Bellringing History - Introduction

For at least a thousand years bells have been part of the fabric of society, marking major events, calling people to prayer, marking the time, warning of invasion or danger and just pleasing with their harmonious sound. They have been venerated, given names, inscribed with verse, signed by their makers and been the subject of various superstitions. In times of war they have been taken down and the metal sold for armaments or themselves turned into cannons. They are without doubt very much part of our heritage. One of the oldest bells in England is in the parish of Worlington in Suffolk and is known to have been made in Kings Lynn (Bishop’s Lenne) by Johannes Godynge de Lenne in the 1280’s. The foundry was probably on the Common Staithe where Corn Exchange now is. Lynn was chosen for its navigable river which enabled the import of metal and the transport of the bells upriver.

St Nicholas' Bells

The tower of the Chapel has had a variety of bells over the centuries. In 1550 they were sold to buy arms for the defence of Lynn, only one bell being left. Following this a peal was recast and added to and finally in 1870 a new ring of 8 was recast by Taylors of Loughborough and is our current peal of bells, which are about to be rehung. The clock bell dates from 1631, signed by John Draper, of Norwich, and was originally in the lantern at St Margaret’s, Kings Lynn.

Dove's Guide for Church Bell Ringers

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Place King's Lynn, S Nicholas, Shown in County Lists as King's Lynn, S Nicholas
Grid Ref TF618204
Lat, Long 52.75744, 0.39658 (Locate using Google Map or OS Map)
Postcode PE30 1DZ
SatNav No optimised destination for Satellite Navigation has been submitted Add details
County Norfolk
Country England
Diocese ChConsvnTrust
Listed Gr Listed Gr
TowerBase 2761 See Felstead Peals
Bells 8 (see below) | Edit Details
Tenor 19cwt (~2130lb or ~970kg) in F (706.0Hz)
Affiliation Norwich Diocesan Association
Kings Lynn, Norfolk S Nicholas
Bell Weight Nominal Note Diameter Dated Founder Canons
1 5-3-13 1440.0 F 28.63" 1869 John Taylor & Co Y
2 6-1-16 1363.0 E 30.00" 1869 John Taylor & Co Y
3 6-2-2 1198.0 D 31.50" 1869 John Taylor & Co Y
4 8-0-2 1075.0 C 33.69" 1869 John Taylor & Co Y
5 9-2-0 968.0 Bp 36.88" 1869 John Taylor & Co F
6 10-1-24 887.0 A 38.50" 1869 John Taylor & Co F
7 13-3-97 G 42.44" 1869 John Taylor & Co F
8 19 cwt 706.0 F 47.32" 1869 John Taylor & Co F
Clock 4¼cwt 1300.0 E 26.75" 1613 John Draper Y
Source: David Cawley • Contributed by: David Cawley. • Last updated: 31/07/2007

Bell Foundries and Bell makers

There were many foundries and bell makers in Norfolk and Suffolk. Documentation is poor for the foundries of Lynn but better for Norwich and Thetford. In general Lynn would have been a favoured spot for foundries with its port able to convey the bells further inland, import metal and a have a supply of clay for the moulds. Very often the bell makers would build their foundries near where the bells were to be hung and would travel around the county doing their work. This would not occupy them sufficiently and so would be involved with other trades using their metallurgical skills. The bell maker, Johannes Godynges, was followed by several generations of the family Belleyeter, including Edmund who was three times Mayor of Lenne betwee1390-1399. By this time the family were wealthy general merchants. It is interesting that there were similar family histories of bell makers in Norwich and Worcester with the name Belleyeter (ie bell maker). There were several other bell makers in and around Lynn at this time working from foundries in Watlington, Common Staithe and Castle Rising. Gradually bell founding became concentrated in a small number of centres. Of interest is that the famous foundry in Whitechapel incorporated the foundry at Downham Market.


The making of bells involves a ceramic mould using a variety of materials, including horse dung, and covered with wax, into which molten metal is poured, usually a mix of copper and tin. The relationship of the diameter to its thickest part (sound bow) will determine the pitch when the bell is struck at the sound rim. The bell is tuned such that the various harmonic notes it produces are in an octave relationship. The tenor bell, the largest, will determine the major scale of the rest of the bells. Here at St Nicholas they are tuned to the scale of F. At the time our bells were cast the system of tuning was becoming more scientific and based on work done at Taylors and the work of Cannon Simpson in the 1890’s. Our bells are tuned to an older system based on experience and the work of Lord Grimthorpe in the 1870’2. The decision has been taken not to retune the bells as their individual sound is pleasing and the main attraction to ringers is that they should be easy to ring. There are fewer peals using the older tunings and these are worth preserving.

Bell Ringing

The tower and its bells are managed by the Tower Captain and his bell ringing team. The tower is usually unavailable to the public having its own entrance and sometimes difficult access. The ringing team may be out of view of the congregation. These factors coupled with the historic practice of forcing people to places of worship has perhaps led to the rather anarchic nature of bell ringers who have found a place of escape in the tower and a knowledge of bells which made them indispensable to the parish. Despite that England has developed a fine tradition of Change Ringing, developed in the 17th century, whereby the bells are able to be rung from the up position enabling the ringers to have a more precise control over the sounding of the bell. This resulted in the growth of bell ringing as a hobby with musical, physical and mathematical dimensions.

Our peal of 8 bells, if rung through their possible permutations (called Bob Major) would take in excess of 3 hrs. and involve 5040 changes. A side effect of this change in bell ringing has put a lot of strain on towers as they now experiencing prolonged swinging of a considerable tonnage of metal. The swing of the bells is now arranged in different directions in order to even out the strain. The popularity of ringing, which was much enjoyed by the gentry at its inception underwent a fall only to be restored over the last hundred years. As with hedge laying there are differences between counties in the way bells are rung, mostly to do with arrangement in the conducting, but also in the interval spacing between rings. Below is a typical annotation for a peal of Bob Minor.
The “Blue Line” of Plain Bob Minor, shown in red. Note that, for clarity, the row at the bottom of each column is repeated at the top of the next.

The Future

With the restoration of the bells at St Nicholas it is hoped that an active bell ringing team will be installed in the Tower. The ringing chamber is visible from inside the Chapel and access to the tower will be easy. In this way it is hoped to involve the public and students in the many interesting topics around this activity including history, music, physics and engineering, not to mention the fun of the challenge and teamwork of actually ringing the bells.