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St John, Burslem - a William Dobson six

The bells at St John, Burslem are a peal of six cast by William Dobson of Downham Market, Norfolk in 1828. They are listed in Dove as Unringable: tower unsafe. As part of a project to investigate the tuning of Dobson bells, I visited Burslem on 23 October 2020. Phil Gay arranged the visit for me, and Rev. Lydia Palmer kindly gave us permission to inspect the bells.

The bells were rehung in 1911, according to the Victoria Country History, 1963. At this time the canons were removed and the bells hung on cast-iron headstocks marked as Barwell of Birmingham. The bells are still on plain bearings in a timber frame. They show clear signs of tuning with a file (not on a tuning machine) and I suspect these marks date from the original casting in 1828, and that the bells were not tuned in 1911.

The structural problems with the tower are plain to see in the bell-chamber (see the picture below captioned 'North-west corner looking over 3 and 4 towards 5, with prop for stonework at top left'). The lower stages of the spiral staircase are said to be impassable - I didn't go down to look - and currently ascending the tower involves a vertical ladder from the ringing room to the intermediate chamber, from which the spiral staircase leads to the bells.

The tuning figures for the bells measured on the visit are given below, together with inscriptions.

St John Burslem

Tower of St John, Burslem


Frame layout (not to scale)

view of 5 and 6 over 4

Looking north over 4 towards 5 and 6

view of 2, 4, 3 and doorway

Looking west over 4 and 2 towards 3, with the iron end of the 3rd pit in the tower doorway

headstock of 3

Headstock of 3 showing Barwell, Founder

view of 4, 6 and treble

Looking north-east over 4 (front left), 6 (back) and treble (centre right)

view of 5, propped stonework

North-west corner looking over 3 and 4 towards 5, with prop for stonework at top left

headstock of 5

Headstock of 5 showing Barwell, Founder, Birmingham

inside rim of 6

Inside rim of 5 showing filed tuning marks

inside rim of 5

Further view of filed tuning marks inside 5

pit of 5 and 6

Looking north into pit of 5 and 6 showing frame braces

treble pit

North-east corner of treble pit showing cast-iron angle brace and metal end of 6th pit

bell 3

Bell 3 showing casting details and shape of soundbow

west foundation

Foundation beams under west side of frame with remains of rope guides

east foundation

Foundation beams under east side of frame with rope guide

peal board

First peal on the bells after rehanging in 1911

Tuning figures

William Dobson's bells are on average closer to true-harmonic tuning that those of any other UK founder prior to the rediscovery of true-harmonic tuning by Taylors in the late 19th century. These bells demonstrate this well. The treble tuning is rather wild (slightly flat hum, very flat prime). The second has a flat prime. The hum of the second and the hums and primes of the back four are quite close to true-harmonic. The superquints and octave nominals of all the bells (including the treble) show evidence of careful and uniform design.

BellHumPrimeTierceQuint NominalSuperquintOctave nominal
 freqcentsfreqcentsfreqcents freqcentsfreqcentsfreqcents freqcents
1321.5-2446.7609.5-1339.4 777.3-918.4998.2-485.3 1321.2903.31971.2692.7 2691.91232.1
2299.5-2381.7560.2-1297.6 707.5-893.5-- 1185.4715.51758.9683.2 2409.81228.2
3259.7-2396.3537.4-1137.3 626.4-872.0779.2-494.2 1036.6483.31535.0697.7 2104.91226.3
4251.1-2350.0504.7-1141.4 590.1-870.8765.4-420.4 975.8378.71448.9684.4 1998.41232.3
5224.2-2359.2447.7-1161.9 529.7-870.7672.4-457.7 875.9191.71300.8684.7 1783.71231.2
6205.0-2322.5395.0-1187.0 472.0-878.7616.4-416.6 784.10.01166.2687.2 1600.91235.7


These inscriptions are taken from Charles Lynam's book Church Bells of the County of Stafford, 1889 and were not checked on the visit.

1William Dobson, founder, Downham Norfolk
2Peace and good neighbourhood
3William Dobson, founder, Downham Norfolk
4William Dobson, founder, Downham Norfolk 1828
5My song shall be always of the loving kindness of the Lord
6Revd Edwd Whieldon Rector: Saml Jones Curate John B. Marslen Assistant curate
Messrs Levi Hanby Jas Clews Thos Hancock & Thos Weatherley Churchwardens 1828

Bill Hibbert
Great Bookham, Surrey

Last updated October 27, 2020. Site created by Bill Hibbert, Great Bookham, Surrey