[Bell Historians] 17th century numbers in bell tower

Richard Smith 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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