Friday, November 5, 2010

The Sound of Bells

I live in a noisy world: cars, trucks, planes, trains, machines of all kinds--indoors and out--and the ever-present electronic hum that is, it seems, our very being. But something I seldom hear is bells. Even church bells are very rare where I live in western Canada.

This was not so in the Regency era in England. A predominant sound on the air of Regency London was that of the bell.

If one was in a house, the ring of church bells still penetrated. If one considers how many church bells existed in the confines of the City and its districts like Mayfair, the din must have been continuous. In addition the servants heard, near incessantly, the call of the mechanical bell system, first advertised in 1744. There might also be a silver tea bell in the drawing room, or an invalid's bell beside a bed above stairs.

Within doors, one could still hear the other bells from the street. When a person stepped outside, the cacophony of bells must have been overwhelming. The muffin-man alone made such a racket that eventually his bells were silenced by law. Other street vendors--the scissors grinder, the rag picker and the peddler--might, in addition to their cries, carry a bell to attract custom.

There were also harness bells, like the 'beautiful sets of four or five that were put on the leading horse of a team, and were known as team bells'. There were warning bells on fire engines, and bells on the animals who trailed through the city to the markets. And there was the bellman or town crier, who plied his trade from the earliest days through to the Georgian era. He marked the hours with his bell and heralded his reading of proclamations, warnings, and news bulletins with it.

On the street the church bells could be deafening, depending on the size of bell. Their sound routinely carried three miles, and in good weather large bells could be heard for nine miles. They marked the hours, pealed for a wedding, beat out a death knell. There were Passing Bells, Sanctus Bells, and Alarm Bells and peals of bells to announce the new year..

The church bells rang in the country towns as well, with even more regularity. There were Harvest Bells and Market Bells, Fire Bells and even, in a few places, a Pancake Bell rung on Shrove Tuesday. The bells rang out across the fields, reminding those without watches or clocks of the hour, and perhaps the half, calling them to church, sending them news of their community and in many cases ringing out the curfew, or 'cover fire'--the time for all folk to be within doors.

In the countryside, the air was often a-quiver with the sound of animal bells. Sheep, cows, and even geese were belled, to keep track of their flocks and herds. Dogs as well wore bells to identify their whereabouts.

The materials used in bells' manufacture varied. Iron and bronze predominated but silver was not unknown and even wood might be used for animal bells.

The shapes as well were variable. Harness bells were often 'crotal' bells, technically not a bell at all, but a rattle. We call them 'jingle bells' nowadays, their rounded shape enclosing a loose clapper. They were used as well for hawk bells and morris dancers' bells.

From an old sampler comes a rhyme about bell messages:
"When we lament a departed soul, WE TOLL.
When joy and mirth are on the wing, WE SING.
To call the fold to church in time, WE CHIME.
When threatened harm, WE ALARM."

It could be a noisy place, the Regency world. But it was easier, I think, to find quiet there than it is in our current age. Seek out the quiet, if you will, but also enjoy whatever bells you can hear.

'Til next time,



Hazel said...

What a fascinating story of the sound of bells in the Regency period! I live within the sound of church bells, but of course they are the modern variety.

I remember hearing church bells in a small Austrian town with my husband. They sounded marvellous echoing throughout the mountain valley. The amazing thing was that he could identify the artisan who made them, from their distinctive sound. Apparently, they had escaped the fate of many bells that had gone to the foundries to be melted down during the war.

Come to think of it, that was also one of the most peaceful places I remember from our trip in 1993. You are right about the noise pollution that we have to endure nowadays, much of it of our own making!

Lesley-Anne McLeod said...

I've been known to stop the car, and when everyone says 'What??' I say, 'shhhh, bells'. It doesn't happen very often where I live, unfortunately.

Vic said...

Thank you for a most fascinating post, Lesley-Anne.

Lesley-Anne McLeod said...

I'm so glad you enjoyed it, Vic!

Benjamin Blue said...

Play your own church bells on the virtual carillon page here

Lesley-Anne McLeod said...

Thank you so much, Benjamin for this link. It was great fun, and wonderful to listen to!