The Sound of Bells

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St. Peter's Italian Church, London, 1, circa 87cwt (steel bell)

Recorded: WAH / Dickon Love 27/9/02
Analysed: WAH 28/9/02

The Italian Church This bell is unique, in that it is probably the heaviest cast-steel bell in Britain by a considerable margin. It was cast in 1862 by Naylor-Vickers of Sheffield, and exhibited at the International Exhibition before being bought by this church, which was then being built. The weight of the bell is uncertain; the weight above was taken from Naylor-Vickers' catalogue. The history of the church itself and some details of the bell are given on the church website and on the following pages: page 1, page 2, page 3, page 4 and page 5. (The church website does not index these pages.)

The bell hangs dead in a brick turret above the porch. The bell is almost too big for this turret, and is impossible to photograph successfully. The church itself is completely surrounded by buildings (most of which also belong to the church) and is also impossible to photograph from the outside, apart from the porch which was built after the main building. The inside of the church is splendid. The turret in which the bell hangs is visible above the porch in the picture on the left. The church lies roughly parallel to the road behind the buildings.

At one time this bell was rung regularly for Sunday services, but on my visit I was told that it is now only rung for special festivals.

Tuning of main partials

Nominal: 395.6Hz

Bell Hum Prime Tierce Quint Nom'l S'quint O'nom.
1 -1963 -1176 -881 -145 0 721 1294

(The figures in this table are all given in cents relative to the nominal. The link in the first column is to a recording of the bell.)

The bell in its turret

The Italian Church The picture to the left shows the turret close up. The lip of the bell can just be seen below the bottom louvre. The bell is rung from far below, a chain attached to the clapper runs over a pulley (just visible to the left of the lead roof below the lip of the bell) and then drops vertically down. It is fairly easy to get underneath the bell, and possible to squeeze between it and the louvres to inspect the waist. The crown is too far up to see. To get above the bell would require a ladder to climb in through the louvres above the bell. Beyond the handrail in the bottom left of the picture is a 20 or 30 foot drop to the aisle roof . . .

The dimensions of the bell are as follows:
  • Lip diameter: 228.5cm
  • Distance from lip to shoulder: 161cm
  • Shoulder diameter: 121.5cm.

  • The first two measurements are certain, the last was arrived at by taking the internal width of the frame and estimating the space between frame and shoulder on either side.
    The Italian Church This picture shows most of the lip of the bell, the clapper (which has an enormous ball and a very thin stem) and the chain by which the clapper is swung. The clapper has inserts on its two striking faces. The one on the opposite side of the clapper has fallen out, that on the visible face still exists and appears to be metal. The bell is hung from a wooden 'stool' which is free-standing inside the turret. The bell probably has a flange top, attached to a beam at the top of the 'stool' with four bolts.

    The bell has a coat of arms or emblem on its waist, with the word 'PATENT' below it. It also has a long inscription around its soundbow which is now too corroded to be read.

    Chris Pickford gives the inscription as rubbed by Thyssen as 'NAYLOR VICKERS & Co SHEFFIELD 1862 CAST STEEL / (pattern and monogram NV & Co) / PATENT 2864'.

    The sound and tuning of the bell

    Heard close to, the sound of this bell is impressive if not tuneful - PC loudspeakers do not do it justice, as many of its partials are low in pitch. I had some difficulty in identifying the nominal of this bell, as the partial immediately below it, which I identify as the quint, is actually much louder in the early part of the sound. I eventually settled on the chosen partial as the nominal because a) it gave reasonable values for the superquint and octave nominal and b) it was the fifth partial up. The pitch of the bell is of no use in identifying the nominal, as my ears pitch the bell near the tierce. This is most unusual for any bell, and is due to the quietness of the nominal and a happy accident of higher partials giving a virtual pitch near the tierce. The spectrum below shows clearly how far from true-harmonic this bell is.

    Italian Church Spectrum

    Both hum and quint are very sharp indeed (the hum is nearly four-and-a-half semitones sharp of true-harmonic), but the prime, tierce, superquint and octave nominal are quite close to the 'usual' values. This sharpness of the hums I have observed in other steel bells by Naylor-Vickers (see the analysis of the peal at Chalford). I do not have the physical dimensions of the Chalford bells. However, a bronze peal that shows these very sharp hums, at least in the tenors, is the Harrison peal at Castleton in Derbyshire. The Castleton tenors also have quite sharp primes. Thanks to George Dawson I have the sizes of the Castleton bells.

    Profile comparison The profile diagram on the left shows the shape of three bells: the steel bell at the Italian Church, the tenor at Castleton, and a 23 cwt Taylor true-harmonic bell (the tenor at Towcester). Due to lack of information I have set the crown heights to zero.

    Compared with the Towcester bell, the steel bell is proportionately shorter and smaller in the shoulder, by an amount which would be quite significant in a bronze bell. However, it has a much more 'normal' profile than the Castleton bell. The very unusual tuning of the steel bell must be due to wall thickness rather than its external profile.

    Another significant contribution to the unusual sound of this bell is the behaviour over time of its various partials, as the plot below shows:

    Italian Church Partial Decays

    The quint of this bell predominates during the early part of the sound, which is most unusual indeed. The superquint and the partial at 511.5Hz (which I identify as the eleventh) are also strong. The strength of the eleventh contributes to the secondary strike effect tending to lead the ear to the tierce as the strike pitch. The tierce soon becomes the dominant partial, re-inforcing it as the pitch of the bell.


    I am very grateful to the following people:

  • The church authorities, who responded with enthusiasm to my request to inspect and record the bell
  • Dickon Love, who accompanied me on the visit
  • Chris Pickford, who supplied much historical detail about the church and this bell
  • George Dawson, who supplied me with the measurements of the Castleton bells.
  • Errors and unsubstantiated opinions are of course my own.


    Last updated September 29, 2002. Site created by Bill Hibbert, Great Bookham, Surrey