Late in 2008, the bell tower of the Center Meeting House was removed by crane and placed at ground level, adjacent to the building, where it would remain for about a year while fundraising continued and much needed restoration work was performed. During this time, we set about conducting a bit of research on her bell. What we found was quite interesting to all. Who would have guessed that a bell has a story well worth telling?
In 1860, in Sheffield, England, a 30-inch diameter bell was cast by the Naylor Vickers Company. This bell somehow made its way to Grantham, New Hampshire and, in 1892, John Hay and his wife acquired this bell and donated it to Newbury’s Center Meeting House during a restoration effort they strongly supported.
A Naylor Vickers (NV) advertisement of that year states the bells “have a very pure melodious sound, peculiar to cast steel; and as the elasticity of this material seems to produce more powerful vibrations, their sound penetrates to a greater distance.” But at the time, the wisdom of casting bells of steel was being questioned, and one observer of the time, Alfred Cocks, stated that “steel bells are in my humble opinion an abomination which ought to be prohibited by Act of Parliament.” Cocks’ statement was due to steel bells succumbing to rust and pollution and thereby going out of tune, which added to the chorus of those who made similar disparaging remarks. (Part of our restoration will be to investigate whether our bell still chimes in tune.)
Steel bells did have their place. A noted bell historian, Rev. David L. Cawley, summarized the benefits of steel over bronze: “Their great attraction was of course their relative cheapness, and their comparative lightness despite their size.” In 1864 a 48-inch diameter bronze bell that sounded the musical note E would weigh 2200 pounds and cost £177, which today would amount to over $17,000. A steel bell of the same diameter and note would weigh 1500 pounds and cost £66, or $6,600 today. Cawley notes that “Steel bells are much thinner than their bronze counterparts, and the cast metal is in any case lighter for a given size.” The Center Meeting House’s cast steel bell, serial Number 1513, was made in the hay-day of Naylor Vickers’ production. “The greater number of steel bells were cast in the years 1857-64,” according to Cawley. Our bell has been reasonably well maintained as the identification on it is still very readable and not rusted out.
The details of our bell had been lost for perhaps a century, as NV records are missing. George Dawson of Sheffield is compiling a database of bells produced by Naylor Vickers, using information sent from people like us to fill the gaps in his records. Currently, his records list the first bell having been cast in 1853, and the last in 1899: this appears to be the timeframe during which these interesting bells were produced. Cawley reported “…an output of 7,500 bells, ranging from 7 tons to 35 lbs., confirmed to a comparatively short overall period is something in which any founder might take pride.”
On a perfect, crisp December morning in 2009, the bell tower was returned to its place atop the Center Meeting House, before an enthusiastic crowd of locals. Days later, the weathervane, also meticulously restored, was reinstalled atop the tower, and the bell was rung for the first time in over eight years of silence. Truly, a milestone in our restoration efforts!