Old And Sold Antiques Auction & Marketplace
Antiques Digest Browse Auctions Appraisal Home

Old And Sold Antiques Digest Article


An old church bell was sold at one of the London auction-rooms lately. The circumstance is very unusual. Very rarely indeed are church bells the object of auction sales, and I am inclined to think that, if it could be known from which church a bell has been taken, the return of it could be demanded.

I rather think, like parish registers, church bells cannot be sold in what may be called "market overt." This one is, so I hear, believed to have come from a church which has been wholly destroyed.

I saw another, some time ago, in a nobleman's house, which had also come from a church that had been pulled down, and is now swung as a dinner bell.

I suppose there are no collectors of church bells because, practically, there are none to be had ; but there is a considerable demand for other kinds of bells.For example, those beautiful sets of four or five that were put on the leading horse of a team, and were known as team bells, and by which the approach of horses in a long narrow lane was heralded, are in great demand, and very charming dinner bells they make. They are often of beautiful sound, and made of really good metal. There is a set, I am told, at Kingston, in the museum, and I have seen others.

Then there are sheep bells, generally circular, sometimes made of bronze, occasionally quite ancient, and at times having initials or dates upon them. In Austria and Switzerland they and the somewhat larger cow bells are rectangularmore like that wonderful St. Patrick's bell in the Dublin Museum. The old English sheep bells are often very harmonious in tone, and are pleasant things to use, mounted up for handling. The foreign ones are not so harmonious, they are more shrill; but in amongst the mountains their sound is very pleasant.

We keep up curious customs with regard to bells-the Pancake Bell, rung on Shrove Tuesday in some places, Harvest Bells and Market Bells, the solemn Passing Bell, the alarming Fire Bell, and, in churches, the Sanctus Bell. There is a beautiful old Sanctus Bell in a Catholic church in Surrey, that was stolen once, together with two or there other treasures from the church. The country people tell you that the bell persisted in ringing, and so the thief threw the treasures away, and the bell went on ringing till it was found and restored to its place. It certainly did go away from the church, and it certainly is back there now ; so much of the story I know is true.

I saw a beautiful silver Sanctus Bell a little while ago on a dinner table. It was not of the kind that hung in the belfry, but such as the altar-boy uses on the steps. It was Spanish, and had come from some fine church, no doubt, but now put to quite different purposes.

There was a splendid, silver bell sold at the Strawberry Hill sale in 1842, which Walpole said had been made for Pope Clement VII by Benvenuto Cellini, and had come from Parma into the possession of Lord Rockingham, from whom Walpole had obtained it. After the Strawberry Hill sale it passed into the possession of Baron Ferdinand de Rothschild. It is absolutely encrusted with beautiful ornamentation, chased in most marvellous fashion, but is not now attributed to Cellini. It is probably German and very likely made by Jamnitzer, who died in Nuremberg in 1585. There is a wonderful bell that belonged to Queen Mary Stuart and, later on, to Mr. Bruce, of Kennet. It has the Royal Arms of Scotland upon it, the Greek monogram for the name of our Lord, and various Latin inscriptions, one of them saying that the Queen used it to summon her attendants, and, perhaps, that also was originally made for ecclesiastical purposes. It was bequeathed by the Queen, in her will of February, 1577, to her secretary Nau, and in 1587 it appears in the inventory of the things that were at Fotheringay Castle. It is a very beautiful bell, and another very fine one is believed to be at Windsor, and belonged to Queen Anne Boleyn.

There are two interesting mediaeval bells in the British Museum-one which came from Pickering, and is a fourteenth-century bell engraved with a crucifix and saints; the other, a Flemish bell, dated 1574 and having upon it the maker's name.

Some delightful bronze bells have appeared more than once in sales ; early Italian work, made very likely at Padua, and one was certainly the work of Riccio, and fetched several hundreds of pounds. Really fine bronze bells are great treasures, and these were generally made for domestic use, the altar bells being, as a rule, silver or very fine bronze.

The art of bell-founding is ancient, and very good bells have always been made in this country. One of the firms of bell-makers, Mears, goes back to 1570 in direct succession, and two other notable firms-Warner's of London and Taylor's of Loughborough-are also very ancient firms. I believe the earliest dated church bell in England is the one at Duncton, of 1369 ; there are a great many bells in belfries of the sixteenth century.

If collectors cannot obtain church bells, they can do something which is almost as interesting-climb up the belfries and make rubbings of the inscriptions and dates upon the church bells. Very often, in describing the possessions of a church, the bells are forgotten, and yet they are often as old as anything in the church, sometimes contemporary with the oldest part of the building itself. There are various books on the church bells of different countries, and they give fascinating reading, specially if the compiler has been successful enough to dig up information concerning the bells from the makers, or about those persons who gave the bells.

In many instances, church bells and altar bells have the names of the donors upon them, sometimes accompanied by prayers for the repose of their souls, because the bells are given to the glory of God, and were always the subject of special services, which the Catholic Church still retains when she sprinkles and blesses new bells intended for a church.

In examining church bells, care must be taken not to overlook the little bell which often hangs in quite another part of the church, and which was rung at the Elevation, especially as at times it is the oldest bell in the church, and the collector of bell rubbings and bell inscriptions must be a person who is cool and level-headed, because he may have to climb very rickety ladders and walk about over very old woodwork, in search of information which the belfry may contain, Curfew bells are still rung in many parishes in England, at one place, Wallingford, it is said the practice has never ceased since the Conquest, and that the bell on which it is rung belongs to an Anglo-Saxon period. Certainly, in many places curfew is rung on very ancient bells, and church bells may be regarded as almost indestructible ; the only thing that can injure them is when the church catches fire, and the woodwork of the belfry is burned, and the bells fall to the ground : that has happened sometimes.

The sound of bells may be a great joy; on the other hand, if one is too near the church, and there are enthusiastic campanologists in the parish, they may be a terrible nuisance, but there is no such bell-ringing in England as there is in Russia. The Russians are very fond of bells, and tune them to all kinds of notes, and very melodious are the Russian bells. Their largest bell stands outside the Kremlin, and cannot be used, because an unfortunate accident has cracked it, but they have many splendid bells, with glorious, rich, deep notes.

Two curious bells that I saw a little while ago had come from a canopy that had been held by the Barons of the Cinque Ports over George III at his coronation, and had come down in descent from the posterity of one of those Barons.  They were unusual in shape and in tone. The Barons, I believe, still are summoned to the coronation, but the days of the canopy with its pendent bells are past.

In a garden in Cornwall, I saw suspended a fine bronze ship bell, almost the only thing that had been saved from a wreck; and there are several ship bells to be seen in several local museums in places down by the sea coast, especially in the west of England. One bell-metal bell, shining resplendent as though it was made of gold, adorns the hall of a ship owner's seaside residence ; and, curiously enough, quite close to him, to point out a dangerous shoal, swings one of those monotonous bell-buoys, with its dreary, never-ceasing note.