History of Clock Chimes

The Historical Background

Clock movements simply struck the hour until the latter part of the eighteenth century, when chiming movements first began to be built into the clock cabinets. Early models were actually copies of famous clock towers and church and cathedral bell towers. Some even had 12 or more bells and played 7 different melodies, one for each day of the week.

During the nineteenth century, the large and cumbersome bells were gradually replaced by long hollow tubes mounted in the rear of the cabinet.

Even today, the popular melodies chiming out from modern “grandfather clocks” are produced by hammers striking tubular bells or gong rods. On each quarter hour, they play either a variation or a small part of the melody, while on the hour they play the full melody and then strike the hour.

Tubular bells are long, hollow copper or chrome cylinders. They hang at the rear inside the clock in descending order of length from left to right. The Westminster chimes, for example, strike four notes; they therefore need four different lengths of tubular bell for the chime, plus a fifth to strike the hour.

Gong rods are shorter, solid rods of cast iron. They are firmly fixed into place and take up much less space. They produce a more subdued chime than that of tubular bells, especially when compared to those made from chrome.

The siting of a clock will also influence the sound of its chimes. The same chimes will sound quite different on a hard floor of ceramic tiles than in a room with carpets and upholstery. Soft flooring material and furnishings absorb and soften the sound, while a hard floor has the advantage of making it easier to stand the clock level.

Westminster Chimes

The world’s most famous chimes are still a popular favourite. Originally derived from Handel’s Messiah, they were first fitted to the University Church clock of St. Mary’s the Great in Cambridge, England. Via their association with Big Ben in the Victoria Clock Tower of London’s Houses of Parliament, their fame has spread worldwide.

Whittington Chimes

These owe their renown to the legend of Dick Whittington, “Thrice Lord Mayor of London town”. An early 17th century play tells the story of a young penniless boy who leaves his master’s home with only his cat for company. Fortunately, the cat proves an excellent mouse catcher, earning the money which lays the foundation for Dick’s fame and fortune in later years. These chimes once rang out from the church of St. Mary le Bow in London’s Cheapside, and a Londoner was only a true cockney if he or she was born within the sound of Bow Bells.

St. Michaels Chimes

St. Michael’s chimes have a long and exciting history. Cast in London, they could first be heard ringing out in 1764 from the steeple of St. Michael’s church in Charleston, South Carolina. When the British occupied Charleston in the time of the American Revolution, the bells were returned home to the old continent. After the war, they were bought and taken back to Charleston by an American merchant. After the discovery of serious cracks in 1823, they were sent back across the ocean for recasting. During the American Civil War they were moved to Columbia for safekeeping, only to be destroyed in a fire. Fragments of the bells were found and sent back to London, where they were recast in the original moulds. On 21st March 1867, back in America at last, the eight bells rang out the joyous refrain “Home again, Home again from a foreign land.

Winchester Chimes

These lovely chimes were named for the Winchester Cathedral in which they were first played. The Norman conquerors of England did not like the fantastic cathedral chimes of the Saxons, so Bishop Walkilin, a kinsman of William the Conqueror, demolished and rebuilt the Winchester chimes in 1093. The cathedral’s central tower fell in 1107 but soon was rebuilt. This edifice forms a substantial part of the present cathedral, located in Hampshire, England.

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