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250th Anniversary Clock and Bells

St. Michael's Church, Charleston, SC

by Kit Matthew

Read by George Williams during the Celebration Service on Sept. 21, 2014 at St. Michael's Church. A full report will be forthcoming in the Clapper.

The Act establishing the parish of St. Michael's, south of Broad Street, was signed by the governor on June 14, 1751. It specified that the church should be built "with a steeple and also a ring of bells of such number and weight and bigness , , , [as is] fitting." Soon after the church had been built and regular services had begun,the Vestry ordered from the London foundry in Whitechapel Road a ring of eight bells, the largest bell, the tenor, to be 18 hundred weight (i.e., just over one ton) and confirmed that order with part payment in a letter of September 18, 1783.

But just a few months later, in February 1764, after the final order for the bells had been sent to the Foundry, the Vestry responded to the fears of some of the parishioners who thought the steeple not strong enough to hold eight bells; they proposed omitting the two smallest bells. The Foundry replied that it was too late to change the order, and the deletion of the two smallest bells would not make a serious change in the stresses of the tower, and it could not be undertaken "on account of the Tones." A curious phrase. As it cannot refer to change ringing, it must refer to the quarter strike of the clock, and it must mean that the musical sequence of the chime was of importance. That sequence provides in musical terms a descending minor third followed by an interlocking descending major third: incompleteness followed by completeness.

The ring of eight arrived July 16, 1764, and was installed so that the bells rang for the first time on September 21, 1764, to sound the quarters of the clock and to celebrate the baptism of Betsy Brampfield; the next day, a single bell tolled for the funeral of Martha Grimke and the full eight rang for the anniversary of the coronation of King George III. Here at the very beginning are the two functions of these bells: religious and civic. The most consistent ringing of the bells for civic purposes has been the annual ringing of the bells on Carolina Day, June 28, but recently they have rung for the ceremonies initiating the Spoleto Festival at the City Hall across the street.

Change ringing--the standard method of sounding bells in the English tradition--continued until some time in the 1780's, after the original ringers had retired, when someone, probably the rector, the Rev. Henry Purcell, a musician himself, decided that if the bells were not being rung in changes they could be chimed to play tunes. Some apparatus was installed for tune playing, but it was superseded in 1805 by a chimestand, perhaps the oldest in America (still up in the tower). So, instead of eight men pulling eight ropes to sound the bells, a single performer at the chimsestand played familiar hymn tunes and popular airs. Strangely enough, this performer was a man of color, presumably in 1805 a slave. The only significant name of these ringers that has come down to us is that of Washington McClean Gadsden, who chimed these bells with an extraordinary musicianship until his death in the 1890's.

The bells were taken down from the tower by the occupying British forces in 1782 as spoils of war--though how they could have been so described I do not understand--and shipped back to London to be sold. There they were purchased by a speculative merchant and sent back to Charleston in 1783.

Taken down again in 1862 by order of the Executive Council of South Carolina, they were sent to Columbia to be melted down for cannon if the situation became desperate. The situation became desperate, but it was too late. They were over-run by Sherman's army in February 1865 and deliberately smashed. After the War, the broken bits were collected in Columbia, shipped to the original foundry in London, recast, and brought back home. On March 21, 1867, Washington Gadsden returned to the chimestand and rang out "Auld Lang Syne" and the popular song:
Home again, home again
From a foreign shore,
And oh, it makes my heart feel glad
To see my friends once more.

Gadsden's successors maintained his tradition--as best they could---until 1948 when their playing was superseded by electrically operated solenoids and hammers to the bells that were controlled by a small keyboard in the organ loft. This electrification was undertaken as a tribute to the memory of the eight parishioners who had died in the Second World War. Their names are recorded on a memorial plaque in the narthex. The bells were chimed by this mechanism by the organist or by volunteers, chief among whom has been Ms Harriott Means Johnson, who with great loyalty for many years sounded the bells of this church .

As one of the results if the hurricane of 1989, the bells had to be taken down while the steeple was being strengthened. They were sent back to the original foundry for refurbishing and retuning. When they were returned to the tower--at the suggestion of the Rector, the Rev. Mr Belser--they were rehung so that they could be rung in the original manner, full-circle change ringing. A new text has been added to the memorial plaque in the narthex which describes this alteration.

The first official peal on these bells was rung on July 4, 1993, at the direction of Mr. Richard Parsons of Raleigh. The ringers who gathered for this occasion came from towers all over the country, with one ringer from the Whitechapel Bell Foundry in London., another was Mr. John Mabe, also of Raleigh, who is ringing with us again this weekend. The peal was named "Let Freedom Ring."

The bells are rung now regularly for religious services and for civic occasions by a group of dedicated ringers. Representative ringers from the four local towers are attempting a peal this afternoon to mark this 250th.

Posted Oct 14, 2014

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