The Mediaeval Bell-founders

The casting of bells is an art for which England has long been renowned. Billiter Street (formerly Bellyeter Street) in London takes its name from the bell-founders who once worked there. British bells are and always have been sand-castings. One English bronze bell, cast in 1380, is still in use, but the record of bell manufacture goes back much earlier. Roman bells were cast from Campanian brass, whence comes the word 'campanile' for a bell-tower. Most bells, however, are of bell metal-a special bronze. Bells of Western countries generally have 4 parts of copper to 1 of tin, or even 13 to 4; whereas in China and Japan, right down to the present day, the proportions have been maintained at 5 to 1, which gives the bell a more sombre tone.

Bells of a considerable size were used in England as early as the 6th Century, and even earlier in Ireland, to summon people to prayer. One of the earliest English records of bell founding is an entry at Battle Abbey, Sussex, relating to its tenant, 'One Aedric who cast bells' (11th Century). It is also recorded that four bells for the Chapel at Windsor Castle were made from material left over from the casting of the Great Bell of Westminster. The Westminster Bell arose from an agreement between King Henry VII and the famous Abbot Islip, in which the abbot solemnly promised 'to cause a great bell in the said monastery solemnly and distinctly to be knolled fourtie strokes' before the chantry masses. This bell was originally cast in 1430. It still exists, but has since been twice recast. It weighs about 34 cwt, and is 4 ft 7 in. wide and 3 ft 5 in. high. (14) There is a stained glass in a window of York Minster (c. A.D. 1200) which depicts two bell-makers at work.

One could fill a volume about bells; for, as one old abbot had inscribed in monkish Latin upon a church bell long ago:

'I mourn for death, I break the lightning, I fix the Sabbath, I rouse the lazy, I scatter the winds, I appease the cruel.'

At a later date, he might have added, 'I announce the wedding, I shout for victory, I call the assembly to order' and many another duty.

14 BRADLEY, E.T. Annals of Westminster Abbey (1863).