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A Visit To Great Tom At St Paul’s

March 28, 2017
by the gentle author

In the second of my series of the stories of Whitechapel Bells, I visit one of London’s biggest bells

Click to hear the sound of Great Tom

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

Great Paul

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

You may also like to read about

An Old Whitechapel Bell

A Petition to Save the Bell Foundry

Save the Whitechapel Bell Foundry

So Long, Whitechapel Bell Foundry


10 Responses leave one →
  1. Robin permalink
    March 28, 2017

    May I add ,from far across the sea that in my hometown of Burlington ,N.J. ,the parish of St.Mary’s Episcopalian church has bells from Whitechapel foundry. Here is a little grab off the wikipedia page about this lovely church…”It is a massive brownstone church with a long nave. The crossing is topped by a tall stone spire that has eight bells cast in England by Thomas Mears II at the Whitechapel Bell Foundry in 1865.[4] The church was designated a National Historic Landmark”. It is a beautiful old church and you can hear those beautiful bells peal across the town.
    I pray that this are going well with the petition to stop the sale and auction. There is just too much history to lose in an area of London that has already lost so much of it’s history to bombs and maniacal city planners and architects.

  2. March 28, 2017

    What a fabulous place to visit! Valerie

  3. March 28, 2017

    Great Tom was a super bell but had to be re-cast due to flaws in the casting mix I suspect. Same happened in Pepys time he records flaws in a batch of castings for lower level ships guns failing proof test, they just fell apart. Manufacturing was a bit hit or miss then scrap rate must have been high. Something must be saved from the closure of the Whitechapel Bell Foundry. Big Business and London Auth (your heritage & duty) must help the East End Society. I know lots has been said before on these pages-its worth saying again. Poet John

  4. March 28, 2017

    So much history here. I wonder what happened to the person who was responsible for dropping Big Tom on its way from Westminster?

    I do hope that this campaign has a successful outcome.

    With an education system keen to promote British values and British history, I can think of no better way to engage children and develop a love of history than through the stories of our bells. I can imagine a set of History and English lessons on this topic. If I was retired, I would develop some or write a children’s book.

    I hope someone does

  5. Dean Armond permalink
    March 28, 2017

    What a superb article!

    The words and pictures so vividly bring to life the history and heritage of the great city of London.

  6. Helen Breen permalink
    March 28, 2017

    Greetings from Boston,

    GA, great story and pics. Thanks for the perspective from “up there.” You were wise to time your visit between the hours.

    Missing London today …

  7. March 28, 2017

    Great photos. Must have been wonderful to get to see the bell.

  8. March 28, 2017

    Helen Breen, I am with you in missing London … and am also in Boston. Glad you found the GA’s wonderful and evocative writing.

    Love the pictures. What narrow stairways! Such a treat to see behind the scenes and above the city, along with the rich history of these bells.

  9. pauline taylor permalink
    March 28, 2017

    Very interesting and fascinating photos, thank you.

  10. Robert permalink
    March 29, 2017

    What a great back story and photos revealing the St Paul’s only known to certain people to the world.

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