A bit about bells

Ringers are often asked questions like what are bells made of? how do they work? why do you use such long ropes? Well, here are a few answers.

Bells are made of a form of bronze which has a particularly high tin content, typical bronze has around 88% copper and 12 % tin, but bell metal has more like 22 % tin and 78% copper. Bronze can be quite a soft alloy, using a higher proportion of tin makes the bells more rigid and gives them greater resonance. Bells are made by pouring molten metal into the space between two moulds: an inner core and an outer cope.

There is no such thing as a typical weight for a bell. The bells at Calstock weigh between 4 cwt and around 9 cwt this compares with 80 cwt for the Tenor at Liverpool Cathedral which is probably the heaviest bell in England to be rung full-circle. The largest bell to be cast in England is Great Paul at St Paul's Cathedral in London which weighs around 334 cwt, this was cast in 1881 by John Taylor of Loughborough.

Ringers at St Andrew's Church, Calstock Cornwall

The sound of a bell is made by a clapper striking the inside of the bell. The clapper is not attached to the bell but is suspended from the crown staple; this allows it to swing freely within the bell. Anyone who has listened to church bells will have realised that there must be a way to make the bells strike in different places relative to each other. In traditional arrangements this is achieved by linking the bell to a large rotating wheel which also has a long rope attached to it; a bell ringer on the bottom end of the rope uses it to pull the wheel around and hence make the bell chime. By carefully controlling the pull on the ropes, the ringers can change the rhythm of the bells and alter the order in which they sound.

Parts of the bell. Courtesy of St Peter's Church, Willersey.

This wonderful schematic, from the website of St Peter's Church, Willersey, shows the numerous parts which are found around a bell. A heavy, rotating bell needs a counterweight, this is the headstock, it links the bell to the wheel and the bearings. Both the headstock and the frame which supports it are made of either wood, if they are really old, or metal, if the are more modern. Most of the rest of the parts are wood. A stay and slider work together to stop the bell turning more than a full circle. An array of pulleys between the bells and the ringers keep the bell ropes hanging vertically and prevent them from flapping around.

The ringers work a long way below the bells for two main reasons. Firstly, the bells originally served to call the locals to church; the towers in which they were hung had to be high enough to allow the sound to carry throughout the parish. Secondly, bells are incredibly noisy, usually in excess of 110 dB(A) in the bell chamber; the ringers cannot be too close to the bells or they would be deafened.