Friday, 3 May 2013

For Whom the Bells Toll

The silencing of Big Ben and the muffling of bells and drums for the funeral of Margaret Thatcher (17th April 2013) made me reflect on the importance of bells and their part in our history and ceremonial of  the City of London  and the whole country at large.

St Paul’s Cathedral in particular the great Wren masterwork and its role in honouring the great and good after death.

English: This print of the bell named Great To...
English: This print of the bell named Great Tom depicts one of the great bells associated with both the Palace of Westminster and St Paul’s Cathedral, England. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
The north-west tower contains twelve bells hung for change ringing plus a service bell, while the south-west contains four. This includes a bell named ‘Great Paul’, at 16 ½ tons the largest bell in the British Isles, cast in 1881 by Taylor’s bell foundry of Loughborough, Leicestershire.

Check out Church Bells of London  This article cannot be bettered for pictures and detailed information so do take a look. This bell is just about contained in its tower – it’s so large! 

This bell is in the company of ‘Great Tom’, the hour bell, which of course we hear often, especially noticeable when you are trying to talk over it!  It has been recast twice, the last time by Richard Phelps, after being moved from St Stephen’s Chapel at the Palace of Westminster.

Great Tom is only rung on occasions of a death in the royal family, the Bishop of London, or the lord Mayor of London, although an exception was made at the death of the US President John Garfield.

Richard Phelps cast two more bells in 1717 and added as ‘quarter jacks’.  They are still in use today and for  those bell ringers amongst us, some statistics; the first weights 13 long hundred weights (1,5000 lbs; 660kg) is 41” inches (1000mm) diameter and is tuned to A flat; the second weights 35 long hundredweights (3900 lbs; 1800kg) is 58” (1500mm) diameter and is tuned to E flat.

St. James Garlickhythe Church
St. James Garlickhythe Church (Photo credit: steve.wilde)
On a lighter chime, you may be wondering where the Royal Jubilee Bells went after the great celebration on the river. Having been beautifully crafted by The Whitechapel Foundry and rang their way along the Thames they are now inhabiting the tower of the beautiful church of St James Garlickhythe. They are named after Queen Elizabeth, Prince Philip and the rest of the family, Katharine and William’s names are share one bell.

The church and original bells were destroyed by the Great Fire in 1666 and rebuilt to a design by Sir Christopher Wren,  it has high clerestory windows which diffuse the church with light and is often called ‘Wren’s Lantern’. The woodwork in this church is outstanding.  New bells were installed from 1682 onwards but are now replaced by the new ring of eight bells which were ringing through London on the barge ‘Ursala Katharine’ at a quarter peel.  The bells were dedicated on 17 June 2012.

Other points of interest about the church. St James Garlickhythe was damaged when a crane fell from across the street in 1991. Pews were damaged but replaced by oak pews made from trees blown down on a Sussex estate in the hurricane of 1987.

Small table on either side of the altar are made from wood from the Marchioness pleasure boat which sank in 1989 with the loss of many young lives.

It also has connection with the Vintners Livery Company (across Upper Thames Street) and this is acknowledged by a wrought iron gate with grapes and vine leaves intertwined.

The Swan Marker And Swan
The Barge Master And Swan (Photo credit: steve.wilde)
A lovely sculpture dedicated to the Barge Master & Swan by Vivien Mallock (2007) stands in the courtyard, this is a reference to the ancient ceremony of Swan Upping carried out by the HRH Queen Elizabeth II, Vintners and Dyers Companies, the only three parties who have the right to keep and manage swans in the country, by Royal decree. The cygnets, young swans are tagged during a special ceremony called ‘Swan Upping’ and takes place during the third week in July.

This article originally appeared in

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  1. And now we've the new Robert Hooke Biodviersity bell outside St Paul's Cathedral Gardens - it's a model for what will be an absolutely huge bell - part of the project. Also see for a picture and comment.

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