unlike many large bells in the country doesn’t have a name) on 17th March 1863. The church had not been completed at this stage (indeed, the church itself was not consecrated for another month) and the tower in which the bell was to hang had not been constructed. The bell therefore had to remain outside in George Yard opposite the main entrance to the church. The tower was finally built in 1891, also in the Romanesque style. It would appear that the tower was built around the bell and its timber as there is no way the bell could have been hoisted into such a small space.

Joseph Faa De Bruno wrote to Naylor Vickers to thank them for the bell: "Gentlemen, I feel much pleasure in stating that the large steel bell, 7 feet 6 inches in diameter, and weighing three tons and a half, which was exhibited by you in the International Exhibition last year, and which I have purchased for the New Italian Church of St.Peter, Hatton Wall, Hatton Garden, has given general satisfaction, and is much admired for the fullness and softness of its sound, which is heard at a great distance in spite of the disadvantage of its being hung in a temporary place, only 12 feet from the ground. But I must say that it gives more satisfaction to me the purchaser, who has given the preference to Cast Steel over Bronze Bells, having thereby obtained a good result with a good saving. If with the money spent for this Bell I had bought a Bronze one, it would most certainly have been much inferior in weight, size and sound. A Bronze Bell equal in tone would have made me two or three hundred pounds out of pocket to no purpose. Every day people have the opportunity of hearing the big bell at 7.45 in the evening and they may judge for themselves."

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Visiting the Monster

Details of this bell seem to have been omitted from many works on the great bells of Britain, indeed, it is not even present in the 2003 Ringing World Diary where it should otherwise appear 20th on the list! So the authors sought the opportunity to visit the bell, an approach that was received generously and enthusiastically by the church in September 2002.

There was quite a climb up various staircases to several floors and through numerous rooms inside the church. Finally we came to a ladder that provided access into the attic of one of the buildings, from which one was then able to get out onto the high roof of the church. It is the sort of place that commands stunning views of London yet is inadvisable for those fearful of heights. The base of the basilica turret was merely a few feet away from the door across the roof, and through a missing louvre we were able to get our first glimpse of the brown monster. However we still had to scramble up another ledge before we could get to this louvre and actually reach out to the bell, hanging dead in its frame.

I daresay we could have climbed a ladder that would have taken us through a trap door into the base of the tower, but this looked long since sealed with bird excrement. The lip of the bell itself hung some five feet from the floor of this turret. Therefore the best way to get any sort of view of the bell was through the louvre. The bell so neatly fits into the tower that at no point was it possible to find a position to photograph it in its entirety, nor even to safely climb onto its hefty shoulder in order to measure the crown circumference.

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It is fortunate that rubbings had been made of the inscriptions shortly after the bell was purchased as they were almost invisible in the brown rust that covered the bell. The Royal Arms used (mistakenly) by Vickers to denote his (or rather Ewald Reipe's) Patent were just about visible again with a few other words, but the rest was powder on the turret floor!

Hanging from the inside of the bell was an enormous clapper ball on a thin stem which appeared to have inserts on either side of it (although the insert on one side had fallen out). A chain, attached to the clapper flight, was drawn horizontally over a pulley outside the turret and straight down into one (or more) of the rooms below. Hence to sound the bell, we had to manually pull the chain to swing the clapper into action.

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It Speaks with an Unusual Voice

Heard close to, the bell sounds impressive if not tuneful, like a deep and magnificent dinner gong. There was some difficulty in identifying the nominal of this bell, as the partial immediately below it (identified as the quint) was actually much louder in the early part of the sound. The chosen partial was eventually settled on as the nominal as it gave reasonable values for the superquint and octave nominal and it was the fifth partial up. The pitch of the bell was of no use in identifying the nominal, as ears seem to pitch the bell near the tierce. This is most unusual for any bell, and is due to the quietness of the nominal and a happy accident of higher partials giving a virtual pitch near the tierce. The spectrum below shows clearly how far from true-harmonic this bell is.

Partial Hum Prime Tierce Quint Nominal
Frequency (Hz) 127.3 200.5 237.8 363.7 395.6
Cents from nom. -1963 -1177 -881 -146 0
Note C(0)-47 G(0)+39 Bb(0)+35 F#(0)-30 G(1)+16

Chart: WAH

Both hum and quint were very sharp indeed (the hum was nearly four-and-a-half semitones sharp of true-harmonic), but the prime, tierce, superquint and octave nominal were quite close to the 'usual' values. This sharpness of the hums has been observed in other steel bells by Naylor Vickers, such as the firm’s earliest ring of six in Chalford, Glos. The physical dimensions of the Chalford bells were not available for analysis; however a bronze peal that shows these very sharp hums (at least in the tenors) is the Harrison peal at Castleton in Derbyshire. The Castleton tenors also have quite sharp primes.
The profile diagram shows the shape of three bells: the steel bell at the Italian Church, the tenor at Castleton, and a 23 cwt Taylor true-harmonic bell (the tenor at Towcester). Due to lack of information the crown heights have been set to zero. Compared with the Towcester bell, the steel bell is proportionately shorter and smaller in the shoulder, by an amount which would be quite significant in a bronze bell. However, it has a much more 'normal' profile than the Castleton bell. The very unusual tuning of the steel bell must be due to the wall thickness rather than its external profile.

Chart: WAH

Chart: WAH Another significant contribution to the unusual sound of this bell is the behaviour over time of its various partials, as the plot below shows.
The quint of this bell predominated during the early part of the sound, which is most unusual indeed. The superquint and the partial at 511.5Hz (identified as the eleventh) were also strong. The strength of the eleventh contributed to the secondary strike effect tending to lead the ear to the tierce as the strike pitch. The tierce soon became the dominant partial, reinforcing it as the pitch of the bell.

Unfortunately we did not get the opportunity to hear the bell sounding from a distance. It is reported that after the War, during which much of London was flattened, the steel bell could be heard quite clearly from outside St Paul’s Cathedral on Sunday afternoons booming like a deep toned dinner gong. With all the tall buildings that have since sprung up, it is unlikely to be heard nearly so clearly.

This is the largest cast steel bell in the country and is also the largest English cast steel bell still in existence. Two years earlier, in 1860, a bell of 5 tons was cast for the San Francisco Fire Station. It is this bell, which took 150 crucibles to cast (they clearly had larger crucibles in those days) that takes the all time record. Unfortunately it was lost in the 1906 earthquake, and following unsuccessful attempts to locate the bell by the Sheffield Museums some years ago, is presumed destroyed. However, towards the end of last year, it transpired that this great bell was moved to the Jesuit church of St Ignatius in San Francisco where it hangs today. Germany still produces larger steel bells, and goodness knows what one might find in Russia! However, there is little doubt that this steel monster quite befits what was the largest Roman Catholic church in the country.

Details of the Bell
  • Weight: 87 cwt approx.
  • Cast: 1862
  • Founder: Naylor Vickers of Sheffield
  • Lip Diameter: 228.5 cm
  • Pitch: 395.6Hz Nominal, note G+15
  • Distance from lip to shoulder: 161 cm
  • Shoulder diameter: 121.5cm (arrived at by taking the internal width of the frame and estimating the space between frame and shoulder on either side)
  • Inscription:

(pattern and monogram)

  • The church authorities who responded with enthusiasm to our request to inspect and record the bell.
  • Chris Pickford
  • Rev’d David Cawley
  • More details on the church may be found at on the church web site.
  • Further analysis of the sound of this and other bells may be found on Bill Hibbert’s "The Sound of Bells" web site.
  • For an excellent article on the history of steel bells, see "Colonel Tom and his Cast Steel Bells" by Rev’d D.L. Cawley, Ringing World 22nd Dec, 2000.