“Oranges and lemons, Say the bells of St. Clements. Bull’s eyes and targets, Say the bells of St. Marg’ret’s. Brickbats and tiles, Say the bells of St. Giles’. Halfpence and farthings, Say the bells of St. Martin’s. Pancakes and fritters, Say the bells of St. Peter’s. Two sticks and an apple, Say the bells of Whitechapel. Pokers and tongs, Say the bells of St. John’s. Kettles and pans, Say the bells of St. Ann’s. Old Father Baldpate, Say the slow bells of Aldgate. You owe me ten shillings, Say the bells of St. Helen’s. When will you pay me? Say the bells of Old Bailey. When I grow rich, Say the bells of Shoreditch. Pray when will that be? Say the bells of Stepney. I do not know, Says the great bell of Bow. Here comes a candle to light you to bed, Here comes a chopper to chop off your head. Chop chop chop chop, The last man’s dead!”
(The original ‘Oranges & Lemons’ nursery rhyme taken from Tommy Thumbs Pretty Song Book, c.1744)
It’s the song that we sang in childhood, – an adrenalized schoolyard amusement where one would hurriedly duck beneath the arch of hacking arms before that final ‘chop’. Pickled in London lore this nursery rhyme denotes a tapestry of this city’s different attributes and climates, illustrating the various parishes through artefacts that denote both the activities of industry and diversion specific to that area, – “pancakes and fritters” (bakers), “kettles and pans” (coppersmiths), “brick bats and tiles” (builders) and “bulls eyes and targets” (archery practice fields). It’s underlying tone is a simple parable to discourage debt and negative productiveness and is sung in change ringing to mimic the energising chimes of London’s bells. The fact that this song was written in the first place just shows us how important the role of the common bell was, for so obsessed were Londoners by the constant toll that it’s resonance endured beyond the Reformation that saw the end of Catholic power. London has indeed always been noisy, but where today our sanity grapples against the pandemonium of motor traffic, air traffic and exasperating mobile ringtones, once upon a time it would have been the horse-and-cart, the cries of tradesmen, the hammers of craftsmen, the beat of the drum and the occasional firing of ceremonial cannons, all set against the ever reliant peal of bells. Not just for weddings, deaths of dignitaries or important events, it was more significant as a way for people to judge time. 9am marked the beginning of the working day (or the end of a life if you stood outside the Old Bailey on Mondays) and at sundown, which enforced taverns to close, office clerks to dim the lights and hurry home before the locking of the city gates and subsequent curfew. There were secular bells, church bells, convent bells, curfew bells and watchman bells, and the competition was fierce. Bets were often placed to conclude which bell could be heard the farthest, who could maintain the longest time or which ringer was most in time. In winter bell ringing even proved popular as a worthwhile way of keeping warm. It wouldn’t surprise you to note that Elizabeth I even went so far as to equate the health of her nation with the harmony and fortitude of the bells. It was from her reign, in 1570, that Whitechapel’s very own bell foundry came to exist, – a modestly-sized cave of a workspace that has produced some of the world’s most famous bells, including America’s Liberty Bell and our very own Big Ben. It has earned itself the title as Britain’s oldest manufacturing company and thanks to its Grade II listing has somewhat remained untuned to the modernisation that surrounds it, – something for me that never fails to whet my fascination.
[The original moulding gauge used to cast Big Ben]
Concerned with large change ringing bells for church towers, single tolling bells, hand bells, carillon bells along with its framework, wheels, clappers, installation and maintenance, the foundry has garnered a worldwide reputation for excellence and exactitude. However it was Big Ben, Whitechapel’s most famous bell, that nearly brought their reputation crashing to the ground. In 1844, after succumbing to fire, the government had need for a new Houses of Parliament and decided that there should also stand a clock tower. The requirements were that the clock be correct to within one second per day and that the first stroke of the bell should record the time. Such accuracy for a clock exposed to the elements was deemed impossible by the clock makers of the day, and it was only in 1851 that Edmund Beckett Denison stepped forward to the challenge. Having studied clocks and bells through the years, Denison took it upon himself to decide just how the great bell of Westminster should look and sound, heedless.to the warnings of John Warner & Sons foundry at Stockton on Tees. He even created his own recipe for the bellmetal with the final weight coming in at a ludicrous 16 tons. Up to that point, at 10 3/4 tons, the largest cast bell in Britain was the ‘Great Peter’ up in York Minster, so there was no real surprise when the Westminster bell cracked unrectifiably when it was being tested in the Palace yard It was only then that Denison turned to the Whitechapel Foundry. It took a whole week to break down the original bell, 3 furnaces to melt the metal, a day to heat the mould before the casting, 20 minutes to pour the molten metal into the mould and then 20 days for the metal to cool and harden. The bell weighed in at just over 13 tons and was tested by master founder George Mears before it met Denison’s final approval. Traffic came to a stand still and the people of London lined the streets to witness the spectacle of the bell’s transportation to the Houses of Parliament via London Bridge, Borough Road and then Westminster Bridge. It came into service on 31st May 1859 and a special sitting was arranged to discuss the name of the bell. It was a long debate with many an opinion, but the final speech by Sir Benjamin Hall ( known affectionately to all as ‘big Ben’) affected everyone present so much that on finishing a backbencher called out “Why not call him Big Ben and have done with it?” to resounding eruption of laughter. Although there is no written confirmation of this, there was also at the time the popular boxing champion named Benjamin Caunt who also went by the name of ‘Big Ben’ because of his awesome 17 stone frame, so Parliament would have had this name firmly in their consciousness. A mere two weeks after going into service Big Ben cracked. Denison had again gone against the advice of experts and had employed a hammer to ring the bell more than twice the maximum weight that was suggested by Mears. A small square was cut above the crack on the soundbow to stop it cracking further, and to this day gives out its distinctive and slightly off-key tone. In his stubborn vanity, Denison, not wanting to bear the brunt of reprisals, befriended one of the foundry’s moulders, plied him with alcohol one evening and got him to bear false witness that the cracking was due to bad casting concealed with fillers. This led to a nasty court case, which Denison lost. He spent the next 20 years resentful and disgruntled, lambasting the foundry at any opportunity. Stupidly so, he did it in writing and found himself in court once more, only to be humiliated with another loss.
So the moral of the story goes that the experts at Whitechapel Bell Foundry know exactly what they’re dealing with and definitely know a lot more about bells than you and I. But the next time you hear that less than perfect chime of Big Ben, you can amuse yourself with the tale of the man who thought he knew better.