The Sound of Bells

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Hale, Cheshire, St. Mary, 8, 8 cwt in A (six steel and two bronze bells)

Recorded: WAH 17/10/02
Analysed: WAH 17/10/02

Hale, Cheshire This church, with a 14th century tower and a nave of 1754, was burnt to the ground by vandals in 1977. The original peal of bells, a Dobson 6, were destroyed in the blaze. The church has been completely restored, and now has a unique peal of bells, comprising six steel bells originally hung at Christ Church, Bootle, together with two bronze trebles. The bells were installed by a team of Merseyside volunteers and dedicated in 1988. All of the construction work was done by volunteers, and the result is a peal of bells which are easy and pleasant to ring.

The steel bells were retuned by the Liverpool Bell Restoration and Maintenance Group. A fascinating account of this retuning, originally published in the Ringing World of 1984, is republished here by kind permission of the author John Wilton and The Ringing World. John Wilton told me that he bought the Bootle bells for 15 to avoid them being scrapped. The retuning is a great success: here is a recording of the back six (steel) bells in rounds. The new peal as originally installed had two steel trebles, as the retuning article explains. These were later replaced with bronze bells cast and tuned to match the Bootle six.

My grateful thanks are due to the Hale ringers, for allowing me to record the bells, and to John Wilton for his helpful information and permission to re-use his article.

Bell Founder Tuning
1 Eijsbouts 1987 none since
2 Eijsbouts 1987 none since
3 Naylor-Vickers Wilton & Willasey 1983
4 Naylor-Vickers none since
5 - 8 Naylor-Vickers Wilton & Willasey 1983

Tuning of main partials

Tenor nominal: 882.7Hz

Bell Hum Prime Tierce Quint Nom'l S'quint O'nom.
1 -2214 -1225
-858 -204 1200 651 1166
2 -2206 -1199 -874 -145 1096 685 1223
3 -2223 -1199 -875 -311 891 699 1262
4 -2172
-1202 -884 -322 696 710 1282
5 -2209
-391 495 748 1330
6 -2139
-1208 -909 -285 388 744 1331
7 -2183 -1217 -907 -301 208 743 1331
8 -2133 -1205 -898 -260 0 726 1304

(The figures in this table are all given in cents. For all partials except the nominal, the partials are given from the nominals of the bell. Cents of the nominals are relative to the tenor. Pairs of values indicate a doublet.)

Tuning - the six steel bells

My limited experience of Naylor-Vicker's steel bells suggests that as originally manufactured they were not at all well tuned. They tend to suffer from very sharp hums, sharp primes, very sharp quints and rather chaotic nominals. I do not (yet) have a set of tuning figures of these bells prior to the 1983 retuning, but would expect them to show similar problems. However, it is worth noting that the 4th of the eight (the orginal Bootle second) was not tuned, and apart from its sharp hum, is quite a satisfactory bell.

John Wilton and Nick Willasey, under the guidance of Ray Ayres of Eayre and Smith, did sterling work in tuning these bells. The nominals of the retuned back six are very close to Just tuning - no bell is more than 7 or 8 cents out (the 'professionals' usually tune to plus or minus ten cents). The primes of all the bells are very good, a remarkable achievement given the source material. The hums, of course, remain quite sharp, but it would be impossible do much with these because they are so much determined by the shapes of the bells as cast. The tierces, over which the tuners would also have no independent control, are by good fortune at very good values, ranging from an equal tempered minor third in the tenors to roughly a just tempered minor third in the smaller bells. The Quints are sharp, as the detailed description of the tuning explains. As in many bronze bells, the quints in these bells are quite quiet.

The superquints and octave nominals of the steel bells, which would not have been tuned (or probably, tunable!) are quite unusual. These partials in the back bells are very sharp compared with bronze bells of normal profile. These sharp higher partials together with the very sharp hums mean these bells sound different from typical bronze bells. However, their sound is very much better than that of untuned Naylor-Vickers steel bells, and the retuning must be counted a great success.

Tuning - the bronze trebles

The two bronze trebles are interesting. I understand that more than one foundry was asked to provide trebles to match the steel bells, but all refused until Eijsbouts accepted the challenge. The nominals of the bronze trebles fit in well with those of the steel bells, and they have very sharp hums to match those of the back bells. Their quints are even sharper, surprisingly, and no attempt was made to match the tuning of the superquints and octave nominals. These upper partials in the treble are quite flat, quite the opposite of the tuning in the larger steel bells. On the other hand, one ought not to be too critical of Eijsbouts, this must have been a most unusual design challenge.

As an experiment, I created two pieces of ringing based on recordings of bells. For one, I used recordings of all the Hale bells including the Eijsbouts trebles. For the other, I substituted true harmonic bronze trebles with nominals tuned to exactly the same frequencies as the Eijsbouts bells. Here are the two pieces of computer-generated ringing:

  • Eijsbouts trebles
  • True-harmonic trebles
  • The true-harmonic trebles sound brighter - some would say sharper - because of their sharper upper partials. This experiment is not to be taken too seriously! - though I think the difference in sound is interesting.


    Can steel bells be successfully tuned? The answer, based on this example, must be an un-reserved yes. This peal is a tribute to John Wilton and Nick Willasey, for their pioneering and successful work in tuning these bells, and to their energy and enthusiasm in putting bells back into this tower following the tragic loss of the Dobson six. You should read the account of the retuning if you have not already done so.


    Last updated November 10, 2002. Site created by Bill Hibbert, Great Bookham, Surrey