When St. Peter’s Church opened its doors in 1761, it had only a small, short bell tower roughly the same height as the church roof. This original bell tower housed only one bell, which was rung on Sundays to remind parishioners who lived nearby that services were about to begin.
In 1842, Benjamin Chew Wilcocks, who is buried in St. Peter’s Churchyard, donated a peal of eight bells to St. Peter’s. To accommodate the bells, the noted Philadelphia architect William Strickland was engaged to design the six-story bell tower you see today.
St. Peter’s eight bells were cast by the Whitechapel Foundry in London, which also cast the Liberty Bell and the bell known as Big Ben in the Palace of Westminster, London. The Whitechapel Foundry unfortunately closed its doors on June 12, 2017, after nearly 450 years of bell-making.
The eight bells at St. Peter’s are unique as they were designed not as a chime of bells to play music, but as a set of bells to change ring. Change ringing is done by one person on each bell rope, pulling the bell around in a full circle. That plan was soon abandoned because the tower was said to shake due to the weight of the bells swinging around on their headstock, and also because a ringer was needed for each bell, meaning 8 people were needed each time the bells were rung. To keep the tower safe, the bells of St. Peter’s were then made stationary, and ropes were instead connected to the clappers instead of the bells so they could be played as a chime, i.e., to allow hymns and other melodies to be played on them. This system, which is called the Ellecombe System, was developed in England to create the sound of a peal, except that the bells don’t actually swing, they remain stationary. To use this system the player would play the chime by pulling on the rope which would in turn pull the clapper that was inside the bell, causing it to ring.
St. Peter’s peal of bells is played uniquely – by ropes instead of levers. The bells actually have “written” music on ancient bell cards where hymns have been transcribed. The cards are approximately 1.5 ft by 2.5 ft., and we have an entire chest of them – over 150 hymns. Notes are indicated by numbers, i.e., the lowest note bell is #1, etc. But you do need to know how to read music in order to understand notations such as half and whole notes. We are extremely fortunate that the bell ringers of yore at St. Peter’s transcribed so many of our traditional hymns for bell ringing, and that our wonderful organist Matt Boatman transcribed many others. From time to time, our bell ringers even transcribe new tunes to be played on the bells.
By 2008 the brick tower was showing vertical cracks from top to bottom, one large crack on each tower face. The cracks showed where the tower was pulling itself apart from the top, which was caused by the extraordinary weight of the 5-story steeple addition and also the weight of the bells. Rods were inserted into the interior of the tower to stabilize it so it didn’t continue to pull apart. Also the cracks were repaired, but if you look closely, you can see the lighter colored masonry in a vertical line from the top of the brick tower to the bottom where the crack repairs were made.
Today the bells continue to be rung after, and sometimes before each service on Sundays and special days, e.g., Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, national holidays, and weddings and funerals. It astounding that the bells are rung as they were 175 years ago, by one person, using ropes attached to the clapper for each bell. It is not an activity for the timid!