A Visit To Great Tom At St Paul’s
In the second of my series of the stories of Whitechapel Bells, I visit one of London’s biggest bells
Like bats, bells lead secluded lives hibernating in dark towers high above cathedrals and churches. Thus it was that I set out to climb to the top of the south west tower of St Paul’s Cathedral last week to visit Great Tom, cast by Richard Phelps at the Whitechapel Bell Foundry in 1716.
At 11,474lbs, Great Tom is significantly smaller than Great Paul, its neighbour in the tower at 37,483lbs, yet Great Paul has been silent for many years making Great Tom the largest working bell at St Paul’s and, if Big Ben (30,339lbs) falls silent during renovations this year, then Great Tom will become London’s largest working bell.
To reach Great Tom, I had first to climb the stone staircase beneath the dome of St Paul’s and then walk along inside the roof of the nave. Here, vast brick hemispheres protrude as the reverse of the shallow domes below, creating a strange effect – like a floor of a multi-storey car park for flying saucers. At the west end, a narrow door leads onto the parapet above the front of the cathedral and you descend from the roof of the nave to arrive at the entrance to the south west tower, where a conveniently placed shed serves as a store for spare clock hands.
Inside the stone tower is a hefty wooden structure that supports the clock and the bells above. Here I climbed a metal staircase to take a peek at Great Paul, a sleek grey beast deep in slumber since the mechanism broke years ago. From here, another stone staircase ascends to the open rotunda where expansive views across the city induce stomach-churning awe. I stepped onto a metal bridge within the tower, spying Great Paul below, and raised my eyes to discern the dark outline of Great Tom above me. It was a curious perspective peering up into the darkness of the interior of the ancient bell, since it was also a gaze into time.
When an old bell is recast, any inscriptions are copied onto the new one and an ancient bell like Great Tom may carry a collection of texts which reveal an elaborate history extending back through many centuries. The story of Great Tom begins in Westminster where, from the thirteenth century in the time of Henry III, the large bell in the clocktower of Westminster Palace was known as ‘Great Tom’ or ‘Westminster Tom.’
Great Tom bears an inscription that reads, ‘Tercius aptavit me rex Edwardque vocavit Sancti decore Edwardi signantur ut horae,’ which translates as ‘King Edward III made and named me so that by the grace of St Edward the hours may be marked.’ This inscription is confirmed by John Stowe writing in 1598, ‘He (Edward III) also built to the use of this chapel (though out of the palace court), some distance west, in the little Sanctuary, a strong clochard of stone and timber, covered with lead, and placed therein three great bells, since usually rung at coronations, triumphs, funerals of princes and their obits.’
With the arrival of mechanical clocks, the bell tower in Westminster became redundant and, when it was pulled down in 1698, Great Tom was sold to St Paul’s Cathedral for £385 17s. 6d. Unfortunately, while it was being transported the bell fell off the cart at Temple Bar and cracked. So it was cast by Philip Wightman, adding the inscription ‘MADE BY PHILIP WIGHTMAN 1708. BROUGHT FROM THE RVINES OF WESTMINSTER.’
Yet this recasting was unsatisfactory and the next year Great Tom was cast again by Richard Phelps at the Whitechapel Bell Foundry. This was also unsuccessful and, seven years later, it was was cast yet again by Richard Phelps at Whitechapel, adding the inscription ‘RICHARD PHELPS MADE ME 1716′ and arriving at the fine tone we hear today.
As well as chiming the hours at St Paul’s, Great Tom is also sounded upon the death of royalty and prominent members of the clergy, tolling last for the death of the Queen Mother in 2002. For the sake of my eardrums, I timed my visit to Great Tom between the hours. Once I had climbed down again safely to the ground, I walked around the west front of the cathedral just in time to hear Great Tom strike noontide. Its deep sonorous reverberation contains echoes of all the bells that Great Tom once was, striking the hours and marking out time in London through eight centuries.
Above the nave
Looking west with St Brides in the distance
Spare clock hands
Looking east along the roof of the cathedral
Up to the clock room
The bell frame for Great Paul in the clock room
Looking up to Great Paul
Looking across to the north west tower from the clock room
Looking along Cannon St from the rotunda
Looking south to the river
Looking across to the north west tower
Looking down on Great Paul
Looking up into the bell frame
Looking up to catch a glimpse of Great Tom, St Paul’s largest working bell
Great Tom cast by Richard Phelps in Whitechapel in 1716, engraved in 1776 (Courtesy of The Ancient Society of College Youths)
Great Tom strikes noon at St Paul’s Cathedral
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