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Arthur Nichols and Change Ringing in Boston

by Mira Whiting
A letter sent on May 28th, 1910 by one of the most famous American change ringers of the early twentieth century, Dr. Arthur Nichols gives a fascinating glimpse into some of the history of the bells in Boston and the people who have rung them. Nichols was an important figure in the world of early twentieth century change ringing in the United States, and the New England area in particular. This letter raises questions of what the interactions between different groups of change ringers in the New England area consisted of, who ringers were in the early twentieth century in terms of class and education level, and how change ringing intersected with the realm of politics on the state, national, and international level.

Although change ringing is a quintessentially British activity, there is a long history of ringing in North America. There were at least four towers with change ringing bells in North America before the Revolutionary War. Two of them were in South Carolina at St. George's Church, Dorchester which was built in 1753 and at St. Michael's Church which was built in 1764 in Charleston.1 The third was in Boston, Massachusetts at Christ Church in the City of Boston, commonly called Old North Church which was built in 17232 and the fourth was in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and was also called Christ Church and was built in 1754.3

After the revolution, there was a huge drop in interest in ringing, mainly because it was associated with the British and therefore was something to be avoided. Nichols made it his mission in life to revive the art of change ringing and the activity gained popularity again. His main focus in his attempt to increase the popularity of change ringing was to try to get as many new sets of bells installed as he could. It was as a part of this endeavor that the letter from May 1910 was written.

According to his daughter, Margaret Homer Shurcliff, Nichols who was born in 1840, grew up not far from Old North, and it was there that he fell in love with the sound of the bells which were chimed rather than rung at that time. He learned to ring while on a trip to England years later. When he came back and heard that Old North was undergoing renovations, he became one of the driving forces in getting the bells restored so they could be rung for change ringing.4 Nichols was also the driving force behind the installation of other rings of bells including the Groton School in Groton, Massachusetts, Memorial Tower in Hingham, Massachusetts, University of Chicago in Chicago, Illinois, the bells at Church of the Advent in Boston, Massachusetts, and the bells at the Perkins School for the Blind in Watertown, Massachusetts.5

It is this last ring of bells on which I would like to focus now. The letter sent by Nichols to the Honerable Nicholas Longworth on May 28, 1910 concerns the bells that eventually ended up at the Perkins School for the Blind, but were originally intended for Harvard and then the Customs House Tower in Boston. This letter was found in the collection of Nichols's papers which are housed at the Boston Athenaeum in Boston, Massachusetts.

The letter is almost three pages long typewritten with occasional hand-corrections. Nichols implies that Longworth is already familiar with the situation regarding the bells in question since very little background of it is given. Nichols also implies that he has considered testifying before Congress about the eventual-Perkins bells by his reference to a trip to Washington, D.C. This is curious because most of the documents about this project suggest that the legal dealings were mostly at the state level and not the federal level.

After the salutation comes a paragraph in which Nichols introduces himself to Longworth and justifies “taking the liberty”6 of contacting him directly rather than being introduced by a mutual acquaintance. In order to soften the rudeness of directly contacting Longworth, Nichols attempts to provide common ground from which to start his missive by pointing out their shared experience of being students at Harvard.7 It is important to note that it is his place of education, which also comes up later in the letter, which serves as his way of gaining the ear of Longworth.

After his introductions, Nichols quickly gets to his point and explains the project he wishes to have Longworth's support for. Particularly striking in this second paragraph is Nichols's assertion that the reason he was so keen on advocating the installation of bells at the Groton School was with the long-term goal of replicating the kind of ringing environment at Harvard as he had seen at universities when he travelled to England.8 In other documents in the same box as this one, it was clear that the bells under discussion in this letter were originally intended to reside at Harvard, and it seems from this reference as if there was still some possibility of this happening, at least in the mind of Arthur Nichols. This seems a continuation of the connection between bells, ringers, and Harvard, an Ivy League college which would have been accessible mainly to the wealthy. Perhaps Nichols also intended to show Longworth that these bells would not go unrung since there was the possibility of steady influx of experienced ringers in the form of young men who had graduated from the Groton School, an elite prep school which would have had a fair number of students continue on with their educations at post-secondary institutions such as Harvard. Indeed, he confirms that this is not outside the realm of possibility since “ringers from this school [Groton] among the undergraduates are now six in number.”9 He claims that these ringers are “competent” and would be vital to start a band of ringers at the new ring to go in at the Customs House tower.

In the next paragraph of the letter, Nichols goes on to name the donor, Mrs. Wheelwright, for the first time and to present her wishes as to how her gift should be managed. He discusses the formation of a board of trustees as well as where such trustees might come from. Each trustee is to present a different viewpoint in the managing of the bells, with one who can attest to the physical safety of the tower for change ringing, one from Harvard, and one a ringer. It also seems from this paragraph as if the perennial concern of those installing bells cropped up in this case as well, the issue of sound control. Indeed, it seems that Nichols envisioned these bells as mainly being heard as time-tellers whether it be in relation to the beginning or end of the workday or anything else “the Treasury Department see fit to use them for.”10

Next Nichols discussed the teaching of new ringers. First, Nichols suggests that it might be wise to bring over experienced ringers from England to teach the new band. This is a bit odd because previously in the letter he had stated that the Groton alumni would be a good “nucleus” for the new band.11 However, it would mesh with the previous assumptions about the economic class of ringers to assume that the English ringers would be able to afford passage across the Atlantic and would be able to make such a journey for the purpose of teaching ringing. Second, he states that because there is so much mathematics involved in ringing only a few students would be allowed to learn the art. This seems particularly curious for two reasons. The first is that today, there is such a shortage of ringers that anyone is welcome to learn. Perhaps such exclusiveness in Nichols's letter suggests that there was less of a shortage of willing ringers in the early twentieth century. The other interesting part of this paragraph is that Nichols expresses such a concern over the necessity of ringers to understand the math involved in change ringing. Today, it is common to have most of a band understand little to nothing of the math while such knowledge is necessary only for creating new methods or composing. This once again seems to confirm that Nichols viewed change ringing as being for the elite intellectual.

After addressing who would ring the bells and who would control the use of them, Nichols then moved on to the last portion of his letter which concerned the controversy over the physical bells. The issue was that in her donation, Mrs. Wheelwright had specified that the bells must come from England, since she believed American bells to be inferior. This controversy is elaborated upon more thoroughly in other letters contained in the same box as the one being discussed. In this section of the letter, Nichols claims that the bells which were manufactured in America were not bells at all but rather “steel tubes, which in the line of hideous discordant noise could have given points to a Chinese Tom-Tom.”12 The controversy surrounding where the bells would be made seems to indicate that there was international competition among bell founders, which perhaps was why the federal government would have been interested in the project, as was indicated by Nichols's plans to go to Washington to talk to Congress about it.

To end this letter, Nichols once again plays upon his connections to Harvard, as well as those presumed by the addressee, by reiterating that students at Groton who “intend to apply for admission to Harvard” will be selected to learn to ring. This again reinforces his theme that educated people would be the ringers of these bells.

A ring of bells for the Customs house tower was not to be and the bells ended up at the Perkins School for the Blind,13 but this letter nevertheless shows many interesting things about the state of change ringing in North America in the early twentieth century. First, the fact that there seemed to be enough enthusiasm for ringing that new rings of bells were being donated. Also, it takes quite a large commitment of time to learn to ring tower bells, and thus it is difficult to get new bands started up. Second, Nichols seemed to think that the most likely people to be interested in ringing the new bells would be educated, wealthy young men who had gone to an elite school and were continuing their education at an expensive, prestigious university. He also assumes that ringers in England would be able to take time off from their lives to come to Boston to teach ringing which would have been quite a committment of time and resources. This implies that he believes those ringers to have quite a bit of disposable income and leisure time. Lastly, Nichols suggests that in his view it is necessary to have a full understanding of all of the underlying concepts of the mathematical part of change ringing in order to be good at it, which again implies that ringers must be highly educated. This letter also hints at how politics and ringing intersected in the early twentieth century and that the international implications of where bells were made perhaps had economic implications for American bell founders. This letter, and many others like it in the collection of Nichols' papers at the Boston Athenaeum provide quite interesting insights into the state of change ringing in New England in the early twentieth century.


Edward Martin. Notes on Campanologia.

Ernest Morris. The History and Art of Change Ringing. Yorkshire, England: EP Publishing, 1974.

Arthur H. Nichols. “Letter to the Honerable Nicholas Longworth.” In Boston Athenaeum. May 28 1910 pages Box II, Folder 3.

E. S. and M. Powell. The Ringers' Handbook. 15th edition. Leeds, England: The Letterpress Group, 1984.

Vanessa Schukis. Docent Handbook.

Margaret Homer Shurcliff. Lively Days: Some Memoirs by Margaret Homer Shurcliff. Taipei, Taiwan: Literature House, 1965.

J. Michael Simpson (ed.). There Was Life Before NAG. 2nd edition. Philadelphia, PA: North American Guild of Change Ringers, 2000.

George Williams. Change Ringing in the Carolina Low-Country: A Full Record of Full-Circle Ringing from 1751 to 2000. Charleston, South Carolina: St. Michael's Church,

The Church of Stella Maris, and Grace Church, 1999.

Wilfrid G. Wilson. Change Ringing: The Art and Science of Change Ringing on Church and Hand Bells. New York, NY: October House, 1965.


[1] ^ George Williams, Change Ringing in the Carolina Low-Country: A Full Record of Full- Circle Ringing from 1751 to 2000 (Charleston, South Carolina: St. Michael's Church, The Church of Stella Maris, and Grace Church, 1999). 7-8.

[2] ^ Vanessa Schukis, Docent Handbook, p. 4.

[3] ^ J. Michael Simpson (ed.), There Was Life Before NAG, 2nd edition (Philadelphia, PA: North American Guild of Change Ringers, 2000), p. 11.

[4] ^ Margaret Homer Shurcliff, Lively Days: Some Memoirs by Margaret Homer Shurcliff (Taipei, Taiwan: Literature House, 1965), p. 63.

[5] ^ Ibid. 77-80.

[6] ^ Arthur H. Nichols, “Letter to the Honerable Nicholas Longworth,” in Boston Athenaeum (May 28 1910) pages Box II, Folder 3, p. 1.

[7] ^ Ibid, p. 1. .

[8] ^ Ibid, p. 1. .

[9] ^ Ibid, p. 1. .

[10] ^ Ibid, p. 2.

[11] ^ Ibid, p. 1. .

[12] ^ Ibid, p. 3.

[13] ^ Simpson, Op. Cit., p. 82.

Posted Oct 04, 2008


Carl Scott ZimmermanMar 11 2014, 3:38 pm

Nichols' characterization of American-made bells as "steel tubes" suggests that he was probably aware of the relatively recent installation of a set of American-made tubular bells in the east tower of the Christian Science mother church in Boston. But clearly he was not aware that those tubular bells were made of conventional bell metal (bronze, not steel). If he was referring to the large quantities of cast steel bells being mass produced in America, he should have known that they were always sold singly, without any pretense of putting them together in musical instruments. In the ten years prior to Nichols' letter, the Meneely (Watervliet) bellfoundry had installed chimes of bronze bells in some 40 church towers across America, and it would go on to become the only American producer of carillon-quality bells in its era. So his characterization must be regarded as vituperative rather than factual.

Carl Scott Zimmerman, Campanologist (

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