Archaeological Journal/Volume 3/On some arrangements for the Hanging of Bells in Churches without Towers


Perhaps no part of the ceremonial requisite for the due celebration of Divine Service has given rise to so much ingenuity and so great variety of design as the hanging of the bells. It is hardly necessary to observe that this is the primary purpose for which church towers were built, though they were often applied to other purposes also; in hundreds of instances in most parts of the country, but especially in Kent, the lower part of the tower is vaulted, and used as a porch, and evidently built with that intention. The various forms, positions, and materials employed for bell-towers, open a wide field for investigation; but this is no part of the purpose of the present paper, which is chiefly to call attention to some of the modes adopted in small and poor country churches to save the expense of a tower, and for this purpose to refer to a few out of the very numerous examples that have been observed in different parts of England. One class, which are properly called bell-turrets, in which the bell is enclosed in a small turret erected partly on corbels projecting from the wall of the gable, and partly on the wall itself, has been ably illustrated by Mr. Petit in a previous number of this Journal, but there are several other classes, which cannot with propriety be called turrets, and to some of these it is rather difficult to affix an appropriate name, but generally that of bell-cots seems to apply tolerably well, and it has the advantage of being commonly understood and frequently used of late; they are sometimes called bell-gables, but as the cot often stands up above the gable, and frequently over the chancel-arch, this name does not seem so generally applicable.

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1. Gorhampton Cburch, Hampshire.

The earliest instance of the hanging of bells without a tower, which has been observed in England, occurs in the supposed Saxon church of Corhampton, (1) in Hampshire. Here there are two bells, and they are hung in oblong square-headed openings left in the wall of the gable, in the part corresponding to the tympanum of a pediment in classical architecture; these openings have "long and short work" in the jambs, and have every appearance of being contemporary with the building.

The next example that we have observed in point of date is in the early Norman church of Littleton, (2) in Hampshire. These are in nearly the same situation as at Corhampton, but more in the upper part of the gable, and the openings are round-headed, they are now plastered up, and a wooden bell-cot erected on the gable.

The next in order of this class is Ashley,(3) also in Hampshire, which is of transition Norman character. Here the bells are still hanging in the openings, and seem to be as old as the building. The plain Norman imposts to the arches leave no doubts of their age, and the peculiar form of the bells, having no runs turned outwards, but a thick plain edge, seems to indicate an equally great antiquity.

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2. Littleton, Hampshire.

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3. Ashley, Hampshire.

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4. King's Somborne, Hampshire.

These three examples being all in the same neighbourhood, the fashion may perhaps be considered as a provincialism, but it is probable that if the plaster or rough-cast were stripped off the west gables of very many of our small ancient churches, the same arrangement would be found to have formerly existed. The same neighbourhood furnishes us with another example of a different kind, not less remarkable, and of about the same age. King's Somborne church,(4)in Hampshire, has the west gable built up to a square top, instead of the usual pyramidal form, and surmounted by a corbel-table of transition Norman character, so that it is evidently original work, while the other three sides of the bell-tower are of wood, and must always have been so, for there are no preparations for carrying stone walls on these sides.

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5. Northborough, Northamptonshire.

The more usual fashion is to have the bell-cot built upon the west wall and carried up above the roof; examples of this kind in Norman work are not common, but they may be found, as at Adel, Yorkshire, Northborough, (5) Northamptonshire, and in other instances. Another position for the bell-cot is between the nave and chancel, being built upon the wall of separation or immediately over the chancel-arch; a good example of this arrangement, which generally has a very picturesque effect, occurs at Binsey, (8) near Oxford, in transition Norman work, and in Early English work the well-known instance of Skelton, Yorkshire, may be mentioned as proof of the elegant effect which may be produced by this arrangement. Another elegant example occurs at Little Coxwell, (6) Berkshire. More usually however, when the bell-cot is found in this situation, it is small, and intended for the Sanctus bell only. In Decorated and Perpendicular work examples of the Sanctus bell-cot are common, and frequently very elegant, sometimes with pinnacles, as at Idbury, (7) Oxfordshire, more often without them, and sometimes very plain; instances occur of the bell remaining, as at Idbury, and still used as the little bell to announce the arrival of the clergyman, but such examples are comparatively rare. This small bell-cot may also be found in other situations, as at the south-east angle of the nave at Upwell, Norfolk; over the porch, as at Chipping Norton, Oxon; on the east gable of a side aisle or chapel, as at Bloxham, Oxon. In all these and similar cases it appears to be intended only for the Sanctus bell.

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6. Little Coxwell, Berkshire.

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7. Idbury, Oxfordshire.

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8. Binsey Church, Oxford.

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9. Manton, Rutland.

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10. Little Casterton, Rutland.

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11. Penton Mewsey, Hampsbire.

Bell-cots for the larger bells are generally at the west end, and usually rise above the roof, the west wall being carried up with openings to receive them: sometimes a single bell only, more often two, and occasionally three, but this is rare. The double bell-gable, as it is frequently called, is found abundantly in the Early English style in most parts of the country, though more abundant in some counties than in others, especially in Rutlandshire; some of these are finished by a single small gable over the two openings, as at Manton, (9) and this is the most common plan. In other instances there are two small gables, one over each opening, as at Little Casterton, Rutland, (10) and Penton Mewsey, (11) Hants. The bells are usually hung in these openings, simply on a pivot, to swing backwards and forwards, but sometimes there is a wheel attached, as at Manton. In general the ropes are brought down through the roof, and the bells rung from within the church, but in some cases the ropes are brought down on the exterior of the wall, and the ringers stand on the ground outside of the church.

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12. St. Helen's, York.

The various contrivances for strengthening the wall on which the bells are carried are also deserving of particular attention; the most usual and obvious one is by buttresses; of these there are commonly two, sometimes one only, and sometimes three; when there is a central buttress there are commonly two small west windows, one on each side, and these are sometimes so placed as to be combined in appearance into one in the interior, the wall between being splayed nearly to an edge; this arrangement occurs at Wantage, Berks, and Wilcote[1], Oxon, and is not uncommon. In some cases however the central buttress is pierced for a single lancet window, widely splayed within through the thickness of both wall and buttress, as at Manton, Rutland. These buttresses were sometimes found insufficient for the weight and play of the bells, and an additional projection was given to them, as at Forest Hill[2], Oxon, where one buttress has been added to, considerably more than the other, the effect of which is very singular, though when the situation is considered it is easily explained; this example is strikingly picturesque. Some of the examples which have been referred to belong to the Decorated style, and such bell-cots may be found in Perpendicular work also, but they are more common in Early English.

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13. St. Michael-le-Belfry, York.

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14. Godshill, Isle of Wight.

Another contrivance for strengthening the west wall when it carries the bell, is to throw an arch across it from buttress to buttress, either in the interior, as at Strixton, Northamptonshire, or on the exterior, as at St. Helen's, (12) and St.Michael-le-Belfry, (13) York; the first of these carries a sort of lantern bell-turret; the second has the bell-cot destroyed, but the corbels of it remain, and now carry a modern wooden structure for the same purpose. The wooden pigeon-house bell-cots, so common in many parts of England, seem to have been in some cases the successors of earlier wooden structures of the same kind; in other cases they have taken the place of the stone bell-gables above mentioned.

There is yet another class of bell-cots, less common than either of the others, and comparatively little known; these consist of a sort of niche or canopy, projecting from the face of the wall to protect and contain the bell; a beautiful example of this occurs at Cleeve Abbey, (15) Somersetshire. Other examples occur at Welborne, (16) Norfolk, both of which are very elegant and beautiful work, and at Godshill, (14) in the Isle of Wight, which is more clumsy, and seems to be of earlier character.

Mention may also be made of a sort of small west towers, which may be considered as intermediate between bell-turrets and regular towers; the west wall of the church is carried up and forms the west side of the tower, but the other three sides are carried up only from the roof of the church, and supported within on tall and slender piers and arches ; these have been frequently introduced at a date subsequent to that of the church, as at Wood-Eaton and Black-Bourton, Oxfordshire; but sometimes this arrangement is original, as at Nun-Monkton, Yorkshire, a very beautiful specimen of Early English work. In this instance there are three lancet windows in the west end, the centre the highest, carried up into the tower, and opening within under a very tall tower-arch, the two side windows also opening within on each side of the piers of this arch; there being no aisles the effect is singular, but must have been strikingly beautiful when perfect.

For some of the sketches made use of to illustrate this paper we are indebted to the kindness and liberality of Mrs. Willoughby Moore.

I. H. P.

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15. Cleeve Abbey, Somerset.

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16 Welborne, Norfolk.

  1. See an engraving of it in the Guide to the Neighbourhood of Oxford, p. 272.
  2. Ibid., 160.