Church Bells in Trust

David J Kelly outlines the development of church bells throught the ages and the work of the Keltek Trust


  Ring of 18 bells in raised position
  Swan Bells, Perth. Western Australia, raised for ringing. The largest 12 of this ring of 18 bells date from 1725 and were transferred to Perth from St Martin in the Fields, London. (Photo: Swan Bells Foundation)
  Exterior of St Peter’s, Barnburgh, Yorkshire
  In the early 1990s it became apparent that if some urgent action were not taken the three bells at St Peter’s, Barnburgh, Yorkshire would soon become unringable. The old oak frame was frail and unstable and the fixtures and fittings were fast wearing out, making ringing difficult and dangerous. The investment needed to put things right was enormous. In 1993 a new steel frame to accommodate five bells was installed, the bells completely refurbished and re-hung. The opportunity to augment the minor ring of three arose in 1996 when the Millennium Commission granted £3 million for the upgrading and improvement of church bells throughout the UK to celebrate the millennium. With the help of the Keltek Trust, two second-hand bells, a treble and a tenor bell, were added to create a ring of five in the major key and the ring of five bells was dedicated on 16 July 2000.

Since 1950, over 250 churches with four bells or more have either been silenced by the removal of their bells, or their bells have been rehung for chiming. In the century and a half prior to 1950 this happened in fewer than 150 churches, including over 25 losses through enemy action during the Second World War. These figures exclude losses of bells from churches that do not possess traditional full-circle ringing bells and it is probable that hundreds of bells have been removed and scrapped, leading to a significant loss of our heritage.


The earliest bells in England date from the 11th century and their tall long-waisted shape is quite different to most bells cast from the 14th century onwards. A bell’s note was relatively unimportant providing it was different to others hung in the tower. However, this began to change when bells were rung together as the art of full-circle ringing developed in the 16th century. Full circle ringing gave a bell ringer much greater control over a swinging bell, and was enabled by attaching the bell rope to a wheel at the end of the bell frame, rather than to a simple lever at the top of the frame. It created a demand for musical rings of bells and as the art of ‘change-ringing’ developed in the 16th century (where sets of bells or ‘rings’ are rung in systematically changing patterns [1]), so too did the skills of the bell-founder in casting and tuning bells to a musical scale.

As full-circle bell-ringing increased in popularity, the number of bells in a tower also increased. Existing bells were either recast or modified to create a new ring, or bells were added to augment the ring. It was also common for existing bells to be re-tuned to make the ring more musical. At the same time bell-frames were strengthened or replaced to cope with the much larger dynamic forces created by bells being rung full-circle instead of swung through a small arc.

Early bell-founders and tuners were aware that the size, shape, thickness and metal composition had an effect on the sound, and they experimented with changes to the bell profile; a process that continues to this day. Initially bells were tuned with a hammer and chisel by removing small pieces of metal from inside the bell at or near the mouth to lower the pitch, and cutting away at the lip to raise the pitch.

Most bell founders realised that a lack of uniformity of a bell’s shape had a considerable effect on the sound quality and they were careful that the inner and outer moulds were precisely positioned to give a uniform thickness around the bell’s circumference. Castings with a non-uniform thickness sound very poor and they were generally the mark of a poor founder. However, most early bell-founders were mystified why many good castings sounded discordant and what was needed to produce more tuneful bells.

During the Victorian period, some bellfounders and amateurs conducted research to improve the tonal qualities of bell castings. Results of the research were considered commercially sensitive and little was published at the time. John Llewellin junior of the bellfounding firm Llewellin & James of Bristol wrote in 1879: The rapid advances now being made promise very soon to render it as easy for the musician to analyse any tone, however complex as it is for the chemist to resolve a compound into its component simple elements. It was over a decade later when the most significant breakthrough was made, but it was not by Llewellin & James but by one of its competitors.

When a bell is struck the whole body of the bell vibrates imparting energy into the surrounding air. The sound produced is complex and consists of a large number of individual frequencies known as partials. The dominant partials are those of the lowest frequencies and they are known as the Hum, Prime (also confusingly known as the Fundamental), Tierce, Quint, Nominal, Superquint and the Octave Nominal.

  Exterior of the Church of St Andrew, Dowlish Wake, Somerset  
  The Keltek Trust acquired a bell from St Augustine’s Centre, Southampton during 1999 and put it in storage until a suitable project was found. Many months later the trust received an enquiry for a sixth bell to augment the fine-sounding ring of five bells at Dowlish Wake, Somerset. Two years after its acquisition the trust was repaid and the bell was installed giving an equally fine sounding ring of six.  

During the middle of the 19th century it had been assumed by some bell-founders that tonal quality problems could be overcome by increasing the thickness of various parts of the bell to reduce individual partial intensities. Many thick-scale bells were produced in this period and while they did reduce the intensity of some inharmonious partials they did not produce a musical sound.

The most significant advance came in the 1890s when one bell-founder changed the shape of a bell to reduce the intensities of the inharmonious partials and to fix the relationship of the Hum partial as an octave lower than the Prime, the Nominal an octave above the Prime and the Tierce as a minor third. Bells with this relationship are known as True Harmonic tuned. There had been an assumption that there were no True Harmonic tuned bells cast prior to the 1890s, but some surviving medieval and later castings do have partials close to the ideal for True Harmonic tuning. It is a subject of conjecture whether these bells were lucky accidents or their founders knew more about bell-shapes than their immediate successors. What is certain is that a good sounding ancient bell was more likely to survive than a poor sounding one.

Another significant advance towards the end of the 19th century was the introduction of large vertical boring machines or lathes that allowed precise tuning and enabled the tuner to cut metal away from any part of the inside of a bell. Prior to their introduction the tuner generally limited his efforts to chipping away at the soundbow and lip.

During the latter part of the 20th century, academic research into how bells make their sound and how bells respond to tuning has been published. These research papers [2] are freely available and have been of assistance to the modern bell-tuner. Prior to publication the secrets of the trade had been passed from the master bell-tuner to his apprentice.

Advances in technology over the past few decades have assisted the modern bell-tuner. Until a few years ago it was commonplace for a set of tuning forks to be used to establish a bell’s partials. Nowadays many tuners make use of either specialised electronic equipment or a computer running an application program showing the partial frequencies and relative amplitudes. These modern tools give an immediate visual indication of how the partials are responding to the tuning process.

Until a few years ago, accurate sound recording could only be guaranteed using very expensive recording equipment. Technological advances now allow accurate digital recordings to be made of bells prior to and after tuning using readily available commercial equipment, and sound clips can be archived for future research. Many bell-historians are already making use of PC-based applications to document the primary partials and some of this information is available online in the prototype National Bells Register [3].

Without doubt the last ten years has seen significant advances for bell archaeology and proponents of conservation and preservation are advised to make use of these advances. It is now relatively easy for digital photographs and digital sound clips to be taken and archived. Consequently, the arguments for not retuning ancient and not-so-ancient bells are greatly reduced and it is hoped that in future belltuners will be given more latitude to improve the tonal balance of old bells.

Providing there is sufficient thickness, the partials may be slightly changed in frequency by removing metal from the bell, and tuning different parts of the bell changes some partials more than others. The bell tuner’s skill lies in knowing which part of the bell to tune to achieve the desired result. The bell’s shape and thickness are the main limiting factors and these restrict what can be achieved. However, significant improvements can be made in many cases.


  Exterior of the Church of St Laurence, Hilmarton, Wiltshire
  The difficult to handle ring of six at Hilmarton, Wiltshire has been re-hung in a new frame and the poorsounding second bell has been replaced by a bell from the redundant church of Little Carlton, Lincolnshire.

The Keltek Trust was established in 1997 to relocate redundant and second-hand bells. Its policy is conservation by re-use; redundant bells should be transferred to churches where they will be used instead of languishing unused in a deconsecrated church or worse still removed and sold for scrap.

Transferring bells is not something new; it is a practice that has happened for many centuries. Usually the transfer was within the same diocese and so the number of bells transferred per year has been relatively low. The main reason for this is that bells from redundant churches usually need to be removed at short notice and there is rarely sufficient time to find an alternative home. Even if an alternative destination is found, it is unlikely that the church authorities could gain faculty approval and raise sufficient funds in time.

The trust has overcome this problem by establishing a Bell Rescue Fund whereby bells are purchased and put into storage until a suitable destination is found. On average there is a delay of several years between acquisition and installation elsewhere for rings of bells and between six and 18 months for single bells.

Lists of surplus bells are published on the trust’s website and printed lists circulated to members of the trade, diocesan bell advisers and other interested parties. The trust keeps records of requirements and attempts to match surplus or redundant bell details with enquiries and this has resulted in the transfer or proposed transfer of over 350 bells.

Not all bells come from redundant churches. Many come from churches undertaking a bell-restoration scheme. Some bells may be surplus to requirements, for example the re-modelling of a peal of bells into a lighter ring or a bell may be out of tune with the remaining bells. It was common practice for surplus bells to be broken-up and the metal re-used in the casting of replacements. Nowadays many bells are recycled and used elsewhere.

While many relocated bells are installed without any tuning, some require sympathetic tuning to produce an acceptable sound or to slightly change the note of the bell. Most bells can be satisfactorily tuned and their tonal qualities improved but some cannot. In such cases they are installed as single bells for chiming or put on display.

The majority of bells for relocation date from the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries. Occasionally the trust relocates medieval bells; one such case was two surplus bells from Bishopstoke, Hampshire which were used to augment the ancient ring of four bells at Immingham which had an average age of nearly 500 years old. Although by current standards the bells are not well in tune, the overall effect was of an interesting and not unpleasant sounding ancient ring of bells.

The trust has helped to re-locate second-hand bells into numerous churches and in over 100 churches the bells will be or have been hung for traditional full-circle ringing. The illustrations give an indication of typical projects.


1 Further information on change-ringing can be found on the Central Council of Church Bell Ringers’ website HERE

2 See

3 See



Historic Churches, 2006


DAVID J KELLY is by profession an electronic engineer and his hobbies include bell-ringing and industrial archaeology. He has been closely involved in several church bell restoration schemes prior to becoming one of the founding trustees of the Keltek Trust in 1997.

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