[Bell Historians] 17th century numbers in bell tower

Richard Smith richard at ex-parrot.com
Tue Jan 25 14:17:59 GMT 2022

Tony via Bell-historians wrote:

> Can anyone help explain this group of numbers scratched in 
> my local bell tower? I believe they were written around 
> 1641.
> 4 3 1 2 2 3 1 4
> 4 3 1 3 2 1
> 4 3 1 2 2 3 1 4
> 3 2 3 1 2 4
> If this is C17 bell notation, would it imply whole-pulls, 
> lead-ends, or something else?

The only seventeenth century changes I'm familiar with are 
written out in full in the modern notation, with bells 
numbered with 1 as the treble, and each new row written on a 
separate line.  It was common to omit the initial rounds, 
but not invariably so.  When the rows were continued into a 
second column for reasons of space, it was normal not to 
repeat the last row of the first column at the head of the 
second column, as we normally do now.

The rule that every bell rang once and only once in every 
row seems to have been inviolable.  Jump changes (where a 
bell moves by more than one position) are known to have been 
used occasionally in the second half of the century. 1641 is 
probably late enough that the transition from plain changes 
to the simplest cross peals had been made in some parts of 
the country, but I'm sure plain changes would have been the 
norm in most towers, particularly in rural areas.  Methods 
like Plain Bob Minimus and Old Doubles were probably being 
practiced in at least London and Oxford.

Your changes do not conform to the normal way of writing any 
method that I can imagine being rung in the seventeeth 
century, however I wouldn't dismiss the possibility that 
they are related to method ringing.  One possibility is that 
this is recording the order in which a bell (presumably the 
5) strikes over other bells.  For example, in Plain Hunt or 
Plain Bob Doubles, the five starts by ringing over 4, 3, 1, 
2.  The pattern breaks there for Plain Hunt or Plain Bob, 
but it could work for another method.  The absence of 
leading could be explained if either the 5 is covering, or 
the line breaks represent leading.

James's suggestion that this might be a clock chime was my 
first thought too, but on reflection I think this is less 
likely.  Why would the notes of the chime be scratched into 
the wall in this manner?  Recording something to help 
ringers makes sense as it helps the ringers.  Knowing how 
deeply engraved the figures are would help, as it would give 
an idea of how much time someone spent recording them.

As Chris says, it would be very helpful to know which tower 
this was.  Not only might someone have already investigated 
them, but it will allow us to see how many bells there are 
believed to have been in 1641.  If there were only four, 
this rules out the possibility that this is figures for the 
ringer of the 5.

Finally, what is the evidence for the figures dating to 
1641?  There are a number of towers with change ringing 
figures engraved or painted on the wall, some of which are 
believed to date to this period, but I don't believe any can 
be dated with certainty.


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