Acquisition Stories: London’s Bells are Fading Away

Who cares about bells? With Big Ben silent and the foundry that forged it also gone, London’s disappearing bells are more than a partisan problem — they’re a cultural one.

John Kannenberg
Aug 21, 2017 · 4 min read

Bells have been an integral part of city life for centuries. In the days before widespread literacy and the ubiquity of wristwatches, church bells (as well as other non-denominational ‘town bells’) served multiple purposes. They didn’t just signal the start of worship–they also served as a sonic boundary of the town’s limits. If you could hear a town’s bells, you lived there. Employers required workers to live within listening distance of their own bells. The practice of change ringing–the art of performing complex sequences of tuned bell strikes–became an aspirational activity in the 17th century amongst the U.K.’s higher classes, and even today change ringing is still practiced in parts of the U.K. not only for aesthetic enjoyment, but also as a form of physical exercise. The relationship between bells and urban communities is practically one of the foundations of European culture.

Watch a short video about how Big Ben’s bell has worked up to this point, courtesy TimeOut London.

So when it was announced that Big Ben, the ‘Great Bell’ inside Elizabeth Tower at London’s Palace of Westminster, was to go silent for four years, it was obvious that the Museum of Portable Sound, which calls London its home, should acquire a recording of Big Ben’s final chimes for our permanent collection. After all, we already have a gallery of bell sounds (Gallery 16, within our Art & Culture wing, as you can see on our museum map), and hadn’t yet included the sound of Big Ben amongst the objects on display there.

Bells were in the local London news earlier this year as well. Back in May, the Whitechapel Bell Foundry, the oldest manufacturing company in the U.K. (in business since 1570 CE) and the one responsible for casting the Big Ben bell, closed its doors for good. The Foundry cast one final bell and donated it to the Museum of London, its papers were sent to an archive, and its business was off-loaded onto another U.K. company. Never mind that they had still been using 300 year-old techniques, or that they’d also cast some of the world’s most famous bells including the Liberty Bell in the USA; the spectre of 21st century capitalism had cast its shadow, and an era was at an end.

It’s no exaggeration to proclaim that, with the four-year silencing of Big Ben and the shuttering of the Whitechapel Bell Foundry, London is losing a substantial amount of both tangible and intangible cultural heritage. The fact that Big Ben’s silencing has become a political issue doesn’t exactly come as a shock; the politics in 2017's U.K. are nearly as polarised as those in the United States. And the sides are even fairly predictable: embattled, embittered, and embarrassing Tory Prime Minister Theresa May has tisk-tisked the Big Ben repairs, declaring that such a huge part of London (and U.K.) culture disappearing is just not on. Meanwhile, the embattled, embittered, and embarrassed Labour Party and other local flavours of progressives have poo-pooed the tisk-tisking, proclaiming that we have much more important things as a nation to be worried about at the moment, thank you very much.

Luckily, there are those who have begun calling for a more reasoned attitude toward the whole thing, proclaiming that the notion of missing something like the sound of a bell might not actually be a waste of energy, much less only the purview of the conservatives. I have to say, as a collector of sounds, I heartily agree with that stance. I don’t see this as a political issue, I see it as a cultural one.

Watch a brief documentary about composer R. Murray Schafer’s listening practice, courtesy The National Film Board of Canada.

There’s a decades-old movement within the academic world of musical composition and sound studies known as acoustic ecology: the protection of the soundscapes of places, especially natural locations, from being overrun with the sounds of the post-industrial world. The acoustic ecology movement was begun by Canadian composer R. Murray Schafer, who also originated the term ‘soundscape.’ Schafer also coined another term that’s quite relevant to the Big Ben debate: soundmark. A soundmark, according to Schafer, is a sound that is unique to a specific place, a sound that is immediately recognisable by its inhabitants that acts as a signal of identification. Schafer suggested that once a soundmark is identified within a community, every effort should be made to preserve it, the same as other, more tangible markers of place are protected.

Big Ben is, quite obviously, a soundmark. As a marker of place and time, it is quite possibly unequaled here in London. Going without it on a regular basis for the next four years is bound to have a significant impact on the residents of Westminster, as well as greater London. The longer Big Ben is silent, the longer that London is no longer a site of the manufacture of bells, the more disconnected it will become from a tradition that goes beyond mere politics and aesthetics. Bells have existed as urban soundmarks for centuries. We break that connection, and a fundamental part of ourselves will become broken as well. This is why it is the Museum of Portable Sound’s mission to collect, preserve, and display the culture of sound: because sounds are a part of who we are.

Watch this behind-the-scenes video of our Acquisitions team collecting the sound of Big Ben’s final bongs:

Sound Beyond Music

The Museum of Portable Sound Magazine

John Kannenberg

Written by

art, sound, museums, philosophy, design, archaeology, geek culture. http://JohnKannenberg.com / http://museumofportablesound.com

Sound Beyond Music

The Museum of Portable Sound Magazine

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