History of the Bells

T he bell story starts at St. George’s, Dorchester, South Carolina in 1753.


A Careful History Written by Wray Lemke, Jan. 2011.

As the population of the colony grew, one of the original rural parishes was divided, creating the parish of St. George’s around the thriving town of Dorchester, about 20 miles to the northwest of the city of Charleston. The parish church was built in 1719, enlarged in 1734; and in 1751 a handsome tower with an octagonal belfry was added (the base of the tower is still standing). In that year a bell was ordered for Dorchester from the Abel Rudhall Bellfoundry in Gloucester. A subscription was circulated successfully in 1753 for a ring of bells, and a ring of four was acquired, so it is surmised that there were a total of 5 bells, with 4 bells hung for change ringing. This is said to be the second ring of bells to have been set up in America, (the first being Christ Church in Boston (the old North Church). When the British came through during the Revolutionary War, they severely damaged the church building. Not long thereafter, the population dispersed and all ringing must have ceased.

The single original bell was taken down, used as a school bell, and later fell and was smashed. Of the four change-ringing bells, the tenor and at least one other bell were cracked but the new church of St. Paul’s in Charleston acquired the four bells in July of 1821; three of the bells were mounted in its tower as is proved by the three rope holes in the floor, still surviving. The cracked tenor was given to St. John’s Church, Winnsboro, South Carolina in 1844, who recast it. It was destroyed by Sherman in 1865 when his raiders wantonly fired the church. In 1853 St. Paul’s Charleston gave to St. Paul’s Summerville a new “400 pound bell in lieu of the four old Dorchester bells which had been loaned” to the Charleston Church.1 This bell still resides in the belfry at St. Paul’s Summerville where it is mounted to a fixed beam and is rung by swinging the clapper. Older clapper marks on the sound bow would indicate that it was, at some time, hung so as to swing freestyle. Although no casting marks can be found on this bell it was certainly cast by the Meneely bell foundry in West Troy, NY. The canons and argent mounting points are a unique style identical to other Meneely’s bells of the same period and are unlike any bells cast in the UK. The bell’s origin comes from the records of the foundry, which were saved after the foundry burned, and notes that 1 bell was cast for St. Paul’s Summerville and 3 bells for St. Paul’s Charleston.

In 1854 the three remaining bells were re-cast, by Meneely of West Troy, New York. There is evidence that these were cast, at some time later, into a single bell, as reference is made to “the fine bell…” in Bishop Thomas’ history of the diocese2 and the reference to “the bell from St. Paul’s Church” in the story from the Columbia Phoenix3, Oct. 1865 which appears below. The frame for a single bell is still in place in the center of the belfry at St. Luke & St. Paul’s and what is thought to be the original wheel for this bell also resides in the belfry.

At the command of the Council of the State, the church bells of Charleston (with the exception of the tenor bell at St. Michael’s that was used to signal momentous events) were taken down in June of 1862 and shipped to a building on the statehouse grounds, to be recast into cannon although they were never actually used for that purpose. The story from the Columbia Phoenix of Oct. 2, 1865, describes the bells that were taken to Columbia and laments the broken bells of Charleston; “one of them is the bell of St. Paul’s Church”. The three bells of St. Paul’s, reduced in number to a single bell, went to war, so ending the story of the second ring of change ringing bells to be mounted in America.

An interesting side note to this story is that at least some of the bells from St. Michael’s were among those broken when Sherman fired the Statehouse grounds along with the storage building that housed the bells from Charleston. The broken pieces of the bells were gathered up, sent to England, and recast into new bells for St. Michael’s; it is entirely feasible that the bells now in the tower at St. Michael’s include the broken bits from the fine bell of St. Paul’s.

St. Paul’s bell tower had been mute since the War Between the States as the parish was never in a financial position to purchase a set of bells until in 1997, after discussions with Richard Parsons and Dan Beaman, the Dean of the Cathedral, the Rev’d William N. McKeachie, initiated a movement to secure from the Keltek Trust in England the six bells from the redundant parish of St. Paul’s, Mirfield, in Eastthorpe, Yorkshire. In 1880 the Taylor bell foundry in Loughborough, England cast a tenor bell for the parish of St. Paul’s Mirfield then cast the remaining 5 bells to complete the ring of 6 bells in 1882.

These 6 bells were first offered to Kirk Braddan Parish on the Isle of Man who passed for lack of funds. They were then offered to the Cathedral in Newcastle, NSW, Australia but because the Cathedral was still recovering from earthquake damage the vestry decided it was not the time to launch a bells project. The Keltek Trust then received enquiries from Pittsburgh and the Cathedral in Charleston almost at the same time with Pittsburgh having the first option for the bells. Alan Hughes from the Whitechapel Foundry in England visited both churches and determined that the Pittsburgh tower was too weak for the ring of bells and that the Cathedral tower was more than adequate for the ring of bells. So, they were offered to the Cathedral and were immediately accepted.

Contributions from the members of the cathedral parish in 1997 and 1998 allowed purchase of the six bells from the Keltek Trust. Two additional bells were newly cast for the Cathedral at the time of the acquisition of the bells from St. Paul’s, Mirfield to match the existing six bells for an 8-bell ring. Eijsbouts Foundry in the Netherlands cast these handsome bells in 2000; they were given as a gift to the Cathedral from generous supporters of the parish. They are Bell 1 (Treble) and Bell 2.

The original ring of six bells now constitute the “back six” of a ring of eight; in the list that follows Bell 3 was the original Bell 1 when they were first hung at St. Paul’s, Mirfield.

The Bells:

Bell 1 – 428 pounds (Treble)     G     3.80 cwt          24 ½”           Cast 2000 Eijsbouts

Bell 2 – 456 pounds                     F#   4.07 cwt          25”                Cast 2000 Eijsbouts

Bell 3 – 476 pounds                     E     4.25 cwt          27”                  Cast 1882 Taylor

Bell 4 – 644 pounds                    D     5.75 cwt         30”                   Cast 1882 Taylor

Bell 5 – 784 pounds                    C     7.00 cwt         32 ½”              Cast 1882 Taylor

Bell 6 – 896 pounds                    B     8.00 cwt         34”                   Cast 1882 Taylor

Bell 7 – 1176 pounds                   A      10.5 cwt         37 ½”              Cast 1882 Taylor

Bell 8 – 1652 pounds (Tenor)   G *14-3-0 cwt        42”                  Cast 1880 Taylor

*Weights from the Taylor foundry. Note the difference in the system of measurement of bells 3-7 and the 8th.  The two Eijsbouts bells are cast “AStennis Me Fecit Anno MM”

Reinforcement and renovation

Reinforcement and renovation of the tower began in March of 2001 in preparation for the upcoming bell installation. The frame arrived and was delivered to the Cathedral at 6:00 am on Thursday of Holy Week, April 12, 2001. Police blocked off Coming St. as a crane lifted the 6-ton bell frame over the brick wall into the close. On Sunday, May 13th Ruth and Bob Smith (of Eayre and Smith, bell hangers) arrived from England. On Monday, May 14th they began overseeing the installation of the bell frame, which lasted a week.

On Wednesday, May 23rd from 6:00pm to 8:00pm, the Smiths met with Cathedral parishioners, showing a video and answering questions. This was on the eve of the arrival of the bells to the church itself. The bells were scheduled to arrive at 7:00am but arrived early and were unloaded by 7:40am. An early morning crowd of 20-some people and one dog watched a rather amazing performance by the crane. Five bells were placed on the right of the narthex and three to the left, with the crane reaching across the portico and in through the Great West Doors as a police car blocked off Coming Street for over an hour.

In re-pointing the brick in the tower, workmen found moisture damage in the mule boards, so they were replaced. This was an unexpected delay as the damage was not obvious from the outside.

As the Sundays passed, excitement built as worshippers entered and left the church though the narthex, with bells to the left of them and bells to the right of them! On Sunday, July 1, the bells, with flowers on their headstocks, pink roses for the two trebles (given in memory of two little girls) and red roses for the back six, were consecrated by the Right Reverend G. Edward Haynesworth. Three local television stations together with CNN, SCETV, and several newspapers, covered the story. July 4th was set as an appropriate date for the hoisting of the bells into the tower, continuing through July 5th. At long last, on November 11th, as part of the Cathedral’s annual Veteran’s Day service, the bells were formally dedicated and “christened” with a peal by a band of the Society of Royal Cumberland Youths from England

As time passed a problem arose with the function of the bells; in the hot and humid Charleston summers the clappers would seize to their staple pins, rendering the affected bells unusable. The clappers had been re-bushed with a synthetic bushing instead of the traditional Oilite-type and this material did not fare well in Charleston’s summer environment.

Eayre and Smith sent a set of machinist’s reamers and spare parts to the contractors who hung the bells but for reasons unknown the needed repairs were never undertaken. Several peal attempts had to be abandoned when a clapper would seize during the method, and the bells ceased being rung on a regular schedule. In cooler weather bell practice resumed, but the seizing clappers were an ever-present concern. There was even talk of having to bring someone from England to do the repairs. In 2008 the tower captain brought the problem before an interested parishioner who decided to resolve the issue. The unused reamers and parts were fetched from the contractor and the parishioner (later designated as the unofficial steeple keeper) set to work. The clappers from the #5, and #6 bells were removed, as these were the bells that seized most often. The entire clapper assembly was removed with its staple, staple fixing bolt, and staple pin. Upon disassembly it was determined that not only were the bushings too tight but that the staple pins (which hold the clapper in the u-shaped staple) had been driven through the staples and clapper bushings with excessive force. This had caused the pins to mushroom out at their ends making them quite difficult to remove. The pins were pressed out and their ends dressed back down to the proper diameter so they slid into the staple with no effort required.

The steeple keeper doing the repairs contacted Eayre and Smith and discussed the allowable tolerances for the pin and bushings. Using the reamers he carefully enlarged the inner diameter of the bushings by 5 thousands of an inch. The clapper, staple and pin were reassembled and set on the asphalt of a parking lot in the noonday July sun. An infrared thermometer was used to determine that the pins and bushings had reached 129 degrees, almost too hot to handle. At this temperature the clappers swung easily about their pins and the steeple keeper decided that this method was more than adequate to ensure the clappers would remain free. The clappers were re-installed and centered in their bells and the clappers from the #3, #4, #7, and #8 were removed and repaired using the same technique and then re-installed. Bells 1 and 2, the Eijsbouts-cast bells, were determined to have been bushed correctly and did not need repairs. All of the bells performed admirably during the Ring Around Charleston of 2008 and the seizing of the clappers is now considered a thing of the past.

Many peals have been rung at the tower since the bells were installed; the first was rung at the dedication of the bells and a splendid half-peal was rung for the ordination of the Rt. Rev. Mark Lawrence as the 14th Bishop of the Diocese. A peal is a ringing exercise that uses combinations of the order in which the bells can be rung. Although the number of possible combinations of the order in which the 8 bells can be rung is over 40,000, a peal is generally considered to be around 5000 different changes of the order of ringing. Such a noteworthy peal was conducted on Monday, December the 8th, 2008, by a band from the Society of Royal Cumberland Youths. This peal was composed by Roger Baldwin, involved 5088 changes, and took 2 hrs and 49 minutes to ring. As it was the first time this composition had been rung it was named in honor of the neighborhood and is now known as Radcliffeborough Surprise Major.

1 BP Thomas, History of the Diocese of SC, P423.

2 BP Thomas, History of the Diocese of SC, P244

Special thanks to:

Dan Beaman, and Louisa Montgomery, for contributing to this article, Harold Robling, Archivist, St. Paul’s Summerville, Alan Hughes, Whitechapel Foundry, London.

George Williams, the Godfather of Charleston ringing, for his guidance, editing, the generous loaning of his historical resources, and for the Saturday morning discussions over Blenhiem ginger ales.

Mr. Eric Ellis, historian of Mirfield, Eastthorpe, for providing information about St. Paul’s, Mirfield, the original home of the bells. A short history of this lovely church can be found at this link: http://www.cofe-mirfield.org.uk/St.PaulHistory.htm ,

David Kelly of the Keltek Trust for providing a veritable trove of information on these bells. As a most interesting note, the bells at The Cathedral were the first set of redundant bells that led to the founding of the Keltek Trust.

Written by Wray Lemke, Jan. 2011.

Contact the Steeple Keeper, Wray Lemke

Cathedral Church of St. Luke and St. Paul