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Bow bells are probably the most famous in the world and for many hundreds of years have been woven into the folklore of the City of London. In 1392 Dick Whittington heard Bow bells call him back to London to become Lord Mayor; to be born within the sound of Bow bells was the sign of a true Londoner or Cockney; and Bow bell's authority ends the medieval nursery rhyme Oranges and Lemons, 'I do not know says the Great Bell of Bow'. During the Second World War the BBC's World Service broadcast a recording of Bow bells, made in 1926, as a symbol of hope to the free people of Europe. This recording is still used as an interval signal.
The first known reference to Bow bells is in 1469 when the Common Council ordered that a curfew should be rung at 9 o'clock each evening. Soon after this John Donne, a mercer, gave the church two houses in Hosier Lane (now Bow Lane) for the maintenance and regular ringing of the bells. In 1515 William Copland, a churchwarden, gave a great bell to the church making five in number. Sadly this bell was rung for the first time for Copland's funeral. Ringing the curfew bell was stopped in 1876.
Bow church dominated life in the city and the 9 o'clock bell not only marked the curfew but also the end of an apprentice's working day. The bell was often rung late prompting this rhyme:
'Clarke of the Bow belle with the Yellow lockes,
For thy late ringing thy head shall have knockes'
To which they received the reply:
'Children of Cheape, hold you all still,
For you shall have the Bow bell rung as you will.'
Ringing prospered in the seventeenth century and in 1603 the Society of Cheapside Scholars was founded. Fabian Stedman, the father of modern change-ringing, was a member. This society became extinct in 1662. By 1635 the tower contained six bells and in 1643 the bells were rung to celebrate the demolition of the famous Cheapside cross by a crowd of citizens and soldiers loyal to Parliament. The cross was seen as a symbol of Popery. There is a curious reference in the Bodleian Library in Oxford to Bow having twelve bells in 1652 'of which ten which were rung and two were tolled'. No evidence has yet been found to prove this claim. Samuel Pepys' Diaries contain occasional references to Bow bells.
The tower and bells were destroyed in the Great Fire of London in September 1666. Although the new tower was designed for twelve bells the bellfounder, Christopher Hodson from Crayford in Kent, cast a heavy peal of eight for Wren's new church in 1677. Thomas Lester began Bow's long association with the Whitechapel bellfoundry when he recast the tenor bell in 1738. The other seven bells were considered inferior and recast in 1762 when two extra bells were also added. The ten bells were first rung to celebrate George III's 25th birthday.
However the bells were often not rung because of problems with the tower, the bells, the bell frame or a shortage of ringers. In 1820 some stonework fell from the spire into the bedroom of a local merchant in Bow Lane nearly killing him.
In 1856 the bells were silenced by the protestations of Mrs Elisabeth Bird, an eccentric neighbour who feared that the noise of the bells might end her life. After two years' silence the bells were rung again and Mrs Bird lived to hear the bells for several more years. Recordings survive of the original ten bells by Lester. Click here, then click on 'download recording'.
The bells were finally augmented to twelve in 1881 and in 1926 they were declared unringable and not rung again. The silence of Bow bells became a matter of national concern.
The restoration and recasting of Bow bells by Gillett and Johnston in 1933 was the gift of H Gordon Selfridge, the American entrepreneur who had founded his famous store in London's Oxford Street. This restoration divided ringers' and public opinion for many years and it has never been proved whether or not Selfridge actually paid for the work. After being heard for only eight years these bells were destroyed on 11 May 1941 by a German air raid during the Second World War. The church deliberately omitted the date of this restoration when the bells were later recast.
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