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The Most Famous Bells In The World

March 30, 2017
by the gentle author

In the third of my series of the stories of Whitechapel Bells, I visit the Bow Bells in Cheapside

Click to hear the Bow Bells

These are the bells of St Mary-le-Bow in the City of London which have good claim to be the most famous set of bells in the world, known as the Bow Bells. These are the bells that Dick Whittington heard in the fable, which seemed to call ‘Turn again Whittington, Thrice Lord Mayor!’ as he ascended Highgate Hill to depart the capital in 1392, inspiring his return to London to seek his fortune with the assistance of his celebrated cat. These are the bells that are so beloved of Cockneys that you must be born within the sound of Bow Bells to call yourself one of their crew. Naturally, these bells were cast at the Whitechapel Bell Foundry, the most famous bell foundry in the world.

Simon Meyer, Steeplekeeper at St Mary-le-Bow had to ascend Christopher Wren’s magnificent tower to change the clock to British Summer Time recently, which afforded me the opportunity to accompany him and view the bells for myself. When we arrived in the belfry, Simon leapt happily around upon the frame as if it were second nature to him yet I found it necessary to place my feet a little more deliberately as we negotiated the famous bells. ‘They’re about to ring,’ he announced at one moment, which filled my head with alarming thoughts of bells rotating in their frames but in fact turned out to be a clock chime which did not entail any movement of bells. Occasioning a reverberation within the belfry as powerful as the sound itself, this is not something I shall forget in a hurry.

The earliest record of the Bow Bells is from 1469 when the Common Council ordered a curfew rung each night at 9pm, marking the end of the apprentices’ working day. In 1588, Robert Greene compared Christopher Marlowe’s poetry to the sound of Bow Bells when he wrote, “for that I could make my verses jet upon the stage in tragical buskins, every word filling the mouth like the faburden of Bow-Bell, daring God out of Heaven with that Atheist ‘Tamerlaine.’”

After the Great Fire, Christopher Wren rebuilt St Mary-le-Bow and the association with Whitechapel began in 1738 when Master Founder Thomas Lester recast the tenor bell. In 1762, he recast the other seven bells and added two more to make a set of ten that were first rung to celebrate George III’s twenty-fifth’s birthday.

In the twentieth century, the bells were restored by H. Gordon Selfridge, the department store entrepreneur, yet these were destroyed within eight years when the church was bombed during an air raid on May 10th 1941. Climbing the tower today, you are immediately aware that it is a reconstruction since the internal structure is of concrete, creating the strange impression of utilitarian bunker clad in seventeenth century stonework.

The current set of twelve bells were cast in Whitechapel in 1956 by Arthur Hughes, and Alan Hughes, the current Whitechapel Bell Founder, recalls being taken out of school for the day by his father to witness the casting. Every bell has an inscription from the psalms and the first letter of each spells out D WHITTINGTON.

It was the use of a 1927 recording of Bow Bells by the BBC during World War II that took them to the widest audience, broadcasting their sound to occupied countries across Europe as a symbol of hope. Even today, the sound of Bow Bells is broadcast globally as the interval signal by the BBC World Service, making these the most familiar bells on the planet. Bow Bells are the definitive London bells and the signature of the capital in sound.

FOUNDED BY ALBERT ARTHUR HUGHES OF THE WHITECHAPEL BELL FOUNDRY 1956

THE WHITECHAPEL BELL FOUNDRY LONDON

“‘I do not know,’ says the great bell of Bow’

The ringers’ chamber

St Paul’s viewed from the tower of St Mary-le-Bow

Erected in 1821, the Whittington Stone commemorates the spot on Highgate Hill where Dick Whittington heard the Bow Bells in 1392 and decided to return to London and seek his fortune

This sculpture of the cat was added in 1964

Sculpture of Dick Whittington and his cat at the Guildhall by Lawrence Tindall, 1999

St Mary-le-Bow, Cheapside, c.1900 (Courtesy Bishopsgate Institute)

You may also like to read about

An Old Whitechapel Bell

A Visit To Great Tom At St Paul’s

A Petition to Save the Bell Foundry

Save the Whitechapel Bell Foundry

So Long, Whitechapel Bell Foundry

CLICK HERE TO SIGN THE PETITION

5 Responses leave one →
  1. March 30, 2017

    Another reason why we must save Whitechapel Bell Foundry the present set of 12 Bow bells were cast at Whitechapel (as per text) its all major history. The foundry has strong association the US, Empire and beyond its international. Come forward cousins and friends out there in the big wide world and help the East End Preservation Soc !please. I liked the modern interpretation by Lawrence Tindall of Dick W and his cat, puss seems so contented cuddled with master. Dick is pondering whether to stay in the big city with hand on chin. Poet John

  2. Helen Breen permalink
    March 30, 2017

    Greetings from Boston,

    “Occasioning a reverberation within the belfry as powerful as the sound itself, this is not something I shall forget in a hurry.”

    GA, thank you for braving the tower to share such a great story…

  3. March 30, 2017

    Another great bell-tale, thanks for sharing. Valerie

  4. Jim McDermott permalink
    March 31, 2017

    An incidental point, but doesn’t Cheapside seem significantly narrower before the Luftwaffe undertook civic improvements to its south side? An illusion, obviously; the steeple still determines the street’s width.

  5. Martin Palmer permalink
    March 31, 2017

    I am ashamed to admit that despite being a Londoner, born and bred, I have always assumed that the Great Bell of Bow was in Bow Church. However I don’t think my claim to being a cockney is under threat, as I am sure the ringing from St. Mary-le-Bow was audible in 1950 from where I was born.

    But… if the BBC World Service had been using Bow Bells to chime the hour for some time, then an awful lot of people worldwide could claim to have been born in the sound of Bow Bells.

    The world is full of cockneys!

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