The Perkins Bells: Sounds and history

Alumnae and staff share the history of the famous Perkins bells, including how they were made and what they sound like

View of Girl's Close residential cottages with walkway lined with brick buildings on both sides with the Howe Building Tower behind.

Historical information

Recording of Perkins alumna and staff member, Dorothy Ingersoll, talking about the history of the Wheelwright Bells in the Perkins tower. After Ingersoll’s introduction, Perkins alum, David Baharian, plays a selection of Christmas songs the bells. Finally, Research Librarian Ken Stuckey provides some history about how the bells were made, their acquisition, and their significance. The peal of English bells was donated in 1912. Learn more by reading “The change ringing bells at Perkins” Archives blog post. 

Preferred citation

Perkins School for the Blind. “Perkins Bells: Sounds and History,” Historical Recordings Collection, AG206-2022-19, Perkins School for the Blind Archives.

Audio recording

Recording of Perkins Bells: Sounds and History


Dorothy Ingersoll: –the chimes again. My name is Dorothy Ingersoll, and I have been asked to give you a short history of these bells. This set of eight bells was given to Perkins in 1912 by Mrs. Andrew Wheelwright in memory of her late husband. She was a descendant of Thomas Handasyd Perkins, for whom the school was named. This was the year that the school moved from South Boston to Watertown. 

When these bells arrived from England, they were placed in the museum in the Howe building for a time, and the pupils and staff members had an opportunity to examine them closely before they were placed in the tower. Children and their teachers from school in the nearby towns came to see these bells, for bells such as these were rarely seen at first hand. 

These bells are in the scale of E major and are in one octave. They each have a name and an inscription written in raised letters, which the pupils could read themselves. The largest one, Love, which is the tenor bell, weighs 2,200 pounds. The smallest one, Angel, which is a treble bell, weighs 700 pounds. 

I thought you would like to know the inscription on each bell, so I will read them to you now, starting with the smallest one, Angel, which says, “may God bless all whom we do call.” Joy says, “break forth into joy, sing together.” And Blessing says, “oh ye light in darkness, bless ye, the Lord.” Honor is the next one, and it says, “sing ye to the Lord, sing, sing, for the honor of his name.” Glory says, “arise, shine for thy light has come.” Faith, the next one, says, “send out thy light and they truth. Let them lead me.” And Hope says, “lift up your heart. We lift them up into the Lord.”  And Love, the largest one, says, “ring in the love of truth. Ring in the common love of good.” 

These bells are hung both for chiming and for pealing. When chimed, as we used to hear them during the Christmas season and at many other occasions, hammers strike the outside of the bell. To me, the chiming of these bells was one of the loveliest sounds during the beautiful Christmas season at Perkins. 

Now, I am sure that many of you will remember when these bells were played for a half hour on Sunday morning by one of the boys. I have been told that people would call the school and ask to have one of their favorite hymns played at this time. 

Now, as I have said, in chiming, hammer strikes the outside of the bells. But in pealing, the bells are swung to a complete revolution and back again, and each swing of the bell brings it into violent contact with its tongue or clapper. The art of pealing lies in the ability both to do the mechanical part, which is no easy matter, and to carry out a prearranged series of changes of the order in which the bells are pealed. 

This work requires not only technical ability, but more especially, extreme concentration of mental effort to remember the order of the changes and to take one’s place in the proper order at the right moment. For this reason, people who are mathematically inclined will do as well, or better then, those who are of a musical nature. A peal of bells is a set of two joined to each other. The bells in the Perkins Tower are one of the finest peals. 

Change ringing has been practiced in England for more than three centuries. However, in this country, it seems to have become a lost art, but it has been said that of late there has become a revival. 

Now, I am sure that many of you will remember that in 1957, when Perkins celebrated its 125th anniversary, the graduates and many friends of the school contributed a sum of money to pay to have these bells electrified so that they would tell the time every 15 minutes. They wanted to give a gift to the school that everyone would enjoy. Four of the bells were utilized for this purpose. A small timepiece was placed in the tower room near the bells, which by some mechanism connected the four ropes attached to the bells, which were used for this purpose. The old ropes were replaced by new metal ones to withstand constant use. 

The tune or sequence that these bells play is known as the “Westminster Chimes,” as the bells in Westminster Abbey in London played this tune. I have been told that people coming to this country from England chose to settle in Watertown so they could be near the Perkins Tower and hear these bells, for this would be a link reminding them of their homeland. 

So day after day, the bells in the Perkins Tower not only tell the time of day to those within radius of their sound, but along with the many radio and television broadcasts and the numerous Perkins movies that have been made, they have been adding their voices to help spread the Perkins story. 

David Baharian: Hello. I’m David Baharian. The bells in the tower always remind us that Christmas is coming. And I know that myself, every time the Christmas season approaches, I think of the ringing of the bells as one of the high points of the Perkins Christmas celebrations. 

[Bells playing “Joy to the World”] 

[Bells playing “Angels We Have Heard on High”] 

[Bells playing “The First Noel”] 

[Bells playing”The Little Drummer Boy”] 

[Bells playing “Silent Night”] 

[Bells playing “Good King Wenceslas”] 

[Bells playing “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel”] 

[Bells playing] 

[Bells playing “Away in a Manger”] 

[Bells playing] 

Speaker 1: “The Perkins Chimes Remembered” is dedicated to the memory and significant contributions made by Edward Jenkins, class of 1922, teacher of organ and music theory at Perkins from 1933 to 1971, and Paul Vargas Director Perkins Music Department, 1935 to 1974. A special thanks to the following individuals who made this recording so special and significant: David Baharian, class of 1967, he was our Master Bell Ringer. David is also Dispatcher with the Department of Public works for the city of Quincy, Massachusetts as well as a local church organist. 

Roger G. Casey class of 1969, and President of Soundcraft; Mary Coffey was our Project Idea Originator. She’s also our accounts manager; Dorothy Ingersoll, class of 1932, and speech therapist at Perkins; Rick Lindquist, Recording Engineer; Kevin Lessard, Director, Perkins School for the Blind; Kenneth Stuckey, research librarian, Samuel P. Hayes Research Library at Perkins; and Ralph Jonathan White, Recording Engineer. To order copies of “The Perkins Chimes Remembered,” send your check or money order for $7 to Mary Coffey, C-O-F-F-E-Y, [address redacted]. For information about this recording, telephone [telephone number redacted]. The preceding was recorded, unrehearsed on the Perkins campus. Final mix, mastering, and post-production services were donated by Soundcraft, crafting your ideas in sound. 

[Bells playing “Amazing Grace”] 

Speaker 2: Any profit made from the sale of these tapes is going to go back into the bells, to either replace ropes if needed, or hopefully to repair the clock mechanism. So we hope that you will enjoy this music and know that you’re playing a part in the restoration and maintenance of the Perkins bells. 

Speaker 1: Before our concert begins, a few words of history about our famous bells from Ken Stuckey, librarian for the Hayes Research Library on the Perkins campus. 

Kenneth Stuckey: I thought today you would like to know something about where and how the Perkins bells were made, for the Perkins bells were made in one of the oldest and most well-known foundries in the world. For 400 years ago, the sign of the three bells, the stamp of Robert Mott, Master Founder, proclaimed the bells’ origin as the Whitechapel Bell Foundry. And the foundry stamp to this day is still based on that of Robert Mott. 

Not only can the present foundry, one of the few in the world now concentrating solely upon bells, claim an uninterrupted line of descent from Mott, but Mott himself was one of the line of master founders going right back to Robert Chamberlain, some of whose bells still survive, but who was active in Aldgate, London from as early as 1420. So the present foundry, whose elegant, classical facade graces busy Whitechapel Road, is able to trace back a continuous succession spanning more than five and a half centuries. 

Despite its impressive ancestry, however, Whitechapel is emphatically a forward-looking foundry. Over the years, it was in the forefront of promoting bell frames in steel and laser and reinforced concrete. Much of the foundry’s past progress took place in the early 18th century, when the new art of change ringing was born and rapidly gained ground, first in London, Cambridge, and Norwich, and then in other major cities. 

Thus it was that in this period, under Richard Phelps, the foundry underwent considerable expansion. Before the end of the century, helped by London’s position as a seaport, it had achieved international renown. It was Phelps who cut the five and quarter ton clock bell for St. Paul’s Cathedral, 1716. It’s still in use, and at the time, one of the heaviest bells in England.

One of the other products of this period was London’s famous Bow Bells, 1738, 1762. That’s the bells that are made famous by, if you’re born in the sound of them, you are a true cockney. We, of course, have the famous Liberty Bell. Our own Liberty Bell was cast in Whitechapel Foundry in 1752, and the set of bells of Saint Petersburg, now Leningrad, 1747. And the foundry’s first transatlantic change ringing field at Christ Church Philadelphia, also the heavy ring of 12 at Saint Peter Bancroft, Norwich, which still remains substantially intact. 

The 19th century saw the Whitechapel foundry, now under Thomas Mears, take the logical step of entering for the first time the field of bell hanging. The foundry continued to prosper, and it was during this period that a number of very heavy bells were produced, beginning with the recasting in 1834 of great Tom of Lincoln, a bell weighing five and a half tons. No bell of such magnitude had been cast in England for over a century. 

Then followed the Great Peter at York Minster, ten and a half tons, and finally a world famous bell whose cross-section, if you look on entering the foundry, you will see framing the main doorway, Big Ben, the world-famous Big Ben that you hear ringing out the time from London, especially if you are listening to the BBC. That bell weighs 13 and a half tons. 

I thought you would like to know the cost of the Perkins bells when they were originally purchased by Mrs. Wheelwright. The original cost without duty was $4,831.84. It was estimated in 1960 that the cost of the bells would be $11,901.92, so our bells have been increasing in value. And certainly, today they would be far in excess of the amount that was estimated in 1960. 

Now, to tell you a little bit about how bells are cast. The method for casting bells is very old. They start with the core. The mold which will form the inside shape of the bell is built up of loam and specially made curved bricks, whereas the coop, the outer mold for the bell, is formed also with loam inside a cast iron molding case. Each mold is then carefully smoothed to the precise shape required using curved molding boards or sickles. 

The loam, consisting mainly of yellow London clay, is capable of being polished to a remarkable smooth finish, and it’s into this surface that the craftsman now impresses in reverse those inscriptions and decorations, which give the bell its own special personality. After being dried in an oven, the molds, which can only be used once, are given a smooth coating of fine graphite and with infinite care are securely clamped together. 

Bell metal is an alloy of approximately 77% copper to 23% tin, and it is a moving moment when the roar of the furnace has been silenced and the massive ladle filled with brightly glowing liquid begins to trundle out on the overhead crane to discharge its valuable contents into the waiting mold. Then, after hours of cooling, the mold is broken open and the bell, perfect in every detail, is finally revealed. And that is why we use the expression, they broke the mold when they made you. 

So this is just a little bit about our bells and how they were made. I hope you enjoy the bells, and next time you come back to school or hear them, you’ll have a better understanding that they have a fine ancestry and truly belong in a great league of bells. 

Speaker 1: Sit back and relax now. Listen to this rare recording performed by David H. Baharian, graduate 1967, on “The Perkins Chimes Remembered.” 

[Bells Playing] 

[Bells Playing “Holy, Holy, Holy”] 

[Bells Playing] 

[Bells Playing “Abide with me”] 

[Bells Playing] 

[Bells Playing “Ode to Joy”] 

[Bells Playing “Amazing Grace”] 

Advance this tape forward to the end of side 1 and listen for Christmas hymns and favorite carols on side to, and a special behind the scenes interview about the Perkins chimes and some personal history with Dorothy Ingersoll, class of 1933, on this edition of “The Perkins Chimes Remembered.” 

[Note: This section of the production is at the beginning of this recording.]

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