[Bell Historians] 17th century numbers in bell tower
richard at ex-parrot.com
Thu Jan 27 14:10:49 GMT 2022
Tony via Bell-historians wrote:
> I had overlooked the significance of the middle initial.
> I've attached a composite image of the name and numbers.
Thank you very much for this.
The way in which the numbers are formed are somewhat
different to the letters in the name, so it's not obvious
they are the work of the same hand. Equally, numbers were
often written in a very simple, non-cursive manner, and
signatures were often quite elaborate, so this is not
evidence they were written by different people – merely a
lack of evidence that they were not.
Spelling William with a 'y' is a useful data point. The use
of a 'y' in names where today we would use an 'i' was
moderately common during Elizabethan times but had almost
died out by the time of Restoration. The source of this
information is parish registers which were kept by parish
clerks. We might presume they had greater literacy than the
writer of a graffito where archaic spellings might have
survived longer. Nevertheless, it is indicative that the
1641 date is correct, especially if the writer was an older
man with a dated style of writing, as could be the case for
the man who died with married children in 1651. The general
style of the handwriting is consistent with this date too.
I'm not so certain that the 'F' in the name is a middle
initial, or even an 'F' at all. If this were a signature at
the end of a written document from 1641, my supposition
would be that William Battell was unable to write, either
due to illiteracy or infirmity, and the supposed 'F' is
actually 'his mark'. It was very common to write the
person's name around their mark in this manner. I've never
encountered this in graffiti, though I've not made any great
study of them; nevertheless, I find it a more plausible
hypothesis than that William Battell had a middle name,
anachronistically. Another possibility is that it is simply
an embelishment, or perhaps an aborted attempt at a capital
'B' – though in the latter case, we'd have to explain why it
was aborted when it looks perfectly correct.
The digits in the year 1641 are very similar to the other
inscribed figures – in particular the form of the '4' – but
digits were subject to much less variation than letters. The
absence of any 2s or 3s in the year and coversely of any 6s
in the other figures, makes it hard to be certain. However
the proximity of the figures to the name does support them
being contemporary, and (aside from the questionable middle
initial) I can see no reason not to assume the whole dates
to 1641. The simplest explanation is probably the right
You haven't said exactly where this graffito is, other than
in the tower. It might be useful to know that. Is it in
the ground floor ringing room, or higher up the tower? And
do you have any feel for where the bells wound have been
rung from in the seventeenth century? Many rings that are
today rung from the ground floor were originally rung from
an upstairs ringing room, and either moved downstairs by
censorious Victorian clerics, or more recently to improve
accessibility. If the figures are on the ground floor and
the bells were rung upstairs, this would have implications
for the likely meaning of the figures.
Why do I not believe that this is a tune? The notation and
fact that only four digits are used would seem to suggest
that, if it is a tune, then it's one to be played on the
bells – rather than say by a choir, organ or some other
instrument. (Gareth Davies has brought to my attention that
William Cole's manuscript – written in the mid eighteenth
century – also says there were four bells.)
By 1641 there were certainly clocks with chiming barrels
which played tunes. Chris Pickford recently brought an
older one in East Hendred, Oxfordshire to my attention.
This is a village only slightly larger than Little Eversden,
so they were not the sole preserve of big town churches.
But if that's the case here, why take the time to inscribe
the tune on the tower wall? If the aim was to record that
Battell paid for the clock – and the man who died in 1651
was a man of some substance who could have afforded to –
wouldn't we expect a more formal board or tablet?
For a tune to make sense, we really need it to have been
played manually by one or more people standing near the
figures. It needn't have been in a direct line of sight if
it was an aide-mémoire to be consulted before playing the
tune, or was to be read out by a conductor. My difficulty
here is that I'm aware of almost no evidence that tunes were
played manually on bells in England in the seventeenth
century – though they were certainly doing so in the Low
Countries at this time.
Perhaps the evidence is there and I'm not familiar with it,
but the only suggestion I've seen of tunes being rung on
bells in England at this time is in 'The Academy of Armory',
an encyclopædia by Randle Holme that was printed in 1688,
though apparently begun in 1649. He lists 'several wayes of
Ringing Bells', including some pertaining to change ringing.
The final way is 'In Chimes, when the Bells Strik, or are
stricken on one side only, either in Tunes or Round'. What
he does not specifically say is whether tunes were chimed
manually or automatically from a chiming barrel. We know
the latter happened, but I know of no evidence for the
I agree that the division into lines of 8, 6, 8 and 6 is
reminiscent of common metre, which was already in widespread
use in 1641. If there were unambiguous evidence that tunes
were chimed manually on bells at this times, I would be
persuaded that is the case here. Likewise if it turns out
this is a known tune from this period if interpretted with 1
as the treble, or if there are other towers with figures of
this sort that are unquestioably seventeenth century tunes.
But if we're using these numbers as evidence that some
hitherto unknown form of tune ringing was being practised at
Little Eversden in the seventeenth century, then I want the
case to be rather stronger than the one presented here so
far. It feels like a stack of cards waiting to tumble down
when we discover – oh, I don't know – maybe that William
Battell was actually the sexton and these the number of
people be buried each week during an outbreak of plague.
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