[Bell Historians] Re: Bell numbering in the early 16th century

Richard Smith richard at V5sgOtqiGUf0P699I3IsYvnVAzbRX6n8OVBNJoXaOzO3Ew1c7eysJYpbrpbVV52RMcddkYjVtnf3UNFD.yahoo.invalid
Sun Sep 23 14:00:20 BST 2012

Thanks to everyone who replied, on or off list, to my query 
about bell numbering.

At Chris Pickford's suggestion I've looked at some of the 
published transcripts of the Edwardian inventories.  Not 
very many give the dimensions or weights, but there are 
enough for a picture of sorts to emerge.  And it appears 
that reverse numbering -- that is, numbering the tenor as 
the first bell -- is much more common than I had supposed. 
Let me give a brief summary.

   * Herefordshire[1].  Diameters are frequently given, and I
     found no instances of reverse numbering.  The formula
     used to describe the bells varies little: "M bells
     whereof the least [or first] is X inches, the second Y
     inches [repeat as needed] broad across the mouth."

   * Exeter[2].  Many rough drafts survive and weights are
     frequently given in them; all are numbered in reverse.
     A similar style applies to all entries.
       - Exeter Cathedral.  In the heavy eight, six
         of the bells are named, the remaining two are
         numbered ('sixte' and 'eight') in reverse.

   * Bedfordshire[3].  Details vary considerably between
     churches.  The following give enough detail to infer an
       - Harlington.  Diameters and heights given; numbered
       - Hulcott.  Circumferences and heigts given; numbered
       - Husborn Crawley.  Diamters and heights given;
         numbered in reverse.
       - Salford.  Circumferences and heights given; numbered
         in reverse.
       - Cranfield.  Weights given; numbered conventionally.

   * Berkshire[4].  Only one tower gives individual details.
       - Bucklebury.  Weights given; numbered conventionally.

   * Oxfordshire[5], Buckinghamshire[6], Huntingdonshire[7],
     Cambridgeshire[8], Yorkshire, Durham, Northumberland[9].
     No dimensions given anywhere.

Because of the uniform style applied to the inventories of 
Herefordshire and of Exeter, we cannot consider the many 
towers in those areas to be independent examples for 
forwards or reverse numbering.  No doubt the style was 
imposed by the commissioners.  However, the numbering of two 
of the bells at Exeter Cathedral may perhaps be the 
preservation of a separate instance of reverse numbering.

Aside from Herefordshire and Exeter, there are two instances 
of reverse numbering and four of forwards numbering. 
Although not during the reign of Edward VI, the inventory of 
St Andrew's, Norwich (1567) is another instance of 
forwarding number, and the inventory of Shrewsbury Abbey 
(probably 1540s) contains one of each.  I reckon that brings 
the total to roughly 8 forwards versus 5 reverse.

One obvious criticism of relying too heavily on the 
Edwardian inventories is that they were conducted the men 
who, in all liklihood, had little interest in bells.  They 
cared how much money could be realised from their sale, not 
about recording their details for posterity.  But there's no 
reason to suppose that the parish clerk or churchwarden who 
wrote up the parishes' accounts books of the time had much 
understanding of the bells either.  And even if they made 
the effort to be accurate, there is no reason to suppose the 
modern numbering was applied uniformly by the ringers of the 

An interesting example where the numbering seems not to have 
applied throughout the circle is found in the parish 
accounts of Ludlow[10].  The accounts for 1546 include 14d 
for a rope for the "secounde tenor", 13d for a rope for the 
"fi[-]st belle", 13d for a rope for the "secounde belle" 
(13d), and 6d for a rope for the "first mas belle" 
(presumably a sanctus bell).

In this case, the entries are readily deciphered.  The 
"secounde tenor" is presumably the second heaviest, and on 
the assumption that they didn't need to replace the rope 
twice in a year, the "secounde belle" must be the second 
lightest.  But given the evidence for backwards numbering 
found in the Edwardian inventories, it's easy to imagine a 
similar example where the word "tenor" was omitted (or was 
illegible and "bell" was assumed).

I have found no evidence for other sorts of numbering, such 
as the Italian form that David Bagley mentions, or numbering 
exclusive of the great bell which was suggested to me off 

Although my sample of inventories is small, I think it is 
large enough to conclude that, in the mid-16th century, 
reverse numbering was fairly common, and that it would be 
unsafe to assume that numbering was necessarily from 
lightest to heaviest, as it now is.  For example, the 
reference to the third bell and the great bell in the Great 
St Mary's accounts for 1528 could be referring to the 
third-heaviest and heaviest bells, and therefore it is not 
evidence of there being more than three bells in 1528.  (In 
fact, there is enough additional evidence to believe it more 
likely than not that there were four bells from at least 
1513.  But I would have welcomed confirmation of this.)

If my conclusion is correct, it could have quite broad 
implications as I suspect a lot of research has been done 
assuming that numbering was always in the modern fashion.



[1] Sharpe, F., /The Church Bells of Herefordshire/
[2] Cresswell, B.F., The Edwardian Inventories for the City
     and County of Exeter/ (1916)
[3] Eeles, F.C., /The Edwardian inventories for
     Bedfordshire/ (1905)
[3] Money, W., /Parish Church Goods in Berkshire, A.D. 1552/
[5] Graham, R., /The Chantry Certificates/ (1919)
[6] Eeles, F.C., /The Edwardian inventories for
     Buckinghamshire/ (1908)
[7] Lomas, S.C., /The Edwardian inventories for
     Huntingdonshire/ (1906)
[8] Muskett, J.J., /Cambridgeshire church goods/ (1943?)
[9] Page, W., /The inventories of church goods for the
     counties of York, Durham, and Northumberland / (1897)
[10] Walters, H.B., /The Church Bells of Shropshire/ (1915)


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