[Bell Historians] 17th century numbers in bell tower

Richard Smith richard at ex-parrot.com
Thu Jan 27 20:57:32 GMT 2022

La Greenall wrote:

> The middle 'initial' looks to me much more like a flourish or a personal
> cipher than the mere mark of an illiterate - although it could be both at
> the same time of course. I see more of a personal seal or the equivalent of
> a mason's mark in it. It has a strong presence.

That does sound extremely plausible to me.  Maybe a good 
next step is to see if a copy of Battell's signature 
survives to see whether it contains a similar device or 
monogram.  The 1651 will in the National Archives is a 
registered copy made shortly after probate was granted, so 
does contain Battell's signature.

> Whether or not Mt. Battell commissioned either a domestic chiming clock for
> himself or a chiming turret clock for this church, he could have composed
> its tune, being what is recorded in these numbers. If it was a distinctive
> or even possibly unique little tune, then it might perhaps have been known
> as 'Battell's Chimes' locally, and so its written numerical form could also
> have acted as his 'mark'. So I wonder whether the rows of numbers are in
> fact another form of personal monogram.

I'd certainly accept that Battell could have composed a tune 
for a clock chime – presupposing this is indeed a tune – but 
I don't find idea that the figures for the chime could have 
acted as kind of personal monogram at all convincing.  The 
figures are poorly laid out and with no style.  They look 
purely functional to me, as though they were written for a 
purpose rather than for posterity.

> I'm probably now about to be completely misled, but in checking Wikipedia
> for the date of arrival of chiming domestic clocks, I soon noted that their
> entry on the Whittington chime says that:
>       "Before the name Whittington became common, the melody used to
>       be referred to as “chimes on eight bells”. However, evidence
>       suggests it was originally a chime on six bells – a melody that
>       has not been in use at St Mary-le-Bow since 1666."

Oh dear.  There is a technical term for describing the this 
quote: that word is 'bollocks'.  I hardly know where to 

Whittington lived in the late fourteenth and early fifteenth 
centuries, long before change ringing was invented.  St Mary 
le Bow almost certainly had a least one bell then, as all 
churches were required to, but I don't believe we can say 
any more than that.  The idea that Whittington was called 
back to London by the sound of the bells dates to the 
opening years of the seventeenth century.

I don't imagine it is a coincidence that the story is first 
recorded exactly as bell ringing was becoming a popular 
secular sport, with visitors to London such as Frederic 
Gerschow in 1602 noting how much bells were rung in London. 
The idea of being recalled to London by the bells would have 
made complete sense to the contemporary seventeenth century 
folk, but is almost certainly anachronistic to Whittington's 

The specific identification of these bells with those at Bow 
is first recorded half a century later still.  It seems 
entirely plausible that Bow may have had a clock which 
played a tune before the Fire.  Surviving copies of a 
roughly contemporary mural at Cowdray House depicting Edward 
VI's coronation procession in 1547 clearly show Bow with a 
dial on north side of the tower.  The 1552 Edwardian 
inventory says Bow had 'Fyve greate belles' and 'two Sanctus 
belles', which, based on the evidence of Peter Mundy, had 
been augmented to ten by the time of the Fire.

That said, I'm not aware of any evidence that there actually 
was a musical chime at Bow before the Fire, and more 
generally, the history of the pre-Fire bells at Bow is far 
less clear than you might expect for such a prestigious City 
church, with even the number of bells being uncertain.

'Whittington Chimes' are several related clock chimes based 
on musical rows, normally on eight bells, and commonly found 
in domestic clocks.  They often include rows like as rounds, 
queens, tittums and kings.  If we define Whittington's on 
eight as 12753468, this is not often one of them, though I 
dare say someone will tell us they have a clock with chimes 
that do include this row.  The use of the name Whittington 
for the row and the chimes seems only to date to the 
nineteenth century – like the names queens and tittums.

Why were they named after Whittington?  Probably for no 
better reason that that his name was associated with bells 
thanks to the seventeenth century folktale.

The suggestion that Whittington Chime, or perhaps his 
eponymous row, was originally on six bells comes from some 
lines in James Shirley's 1640 play 'The Constant Maid', in 
which Hornet's unnamed niece says to her uncle, a usurer:

   Faith how many Churches doe you meane to build
   Before you dye? six bels in everie steeple,
   And let 'em all goe to the Citie tune,
   Turne agen Whittington

I cannot find a seventeenth century record of what this tune 
was, but the Roud Folk Song Index references volume 4 of 
Thomas D'Urfey's 1719 collection of songs for one voice, 
'Wit and Mirth', which includes a song called 'The Epitaph', 
'To the Tune of, Turn again Whittington', and helpfully 
includes the score.  The tune uses just six notes and could 
easily have been used as a chime on a diatonic ring of six 
(or with a little adaptation, five), and maybe it was 
somewhere.  It seems a bit of a reach to say that was at 
Bow, but it's not impossible.


This tune could certainly have been inspired by listening to 
rounds being rung on five bells, but it's a very long way 
from the later Whittington Chimes and features no 
recognisable rows other than rounds.  The only similarity is 
that both use the name Whittington.  If this tune was played 
at Bow before the Fire, it really cannot be said to be an 
earlier form of Whittington Chimes; but as I've said, 
there's no evidence it was used as a chime, at Bow or 
anywhere else.

When the niece in The Constant Maid refers to 'the Citie 
tune, Turne agen Whittington', she's not necessarily 
referring to this precise tune D'Urfey recorded, but rather 
the primary motif – rounds on five.  As to it being 'the 
City tune', there were not many rings of five in 1640, and 
few places where one might hear rounds on five from multiple 
directions at once.  The City of London was one such place, 
and this play need not be evidence of anything more 
surprising than that rounds on five was being rung regularly 
in London at the time.

Anyway, to continue with your email ....

> Could there be some distant echo of a connection between the 6/8 here and
> the 8/6/8/6 metre of the inscription? A common origin perhaps?

... I'm not sure what that connection might be.

The 6/8 in your Wikipedia quote, now a long way above, is 
about the number of bells in the Whittington Chime.  The 
8686 in common metre is the number of syllables per line. 
If you wanted to realise common metre on bells, you'd 
probably want seven rows, being the average number of 
syllables per line in common metre.  Some forms of 
Whittington Chimes do use seven bells, but with six bell 
rows, so they don't work as common metre.

> One thought I had was that maybe the numbers 1 to 4 refer not to four bells
> but to the four steps of a four-step chiming sequence, i.e. all the 1s are
> to be struck first, followed by the 2s etc.; and the actual positions of the
> digits (either 6 or 8 of them) might refer to the individual 'bells' (of a
> smaller chime rather than the main ring of a church). This would mean that
> most of the steps consisted of more than one note, a bit like a Swiss
> musical box (and didn't church chimes also use pinned barrels?).

I'm afraid I'm not following you here.  However in answer to 
your last point, yes, church clocks did sometimes have 
chiming barrels at this point, and if you're asking whether 
this would have allowed several bells to strike together, 
then yes, it would – at least in principle.  Whether the 
timing of the hammers would have been accurate enough that 
they actually did sound together is another question, and my 
suspicion is not.

> Maybe the last two (or first two, or last and first) 'bells' were not used
> in the six-figure lines?

In which case, why are they there?  Also, the biggest piece 
of evidence supporting these figures being a tune is that 
the line lengths are consistent with common metre.  If some 
of the notes are not used, that's no longer the case.

> As for a formal tablet recording a worthy donation, I agree that it would
> not be tucked into a corner and would far more likely be displayed visibly,
> probably either on the ground floor or on the ringing floor of the tower.
> But such a generous act might not be recorded in a tablet at all. I can
> offer one example from Waltham Abbey church.

Oh, a great many bequests do not get acknowledged on a 
tablet.  But how many of them are instead recorded by 
graffiti in an obscure corner of the church?  Not many, I 
bet.  We might have a case of that here, but there are lots 
of other possible explanations too and that's the problem. 
We can't choose an explanation simply on the basis that we 
like it.


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