Arno Gasteiger

In full swing

Though the age of electronics has robbed  bells of many of their traditional roles,there is a world of ringing that has remained unchanged for 300 years.

Written by       Photographed by Arno Gasteiger

Hear the mellow wedding bells, golden bells! What a world of hap­piness their harmony foretells!”

So wrote Edgar Allan Poe, and, in­deed, few sounds are more beguiling than bells—especially since tel­ephones and alarm clocks stopped ringing and began chirruping.

Every week, dedicated people from all walks of life gather in seven New Zealand churches to take part in a 300-year-old ritual. They meet in the porches or climb narrow stairways (in Wellington Cathedral, they take a lift) to the ringing chamber, to spend two hours pulling on ropes.

It is an extraordinary practice—a combination of music and mathemat­ics that demands teamwork, timing and concentration. It also has a language of its own, and one which has enriched the English tongue with its images.

Bell-ringers call it “the Exercise,” though it is not physically demand­ing—in England, where it originated, a few pints follow every practice. All connection with religion was broken by the Reformation (ringing was strictly forbidden on Sundays) and only formally restored in the late 19th century, though “secular” ringing had continued in the interim.

Graham Rogers, one of the ringers of Old St Paul's, Wellington, gets into full swing.
Graham Rogers, one of the ringers of Old St Paul’s, Wellington, gets into full swing.

What bellringers do is “ring the changes”—that is, ring their bells in sequence, starting with downward scales (“rounds”) to set the rhythm, then working their way systematically through different sequences of all the bells until they return to the original rounds.

Change ringing must not be con­fused with the playing of tunes, which is what happens on carillons and chimes. Change ringers always “ring”the bells, never “play” them.

Gerald Mcllhone, a Wellington en­gineer, has been ringing since he was seven and could barely reach the rope. Like many of this country’s best ringers (there are no prizes), he learned in England. To him the language of bells is second nature: he can easily sing changes, describe them numerically, or speak them, after the fashion of Dorothy Sayers’ novel The Nine Tai­lors:

“Tin tan din dan bim bam bom bo! Tan tin dan din ban bim bo born! Tin tan dan din bim barn born bo!”

That, he tells me, is the beginning of Kent Major. Kent is the name of the “method,” or system of changes; Ma­jor means it is rung on eight bells.

Other numbers of bells have equally intriguing titles:

4 Minimus
5 Doubles
6 Minor
7 Triples
8 Major
9 Caters (from the French quatre, 4)
10 Royal
11 Cinques (from the French for 5)
12 Maximus

The names for the odd-numbered methods refer to the number of pairs of bells that change places at each change. To add to the confusion, tri­ples, caters and cinques (pronounced “sinks”) are actually rung on the next (even) number up; the lowest bell, the tenor, sounds at the end of each change, providing a steady tolling throughout, and is not counted.

All ringers have their favourite changes. “Grandsire Triples” is popu­lar , but “Double Norwich Court Bob Major” has its ardent advocates, too. A full peal of Double Norwich has been rung only once in New Zealand, at St Matthews-in-the-City on June 22, 1991. It took just over three hours to ring.

Before the evening’s ringing be­gins, Gerald Mcllhone leads me up another flight of stairs to Wellington Cathedral’s bell chamber where the 14 bells hang, safely “rung down,” with mouths downward.

When in use, the bells swing in a full circle, from upside down to up­side down and back again. A wooden stay sticking up from the headstock pushes a slider back and forth so that both inverted positions are stable. The stay is designed to break and be easily replaced if an inexperienced ringer uses too much force. An old rhyme says: “If a bell you overthrow, ’twill cost you sixpence ‘ere you go.”

Ringers speak of bells having good “go,”—jargon for good balance, firm mountings and smooth bearings. Un­til the advent of ball bearings at the turn of the century, ringers had to use footstraps to help them pull—and it helped if the ringers were well lubri­cated internally.

The bell chamber is a dangerous place when the bells are “rung up”—mouth upward, waiting to ring—or when they are literally in full swing. Four of New Zealand’s swung bells weigh a tonne or more, but these ap­parent giants actually come nowhere in the size stakes.

Big Ben weighs 13 tons newt. Great Paul in St Paul’s Cathedral is even bigger, at 16 tons 141/2 cwt. The biggest bell in the world is the Tsar Kolokol (Tsar Bell) in Moscow, a whopping 180 tonnes. It was broken by fire in 1737, two years after it was cast, and has never rung.

Bells are occasionally made of steel, but normally an alloy of copper and 13 to 25 per cent tin is used. The tin makes the alloy brittle, so bigger bells have less. Small amounts of other metals may be present, but that has more to do with sentiment than acoustics—the gold coins that are sometimes thrown into the melt dissolve almost immediately. The alloy actually im­proves with remelting, so old bells are rarely thrown away.

Casting occurs in a two-part mould consisting of the “cope,” which defines the shape of the bell’s exterior, and the “core,” which gives the interior shape. Both parts are lined with “loam,” a mix­ture of clay, sand, straw and, tradi­tionally, a little horse dung to im­prove the texture. The loam is shaped by a template and then baked until hard.

Plaques recording memorable peals hang on the walls of the St Matthew's ringing chamber, inspiring the ringers to greater efforts.
Plaques recording memorable peals hang on the walls of the St Matthew’s ringing chamber, inspiring the ringers to greater efforts.

After the two halves of the mould have been fitted together, bell metal is poured in at a temperature of around 1100°C, and “tamped in” to drive out bubbles. Cooling is carefully controlled to prevent the buildup of stresses,and large bells are usually buried in sand for several weeks until they have completely cooled. The outcome is unpredictable: the saying “as sur­prised as a bellfounder” reflects the fact that a bell rarely comes out of the mould in tune—but it does happen.

A bell is thickest near the rim and at the top. The clapper is designed to strike the rim at a point of maximum vibration—called an antinode—but spaced equally around the rim, and running up the sides of the bell, are zones of no movement at all—the nodes.

When struck, the whole bell divides itself into segments which move in dif­ferent directions, with the nodes in be­tween. This bulging and bellying pro­duces a complex acoustic behaviour which results in not just one note per bell, but a series of harmonics or “partials,” many of which are discordant.

A good tone in a bell comes from the balancing of the harmonics to produce a pleasing sound, and this is achieved in the foundry by paring metal off the interior surface using a vertical lathe.

Tuning of the partials is a recent phenomenon; before this century bells were rung the way they came out of the mould. It was only when the techniques used in Belgium and the Netherlands to tune chimes were adopted in England that change-ringing bells were given this extra tuning treatment. Even so, only the first five partials are tuned.

Because bells vibrate in complex ways, their sound varies with the listener’s position. At the moment the clapper strikes a tower bell, many untuned partials are heard, giving a metallic clang that dies away almost immediately. The upper partials can then be heard. The prime and the octave above it (called the “nominal,” because some people hear it as the main note) are strong and sustained, but it is the hum note, weak at first, that outlasts them all, like the smile on the Cheshire cat.

Clappers are designed to wear away, rather than wear out the bells. The clappers of chimes and clock bells swing only a short distance, and are much heavier than those for change ringing, which traverse the bell mouth once during each swing.

A ringer has control of a bell only at the very top of its swing. Through the greater part it is swinging freely, and all a ringer can do is slightly advance or retard the moment each swing begins or ends. This can be disconcerting for a beginner: once you get out of time all you can do is stop and hope to come in again at the right place in the next sequence.

A session begins with “ringing up,” swinging the bells in wider and wider arcs until they are inverted. This results in an inevitable clangour before ringing proper begins. When a bell is not in use, one of two distinctive knots is tied in the rope to show whether it is rung down or rung up—safe or dangerous. Anyone caught in the dangling loop of a bell that was rung up could hang in it when the bell pulled the rope from floor to ceiling, though that has never happened in New Zealand.

When the conductor has decided what method to ring (based on the number and skill of the ringers), the person ringing the treble, the highest bell being run, calls “Treble’s going!” and as the bell begins to fall, “Treble’s gone!” or “She’s gone!” (All bells are female.)

The most experienced ringer usually takes the low note, the tenor, which is the heaviest bell being rung and the most difficult to make changes on.

[Chapter Break]

Modern bells have their origins in the Italian province of Campania—hence the name campanology for the subject of bells. But it was England that made change ringing its own, and earned the title “The Ringing Isles.”

The principles of change ringing are generally regarded to have been laid down by Fabian Stedman in 1668, but rudiments of the Exercise had existed for at least half a century before that. Ringers continue to compose new methods, frequently with computer assistance, and nowadays they are often published as computer printouts, with a bell’s path marked by a blue line.

Strictly speaking, a “change” is what happens between pulls of the ropes, but colloquially a change is the order in which all the bells are rung once; when written down it is called a row.

Judith Bailey literally "learns the ropes" from Gerald McIlhone, the most experienced bellringer at Wellington Cathedral. The main challenge in change ringing, apart from the mental effort of remembering hundreds of different ringing sequences, is to get the bell to sound exactly when you want it to. In all bells there is delay between when you pull on the rope and when the clapper strikes the bell.
Judith Bailey literally “learns the ropes” from Gerald McIlhone, the most experienced bellringer at Wellington Cathedral. The main challenge in change ringing, apart from the mental effort of remembering hundreds of different ringing sequences, is to get the bell to sound exactly when you want it to. In all bells there is delay between when you pull on the rope and when the clapper strikes the bell.

A bell may not sound twice in one change, and a change may not be rung twice in one method. There is also a shorthand to describe different changes, and some of the most melodious rows have their own names: the familiar 13572468 is called Queens, and 15263748 rejoices in the name of Tittums. Whittingtons—12753468—is often used at weddings.

To ringers, a peal is not just any joyful ringing, but a certain number of changes to be rung. For example, with seven bells or less, tradition decrees that there be 5040 changes rung. That number neatly exhausts the permutations of seven bells (5040 changes = 7 factorial, or 7 x 6 x 5 x 4 x 3 x 2 x 1, and is called the “extent” of seven bells).

On fewer than seven bells, changes must be repeated to complete a peal—seven times on six bells, 42 times on five. To avoid the monotony this might cause, different methods are used throughout the peal. On more than seven bells, any number of changes over 5000 is acceptable.

Ringing a peal is a memorable event, to be recorded  on a plaque or in a ringers’ magazine. A “touch,” part of a peal, is rung much more often—before church services or at weddings, for example.

So, how difficult is it to learn bell ringing? According to Wellington ringer David Murray, “In the beginning it’s hard to get the rhythm, the feel of the bell, because the rope’s rushing by so fast. But once you get used to it, it seems really slow. It’s not that hard once you’ve mastered it: at any given moment you either can ring or you can’t.”

One of Christchurch Cathedral's up-and-coming ringers, John Clayton (age 15), watches the changes intently while referring to a manual of ringing methods. Bob Bennett supervises.
One of Christchurch Cathedral’s up-and-coming ringers, John Clayton (age 15), watches the changes intently while referring to a manual of ringing methods. Bob Bennett supervises.

Beyond the maths and the memory required, there is an added difficulty: the clapper does not hit the bell until well after the rope has been pulled—nearly a second on the larger bells—while the “strokes” of a change are at a rate of several per second. A ringer must constantly anticipate his place, using both hearing and “rope-sight.” The brightly coloured woollen “sal­lies,” like bullrushes woven into the ropes, give the ringer something to focus on, and help him keep the rhythm.

Wellington Cathedral’s ringing chamber is large but comfortably nondescript, with the well-used fur­niture typical of the side rooms of most churches. Only the circle of ropes coining through grommets in the ceiling, and a chart of the cathedral’s bells on one wall betrays its purpose. Plaques from St Edmunds, Northampton, source of seven of the bells, commemorate peals and their ringers, and a 1000-piece jigsaw puz­zle on a table in the corner occupies anyone who is not ringing.

Pleasance Purser, a librarian at Parliament, is Master of the Bellringers. (The Exercise is more emancipated than its terminology, and more and more women ring.) She is often the conductor, the ringer in charge of a peal or touch. She calls “Go London!” (or whatever the method is called) to start, calls the changes during the more difficult methods, or “Rounds!” if things go wrong. “That’s all!” is called when the last method is about to end, and “Stand!” stops all ringing. The con­ductor makes each call one handstroke and one backstroke (“one whole pull”) before it is carried out.

When practice with the big bells finishes, the ringer of Wellington Cathedral turn to handbells. Clockwise from top-right corner are Jane Marshall, Pleasance Purser, Brett Young, Jean Murphy, Gerald McIlhone and Tim Pink.
When practice with the big bells finishes, the ringer of Wellington Cathedral turn to handbells. Clockwise from top-right corner are Jane Marshall, Pleasance Purser, Brett Young, Jean Murphy, Gerald McIlhone and Tim Pink.

Surprisingly, the bells are far from deafening in the ringing chamber. The ceiling is so soundproof that a hatch has to be opened, or a speaker-system connected to microphones in the bell chamber turned on, to allow ringers to hear the bells properly. Fur­thermore, the ropes, rollers, stays and sliders, and even the rocking of the mountings themselves, make a vari­ety of low thumps, unheard outside the tower, that make the ringing chamber a less than ideal place to listen.

An old hand like Gerald Mcllhone can ring on autopi­lot. “You can fall asleep while ringing,” he remarks. “The shock is when you wake up and don’t know where you are—especially if you’ve been conducting over a long period, and 11 other people are relying on you to get them safely to the end. It’s like driving, when you suddenly realise you have no memory of the last 40 kilometres.”

The journey metaphor is appropriate. Unlike a musical performance with subtleties of loud and soft, light and shade, pauses and changes of pace, with bells you are literally “go­ing like the clappers” the whole time.

A late starter like Tony Greaves has to give it his full attention: “I’m desperately following my blue line-7 8, 8 7 … It’s 100 per cent concentra­tion as far as I’m concerned.”

A retired priest who uses ringing to keep up his connection with the church, Greaves looks the part with his bushy RAF-style moustache. “I’m a shocking ringer,” he confesses, “but they put up with me. I love the peo­ple and I love the art.”

Like many others, he appreciates the variety of people who ring, and the way the Exercise cuts across so­cial classes. Across denominational lines, too. At Dunedin’s First Church, the bellringers’ secretary Elizabeth McLennan says most of them are not Presbyterian: “At five to ten most of us drop the ropes and race across to the (Anglican) Cathedral on the other side of the Octagon. One races to another Presbyterian church at the other end of town, and one’s a Salva­tionist.”

New Zealand's largest bell, the 5.5-tonne Reo Wairua ("the Spirit's voice") hangs along with 64 others in the 51-metre tower of the Wellington War Memorial Carillon. It plays a booming A-flat.
New Zealand’s largest bell, the 5.5-tonne Reo Wairua (“the Spirit’s voice”) hangs along with 64 others in the 51-metre tower of the Wellington War Memorial Carillon. It plays a booming A-flat.

By contrast, Wellington Cathedral ringer Brett Young, Tony Greaves’s son-in-law, confides that “at 10 o’clock most of us are out of here—we’re not religious types!”

Sixty-eight-year-old Aucklander Bill Lack displayed similarly apos­tate tendencies in his youth: he be­gan ringing with his father at the age of 15 to get out of Sunday School. He’s highly regarded in ringing cir­cles as an expert on the mechanics of bells, and was the main person re­sponsible for bringing the bells of St Matthew’s-in-the-City back into play in 1972. Lack describes himself as a “grey eminence” in ringing—more of a belfry me­chanic, with long absences from the ringing chamber.

He agrees that ringing is addic­tive, and ringers “certainly a little bit mad.” For some people, he says, ringing can be an act of wor­ship. Others have a more intellec­tual approach.

Ringers are organised into socie­ties and guilds. Most are members of the Australian and New Zealand As­sociation of Bellringers, which in turn is affiliated to the British-based Central Council of Bellringers, which makes the rules.

Because neighbours who do not appreciate the nuances have a limited tolerance for bellringing, especially when ringers are inexperienced, prac­tices may be held with the shutters in the tower closed, or with bells muf­fled, sounding only the mysterious hum notes and forcing ringers to rely on rope-sight. (At Wellington this happens monthly, because practices regularly clash with a cathedral meet­ing. Even so, Pleasance Purser says the dean and vestry are “highly ringable.” “Unringable vicars” are the bane of bellringers’ lives.)

A very different effect is that of ringing the bells “half-muffled:” a leather damper on one side of the clapper quietens the bell on alternate strokes, and because the alternate strokes stay in step, whole changes are alternately loud and muffled—a mournful echo effect.


Wellington's carillonist Timothy Hurd gives a recital, using both fists and feet to sound the bells.
Wellington’s carillonist Timothy Hurd gives a recital, using both fists and feet to sound the bells.

Half-muffled touches were rung for 30 minutes before and after Billy T James’s memorial service in St Mat­thew’s-in-the-City.

(Those for whom even muffled bellringing is a musical pestilence might care to quote the following piece of doggerel to their local campanolo­gists. It was penned by the Parish Clerk of St Peter’s, Norwich, who was objecting to 6am practices: “Ye ras­cally ringers, inveterate foes, Disturb­ers of those who are fond of repose, I wish, for the peace and quiet of these lands, That ye had round your necks what ye pull with your hands.”)

When ringing is forbidden alto­gether (after 9pm at most churches) many ringers continue on handbells. There is now no need to anticipate, but ringers hold two or even four bells each, just to keep it from being too easy.

Handbell ringers may sometimes practise in silence without bells, us­ing only their thumbs—and mystifying any onlookers.

Change ringing is strongest in Brit­ain, the Commonwealth (both present and former) and the United States. In Canada, Britain and Aus­tralia, several Roman Catholic churches and cathedrals have rings of bells, and in some countries schools, universities, town halls, post offices, and even, in Massachusetts, the Perkins Institute for the Blind all have ringable bells.


Ringers pity the benighted Europeans, who think bells are to play tunes on, but that scorn doesn’t deter Timothy Hurd, resident ringer of New Zealand’s most popular set of bells: the War Memorial Carillon in Wel­lington. (The French pronounce it “kariYAW(N)”; we compromise with “kaRILyon.”)

With its 65 bells it is the largest carillon in the southern hemisphere. The bells range from one of 10kg up to “Reo Wairua” (the Spirit’s voice) at 5.5 tonnes, easily the biggest bell in the country. It bears the inscrip­tion “Ana! Te tangi aroha” (Hark! The lament of love).

There is room in the tower for four more large bells: carillonist Timothy Hurd bemoans the fact that without them he can not play a fifth of all modern pieces. The biggest would weigh 12 tonnes, and the four would cost about $1 million, but installing them would be rela­tively easy; the front door would admit them all, and trapdoors are in place all the way up the centre of the tower.

Hurd gives five 45-minute recitals a week from a console called a cla­vier, which has all the visual charm of an electric chair. The player hits its finger-shaped wooden keys with his or her bare fists, or sometimes two at a time with fingers and thumb, often with breathtaking speed. The bottom 27 keys are coupled to ped­als, enabling three or (rarely) four widely spaced bells to be played at a time.

Surprisingly little force is needed; the cables run straight up to the bell cranks, from which other cables pull the clappers. The clappers weigh up to 180kg, but they are counterbalanced by springs and move only about five centime­tres.

Carillons are transposing instru­ments; the bells of Wellington’s in­strument play in B-flat, one whole tone lower than the keyboard. Reo Wairua sounds A-flat from a B-flat key and pedal.

Not only is the music of carillons completely different from change ringing, but, as a solo activity, it is socially quite different: bands of ringers visit each other’s towers to ring their bells, but carillonists hold international conventions and com­petitions. Bellringers share the ex­perience, but carillonists have little contact with their audience.

Tower clocks employ electrically-driven hammers to sound the quarters. Most play the Westminster Chimes, but the clock in Dunedin's Municipal Chambers plays a variation on five bells, instead of the usual four.
Tower clocks employ electrically-driven hammers to sound the quarters. Most play the Westminster Chimes, but the clock in Dunedin’s Municipal Chambers plays a variation on five bells, instead of the usual four.

Hurd’s standard repertoire is by Belgian and Dutch composers, with some transcriptions of other music,but Hurd himself composes. The har­monics of carillon bells suit minor keys better than major ones, he says.

On Marsland Hill in the centre of New Plymouth stands New Zealand’s only other true carillon. (A carillon must have at least 23 bells—two chro­matic octaves, less the expensive and rarely played two lowest flats. Fewer bells are called chimes.)

The Kibby Carillon was given to the city in 1971 by heel- and toeplate manufacturer G. C. (Jack) Kibby, who lived near the hill. Its 37 Dutch-made bells are struck by electrically driven hammers, controlled from a keyboard or a punched plastic tape player in a small room nearby. The carillon is played automatically at 9.30am and 4pm daily. Vandals sometimes throw stones at the bells, damaging the sole­noids that drive the hammers.

The 19 chimes in Napier’s Clive Square have a keyboard, but they are seldom, if ever, played manually. They play automatically four times a day, and their harp-shaped frame stands in the centre of a pool of water, which Parks Manager Don Bell says is an excellent way to keep vandals away.

In Wanganui, near the Sarjeant Gal­lery, is a set of 16 Dutch-made chimes that play tunes under electronic control at 15-minute intervals during the day. A keyboard is used on special occasions such as Christmas.

Nearby, on the museum roof, are the eight dome-shaped Burnett bells, bought in 1904 by Cornelius Burnett.

A ringer has to climb a ladder into the museum attic to chime them by ropes, and after two attempts they have remained silent.

Peter Adams, Master of the St Matthew's Society of Bellringers, is all concentration during a ring.
Peter Adams, Master of the St Matthew’s Society of Bellringers, is all concentration during a ring.

Most New Zealand tower clocks that chime play the Westminster chimes, or a close approximation. They consist of only five bars, re­peated (see above). Oddly, most peo­ple, if asked for the tune of the West­minster Chimes, will sing the third quarter.

The bells on top of the art deco MLC building (now Robert Ellis House) in Wellington’s Lambton Quay can easily be seen playing the Westminster Chimes, because they hang in a frame behind the clock tower.

So similar are they to the chimes of the British Houses of Parliament that they were used before the nine o’clock radio news broadcasts during the Second World War, and no one was the wiser.

The hour bell was donated by phi­lanthropist Sarah Anne Rhodes (nee Moorhouse) in memory of her hus­band, William Barnard Rhodes, sea­farer, runholder and Member of the House of Representatives. (Sir Robert Heaton Rhodes, who gave the bells of Christchurch Cathedral, was his brother.)

The bells were first installed in the old Wellington Post Office in 1889. (The previous set melted in the fire of 1887 and the metal was stolen.) They were removed after the earthquake of 1942, and installed in the MLC Building in 1954.

The mechanism of Ashburton’s town clock (which features in the District Council’s logo) was installed in the imposing brick and stone Post Office in 1904. When the Post Office was demolished as an earthquake risk in 1946, the parts languished along with a heap of tractor spares in the borough council yard for nearly 30 years. Ralph Crum, who had helped demolish the tower, worked with Li­ons Club members for 600 hours over 12 months to restore the mechanism, then offered it to the county council, suggesting a new tower as a centen­nial (1976) project.

A chime of bells in Greymouth is silent since the Murchison earth­quake of 1929 felled the Post Office tower where they hung.

The bells of the clock in Dunedin’s Municipal Chambers are unique: the quarters are played on five bells (four chimes and the 1.52-tonne hour bell, using a second hammer) instead of the usual four. The additional bell gives the tune a special flavour.

The tune was composed by A W McArthur, foreman of John Hislops, the firm that erected the clock in 1880. It took nine months to install the mechanism because Mr McAr­thur, it is said, took frequent breaks at a nearby pub. At the opening, John Hislop predicted the clock would last 200 years, and so far it has shown astonishingly little wear.

If protected from corrosion and misuse, bells, too, can last a very long time. The oldest church bell still ring­ing is “Jhesus” at St Rombouts Cathe­dral, Mechelen, Belgium, dated 1480.

Perhaps that’s just as well, because in this country’s present economic state it is doubtful whether we will be able to afford any more for a while.

We will just have to use the ones we have to cast their special magic—in Poe’s words, “the tintinabulation that so musically wells, From the bells, bells, bells, bells . . .”

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