“It is rare for a church bell to resound with such a demagogic voice. One that is contrary to the teachings of the sermons being preached below.”
John Clarry spoke of the bell that issued from the Lewry brothers’ foundry on Fitch Street, in Shadwell, East London. It lay for some time in the yard, regarded by its makers as a mis-casting, of poor quality. A well-cast bell bell will ring true, with a clear, clean note when it is struck by the ball peen of a hammer. In foundries a unique test hammer is usually cast at the same time as the bell and from the same metal. If the tone is pleasing, the hammer is sometimes re-shaped into a clapper.
Eventually it was donated to the barren tower of St Eligius on Fleet Street, whose own trinity of bells had been melted down to make cannon for use by the Royal Horse Artillery during the Napoleonic Wars. All but one of the cannon were later returned to the church. For a while they dangled precariously from the gudgeon like wind chimes, issuing a disorderly clamour until they were removed at the request of the congregation and those who resided in the vicinity.
The new bell was scarcely an improvement. From the outset it was seemingly the source of great discord within the locality of the church whenever it rang, leading to physical altercations and strained relations among parishioners. Horses kicked and bit their owners; men who were known to be of affable temperament were heard raising their voices in regard to trivial matters; husbands and wives, who had remained in a happy state of wedlock for years, fought and then separated.
Rumours circulated: The bell had been forged in coals raked from the fires of hell. It was made from axe heads used to execute prisoners in the Tower of London. The bell founder (the older Lewry brother) had repeatedly taken the Lord’s name in vain and invoked the devil during the casting.
An attempt to bless the bell ended in a mass brawl among the attending clergy. Its installation on a ship transporting prisoners to the new world concluded in a mutiny that necessitated an early return to the port of London and a spate of hangings.
The philosopher, William Keating, warned of this “seed of revolution with the power to unpick human civilization and return man to a base state of savagery.”
“It belongs in a place where none can hear it,” he counselled.
Others agreed. The bell was stuffed with sacking, packed inside a barrel and loaded onto a ship whose crew deposited it over the rail in some far-flung corner of the world, where it could cause no further trouble. The location was marked on the charts as being a hazard to shipping.
The last person to lay eyes upon the bell was my colleague, Colonel Simon Ashby. It lay in two fathoms of clear water, off the Bikini Atoll. A pair of large octopus were battling over it, hauling it back and forth across the ocean bed, stirring up grainy clouds of white sand.
Two days later the United States detonated a nuclear weapon on the site. The bell and presumably the octopus were instantly vaporised.
Ashby later confided to me his unease that the blast might somehow have caused the chimes of the bell to resonate across the world.
“I dread the notion that we have set free something terrible,” he said.
By Mark Sadler