The Sound of Bells

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Lambeth, London, St. John the Evangelist, Waterloo Road

The two articles and one letter on this page all appeared in The Times, London. Visit their website.

The Times 18 Feb 1998: Page 3

Tune-up takes toll on bells
By: Ruth Gledhill
Compromise wrung out of conservationists, reports Ruth Gledhill

CLERGY and conservationists have clashed over attempts to harmonise an out-of-tune peal of church bells. The battle of St John's, Waterloo, has been fought over eight bells which have been out of tune since they were hung in 1825.

Churchmen, bellringers and worshippers appealed for a harmonious sound to summon churchgoers. But officials from English Heritage wanted the bells to remain out of tune to preserve their rarity.

Now the dispute has been muffled by a compromise. The bells will be rehung next week with five tuned to near-perfect pitch and three, including the key bell, the tenor, left out of tune.

Retuning seemed an obvious part of a 1.5 million restoration of the South London church. The bells were produced by Thomas Mears, one of the most prolific bell founders. "There are not many complete rings of eight bells by Mears that have never been tuned," said Alan Hughes, chairman of Whitechapel Bell Foundry, which was subcontracted to clean and retune them.

"Therefore it was argued by English Heritage that the bells had a rarity value and that they should remain untuned. They then said they were prepared to accept limited tuning. Now the church has a peal of bells which have been tuned so the rarity value has gone, but the tonal discrepancies between them have actually been increased." Doug Snoswell, a ringer at St John's, said: "We are particularly annoyed about the tenor. It is the tenor that makes a ring of bells. When any bell is out of tune it sounds mournful instead of joyous."

Kate Hoey, Labour MP for Vauxhall, protested to English Heritage. "The bellmaker's intention in 1825 must have been to have the bells ringing properly," she said.

A spokeswoman for English Heritage said: "We try to keep the original historic character of the bells in terms of sound and fabric. We decided that what would be acceptable was some minor readjustments to the top notes so we could reproduce a musical scale more accurately without losing the distinctive sound of the bells."

The Times 21 Feb 1998: Page 21

Ding-dong at Waterloo
By: Ruth Gledhill
Ruth Gledhill sounds out the church with new bells appeal

WE SHIVERED in the icy wind at Waterloo, waiting for the bells - not to toll, simply to arrive. They were coming on the back of a lorry from Eayre and Smith of Derbyshire, where they had, been restored. Service sheets in hand, we stood amid the London traffic.

The Rev Richard Truss, holding the hammer with which to sound the bells, was to bless and baptise each one in turn. At his side, bearing the aspergillum with its sprinkling of holy water, was change-ringer Doug Snoswell.

"We've spent 40,000 but allowed to retune only five of the eight," muttered Mr Snoswell, shaking his aspergillum.

He explained. The bells were out of tune when hung in 1825 and when a 1.5 million restoration programme began on the church - the Festival of Britain church in 1951 - it seemed the ideal opportunity to bring a new note of harmony to the parish.

But conservationists had other ideas. The bells' lack of harmony was felt to give them a rarity value which needed preservation. English Heritage, which supplied the funds (from the lottery), requested the tuning should be minimal.

As we waited in silence, pondering the unfathomable mysteries of life in the 20th century, the cry went up. "The bells! The bells!"

A lorry drew up with the bells mounted on the back, new fittings gleaming with fresh paint. We burst into song. "Angel voices ever singing, round thy throne of light, angel-harps for ever ringing, rest not day nor night," we chorused, from the 19th-century hymn by Francis Pott.

Mr Truss, opened our service with a prayer. "Grant that these bells, made for Your holy church, may be blessed and that by their ringing Your People may be summoned to Your holy church and to their reward on high," he said.

The curate, the Rev Katharine Rumens, asperged the bells while we sang psalm 150, Laudate Dominum . Then Mr Truss clambered on to the lorry, banging each bell in turn with his hammer.

"I name this bell Lillian Bayliss," he said, and the treble rang out,-,sounding sweet. "I name this bell Octavia Hill," he continued. Next came William Blake, who sounded a little dull, and Francis and Martha. The purest note came from Saint Mary, the sixth; the most sonorous from St Andrew, the seventh.

Finally, it was the turn of St John the Evangelist, the uncut tenor one bell.

Mr Truss struck it with his hammer, and poor John rang out ... the deepest note of all, but unquestionably topped off by a mournful, untuned clang.

The Times 02 Mar 1998: Page 21

Dropping a clanger;Letter
From Rear-Admiral Michael Harris

Sir, The fact that English Heritage has forbidden the tuning of three of the eight bells of St John's, Waterloo (report, February 18; Weekend, February 21; letter, February 21), reveals another inroad that the State is making into our quality of life.

Those of us who enjoy ringing, and the many more who have to listen, will not be impressed by the fact that their ill-tuned noise is the result of a committee decision.

How many people, I wonder, would appreciate the sound of an historically important piano with only five-eighths of its notes in tune?

Yours faithfully,


The two articles above are copyright The Times, London, 1998.


Last updated February 15, 2001. Site created by Bill Hibbert, Great Bookham, Surrey