The tour leaves at 4:30 on Thursday, September 24th. Meet at the seal in the Reynolds Club.
The bells of earth go sounding on
From many an ancient steeple,
Telling their tale of joy or woe
To all the waiting people:
Today they mourn a nation’s loss
In muffled tones of sorrow,
But change the merry wedding-bells
In gladsome tones tomorrow.
Today they sing of victory
With banners gaily flying;
Tomorrow, requiems for the dead
On all the winds are sighing.
Their tone is one: but human souls
All thoughts and passions blending,
Can change the music at their will,
To each emotion bending.
And when death’s sad procession moves,
The bells are slowly tolling;
How mournfully upon the ear
Those waves of sound come rolling.
The bells of Earth go sounding on
With note that ever changes,
And over all the chords of life
Their mystic music ranges.
from Legends o’ The Bells by Ernest Morris (n.d.), London: Sampson Low, Marston & Co., Ltd. , 4.
The University of Chicago recently announced the closing of several off-campus residence halls. Among the houses listed in the recent announcement about closings was Broadview’s Palmer House, named after Alice Freeman Palmer. There’s another structure on campus named in her honor: The Alice Freeman Palmer Memorial Chimes at the top of the tower in Reynolds Club. Installed in 1908, the Palmer bells are the oldest of this style bells on a University campus in the United States.
Visitors can stop by the tower this Saturday 4/25 between 10:30-1:00 for a tour. Between 12:30-1:00pm you’ll be able to hear them from the street corner. Email firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.
Pancakes and fritters,
Say the bells of St. Peter’s;
Where must we fry ’em?
Say the bells of Cold Higham.
In yonder land furrow
Say the bells of Wellingborough.
You owe me a shilling,
Say the bells of Great Billing.
When will you pay me?
Say the Bells of Middleton Cheney.
When I am able,
Say the bells of Dunstable.
That will never be,
Say the bells of Coventry.
Oh! yes it will,
Says Northampton’s great bell.
White bread and sop,
Say the bells of Kingsthorpe.
Trundle a lantern,
Say the bells of Northampton.
You may already be familiar with Dorothy L. Sayers’ novel The Nine Tailors, a Lord Peter Wimsey mystery which features change ringing. The 1934 novel was her ninth in the Lord Peter series, and it is a good entry point for many non-ringers to begin to understand the art and science of this particularly British form of campanology. The title comes from the phrase “nine tailors make a man,” but where does that phrase originate?
According to the Oxford Dictionary of Proverbs (2009), “nine tailors make a man” refers to the fact that a gentleman must select his clothing from a range of sources. However, numerous historical sources illuminate another meaning related to change ringing: the practice of ringing a death knell, or passing bell. In small villages in England the sickly or ill would be common knowledge to the people who lived within hearing of the church bell. The bell–typically the tenor, or lowest bell–would be rung to mark the death, and people could deduce who had died according to the number of times the bell sounded.
Local variances could be found around Britain, but the universal tolling-bell, or “teller,” to denote a deceased male was rung nine times. In many places six “tells” indicated a woman, and three indicated a child, so “nine tellers mark a man.”
You can see how the bell both “tolled” and “told” the death of someone in the village, and how over the years “teller” became “tailor” and “mark” became “make.” Mystery solved!
Ever wonder how change ringers learn their art without continuous clanging on nights and weekends?
In most belfries, a system of louvers can be opened and closed to reduce the sound of the bells to almost nothing at the ground level. Mitchell Tower doesn’t have such louvers (at least, not yet), so silencing our bells means we have to get our hands dirty.
We have ten custom made wooden clamps, each sized to its own bell. When screwed into place, the clamp holds the clapper still, preventing it from hitting the sides of the bell. Voila! Silent ringing. As you can imagine, in the middle of winter this gets a bit rough. The belfry is unheated and there isn’t much protection from the wind. Each silencer goes on with just one rusty wingnut, and in freezing weather it’s not likely to be a quick job. This is why you’re not as likely to hear our bells from December through February: it’s just too cold to take the silencers off.
One day we hope to be able to forego the silencers all together. Mitchell Tower is in need of restoration, and we hope that when it happens it will include louvers that can reduce the sound of the bells and eliminate the need for the silencers. Until then, we’ll keep scrambling up the ladder into the belfry to do it ourselves.
“The ropes hang through holes in the bell-chamber ceiling; and when touched by the ringer’s practiced hand, the brazen monsters groan in their airy loft above, as they begin to swing on their gudgeons. It is like the first growl of the lion, when the keeper stirs him in his den–but there is no use in their resisting. One moment more, and the ringer has dropped his bell one-half pull, and set her the next–all eight are now fairly raised–hand, ear, eye, and heart of every ringer are intensely strained and engaged in the work; yet, cool withal, no flurry or disorder appearing–
“And through the whole tower there begins to ring a glorious din, which, with the creaking of the wooden bell frames, and a shaking of the very building itself, much reminds one of the noise and recoil of a battle-ship, when she opens her broadside fire.
“Now is the moment for the spectator to hurry up the broad ladder into the belfry, to watch the wild summersaults, performed at intervals, by every bell in the peal. For a moment the bell rests against the slur-bar, turned completely upwards; and the next it swings down, and is immediately turned up again on the other side,–the clapper striking as it ascends. Poor fellows! See how they whirl upon their axles. The gazer almost sickens as he watches their extraordinary revolutions and tossings: but the ringer’s heart is merciless–and when you look at the wretched bell, as at “a thing of life,” and almost expect it to drop motionless and dead on the stocks, a “cannon” is suddenly struck on all eight at once, as if to rouse them afresh for the course of seemingly interminable changes which immediately follow.
“Henceforth the bells appear to roll about in frantic disorder; and, stunned by the noise, chilled by draughts of cold wind, and shaken in nerve by the reverberation, the spectator descends with careful steps from his tyro-visit to the belfry.”
~from The Bell: its Origin, History, and Uses by the Rev. Alfred Gatty, M. A., Vicar of Ecclesfield. (London: George Bell 186 Fleet Street, 60-61), 1848.
Have you been in or near a bell tower when changes are being rung? If yes, describe your experiences in the comments below. If not, come to our tower and try it sometime!