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Colonel tom and his cast steel bells

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“They have a very pure melodious sound, peculiar to cast steel; and as the elasticity of this material seems to produce more powerful vibrations, their sound penetrates to a greater distance” (NV advertisement, 1860)

“Let us hope that nothing will deter the process of disintegration which hastens the removal of their miserable remains from their towers”(A. H. Cocks, Church Bells of Bucks, 18 )

T E Vickers was born on July 9th 1833, his brother Albert five years later on 16th September 1838. Their father, Edward Vickers, a miller, had married Anne, daughter of George Naylor, a senior partner in the firm of Naylor & Sanderson, steelmaker; their uncle, William Naylor, also owned a rolling mill. Steel was in the blood; when Tom was seven, his father had taken advantage of his bother’s involvement in the “railway mania” of the time to gain control of the steelmaking business, now re-named Naylor, Vickers. The works were situated at Millsands, well up the River Don. It was not until 1863 that the business, having outgrown itself, was massively rebuilt on its new site at Brightside. To-day, not one stone remains upon another, but the name Vickers remains synonymous with steel manufacture on a large scale -not least with steel bells.

Whilst the brothers Vickers were at school in Germany, Tom undertaking technical training at Neuweidd-on-Rhine, the first Victorian bell-hunters were on their travels. By the time the works began to see print, the first steel bells had already been cast; before the later volumes were published, guttural acid would drip from the pens of our predecessors whenever they found a steel bell. The gentlemanly Tilley & Walters confmed themselves to noting “The unpleasing products of Messrs Naylor, Vickers & Co, whilst elsewhere H. B. WaIters had disparagingly remarked at one tower that the (steel) bell was “very much corroded and thoroughly in keeping with the church. It is the lowest depth to which bellfounding can sink and it is matter of thankfulness that the firm no longer produces them”. John Stahlschmidt scarcely thought them worthy of a second word: “Steel bells,” he said, “as rusty as they make them”. Alfred Cocks had no scruples: “Steel Bells are in my humble opinion an abomination which ought to be prohibited by Act of Parliament”. Cocks would have been the more mortified had he known that a century after he had written, both the peals about which he was exanimating were being regularly rung, thoroughly maintained and were recently rehung in new fittings. Col. Vickers (he held the Commission in the local Militia), whose consuming fascination with steel was so great that he is reputed sometimes to have spent the night asleep on the works’ floor, would have been delighted. A colleague recalled that perseverance, pluck and money were essentials to be expended if castings were to be a success. T. E. Vickers had all three, and in good measure.

The German experience had been invaluable; here he had noted the methods and patents used for the production of cast steel. Moreover he had seen cast steel bells produced, and being the sort of man he was, saw a wider market for them. In 1853, one of his German connections, Ewald Riepe, took out British Patent no.1636 for the production of steel bells in which it was stated that Carbon Steel would be used, poured from conventional small crucibles into clay moulds, and that they would rely for their fmal appearance on correct tuning. It has to be said that tuned steel bells were an unknown thing until a redundant Merseyside peal was so treated -by amateurs -and with surprisingly good results. The greater number of steel bells were cast in the years 1857-64 ( after which the original works was moved to Brightside), from 1870-74 and in the early 1880’s. In the first period the bells were cast by Naylor, Vickers, and latterly by Vickers, Sons & Co, the name by which the firm became incorporated in 1867. By that time Vickers had emerged at the head of Sheffield’s crncible steel industry .

There are bells, but they a few and far between, cast by the firm outside the dates mentioned, which leads one to believe that they were a speculative exercise, prompted by the massive boom in church building. For these, they could provide bells “off the peg”, which is why one may fmd in one set bells of say, 1858, 1860 and 1861 all supplied at the same time. Tuning, at the time at its very worst, even in the “ great” English bell foundries, was unnecessary with the number of bells lying around which could be matched” into a ring for a church and duly dispatched. Correspondence with Eastwood, Derbyshire, in 1857 produced suggestions for a light ring of four, or a heavy ring of four (the light ones being the front four of a ring of six, its two heaviest sharing the same serial numbers as the two smallest of the heavier set). Finally, Vickers offered all six on approval; these the parish took and retained until the turn of the century when they were replaced by a Taylor ring. Again, the saga of the bells of St Marie’s, now the Roman Catholic Cathedral, has been told elsewhere (RW 31.10.80). They were the original demonstration ring, no doubt several times replaced in whole or in part, from the wooden testing tower at Millsands. St Marie’s provided a convenient (and more respectable) location. Here a bell of 1858 shared its tower with bells of 1860 and 1861, whilst on their transfer to Moseley, the treble was quietly exchanged with one of their 1874 products, bell no 6046.

Practically all steel bells were marked with a serial number, though not so the first of which is known to me. It hangs in the Polish Roman Catholic Church in Bristol, is 30” diameter, and is dated 1855. The lowest set of accurately recorded serial numbers includes bell number 390 at Chalford, Gloucestershire, where the Incumbent was rightly to say that his tower was the first in the world “to be tenanted by a PEAL OF SIX CAST STEEL BELLS”, continuing “A peal most musical, harmoniously, melodiously soft, yet powerful and sufficiently vibratory”. The Chalford peal remains in regular use as “a valuable acquisition to enliven our beautiful vale”.

A further feature is Vickers’ acknowledgement of their indebtedness to Ewald Riepe, the man whose patent they had used. Many early bells bear the inscription:


Quite how Vickers managed to justify use of the Royal Arms, which appear on many bells, is unclear; he did not have the Royal Warrant (as, for example, did both Warner [who used the Crest] and Mears [who didn’t] ). Maybe he felt it was justified on the strength of the Patent. The final output in the 1880’s was perhaps in speculation for the Golden Jubilee. The highest accurately recorded serial numbers are at Lowick, Lancashire, where bells numbers 7291, 7320 and 7341 were hung in 1885. Only on rare occasions were bells especially made to order, and inscribed appropriately, as for example the single bell, significantly without serial number, cast for Ainsworth, Lancashire in 1867. Two different fonts were used, one a typically Victorian gothic, similar to that used by Mears at the time, and the other plain Roman. The “No” before the serial number was sometimes rendered in script. A great problem with the less well maintained steel bells, or with those in exposed positions or corrosive atmospheres is that the amount of rusting makes the inscriptions difficult to decipher, and the serial numbers almost impossible to read. A high serial number given for an early date will almost certainly be inaccurate. Further, steel bells were quite often given a profusion of ornament, equally prone to corrosion. The better preserved examples, such as Shaftesbury Grammar School and Willington, Co Durham, are well away from pollution and have only small sound exits to their belfries, so that despite the inevitable rusting, the bells retain their decoration More importantly, the rusting process impaired the tonal qualities of bells which were already harmonically ‘wild’, and which possessed almost as a design feature markedly sharp fifth and hum partials. I still find it difficult to believe that the sounds which emanate to-day from the top bells at Moseley, and till recently from the towers at Bamford, Hominglow and Stainland, were always so bizarre. The rings at Chalford and (till lately) at Bassaleg were not unacceptable; Waddesdon and Hale (ex-Bootle) have been restored and the rehung ring at Thornborough is positively good. Testimonials at the time of the installation reveal a high level of satisfaction. Similar things were said to regular bellfounders about rings they cast but long since discredited.

Their great attraction was of course their relative cheapness, and their comparative lightness despite their size. Thus in 1864 a bronze bell of 48” diameter and Sounding the note E would weigh a ton and cost £177. A steel one the same diameter and note would weigh 14-cwt and cost £66. Steel bells are much thinner than their bronze counterparts, and the cast metal is in any case lighter for a given size. Vickers either ‘struck lucky’ or did his homework to compete in the way he did. Customers could obtain massively oversized rings for their often inadequate towers at a price they could afford. Maintenance became in many cases an immediate problem.

Although Vickers did advertise a revolutionary design of bell fitting, including adjustable gudgeons and a web-section headstock, examples of this are unknown to me. In the main he followed the traditional 19th-century pattern of bell fittings for ringing peals, allowing only for an altered underside to the stock to accommodate his bell heads. With chiming bells the firm was more innovative, using wheels of cast steel with curliculed spokes ( one of his great marketing enterprises in itself); for these bells (using a git type argent for locating them) cast-iron headstocks were frequently employed, these on occasion being inscribed with the firm’s name, and incorporating steel gudgeons which were cast into the stock before being turned up. Cast-iron frames for these chiming bells incorporated small standards mounted on timber beams, and bearings with an encircling plummer block housing. “All our bells requiring a Wheel,” they said, “are fitted inside with Steel Springs, to prevent the Clapper from resting upon the Bell after it has struck, which would produce a disagreeable tone.” The springs fitted were like huge handbell springs and similar features by other founders followed well into the 20th century. So far as the bells themselves are concerned, two features call for especial mention as they represent developments in design which regular founders were later to adapt and use. The first involved the method of fixing ringing bells to their headstocks. Conventional canons were dispensed with and an appropriately thick circular cast-iron flange was cast upon the head of the bell; this idea had first been used in practice by E. B. Denison (later Lord Grimthorpe) upon the great Westminster bells cast by Warner in 1857, and Mears had re-used the pattern on their Big Ben in 1858. Security had been achieved by J-bolts fastening up beneath the flange. Trinity House seized upon the idea as ideal for their buoy-bells, but it was clearly far from secure when applied to those which were to swing. Vickers dispensed with the J-bolts, and drilled his flanges to receive bell bolts, fastening up on to the headstocks in the normal way. He further strengthened the arrangement by providing four thick solid lugs to prevent the flange from breaking away. Finally, he drilled the bell head right down through the flange to the inside of the crown to accept an independent crown staple to carry the clapper and springs. It is ironic that the old form of cast-in staple was and is notorious for causing cracks in conventional bells owing to the unequal coefficients of expansion between iron and bronze; with steel bells these tensions do not arise, yet Vickers provided a solution to the problem which his competitors were to recognize as solid practice. Before the century was out the majority of founders increasingly dispensed with canons, leap-frogging Vickers and fastening their bells to headstocks with bell-bolts without the need for a flange, and thickening the head of the bell to accept the stresses imposed. The principle of the independent staple found immediate or eventual favour with all other regular founders. Considering the attention given to the design of the metal components and to the bells themselves, it is surprising to fmd that the installation in the tower is often shocking. Frames are frequently of deal rather than oak; and the practice of ‘squeezing a quart into a pint pot’ was tested to its limit by Vickers’ bellhangers. Thus at Bamford in the Peak (where the available space would not allow of a heavier peal) the ring of six bells, tenor 7 cwt, 39” diameter, was accommodated in three two-bell frames, one above the other and the heavy eight at St John, Hurst was similarly housed with the top frame right up in the slender spire. Even their ‘normal’ installations have a flimsy look about them, and their layout is often unusual. Their two stationary chimes are odd, with the bells hung out on massive beams at 45 degrees to the vertical.

The casting technique at Millsands had initially been developed by Benjamin Huntsman, a Doncaster clockmaker, for use in clock springs. By 1751, he had devised a process which involved breaking up blister steel bar and remelting it in ceramic crucibles set in a furnace with the very high temperature of 1600o C. Such a process required more height (for the erection of appropriate chimneys) and more space (for the accommodation of the crucibles themselves with a sufficient draught around them). As to the crucibles themselves, by the time that the River Don Works was being completed at Brightside, Vickers was using examples containing 70lb each, and it was this increased output which led to the move. The largest bell they cast (in fact at Millsands) weighed some 7-tons, being destined for San Francisco Fire Station. An illustrated account of its casting shows a regular and orderly procession of workers all armed with long tongs which grip the crucibles as they are conveyed on their journey from the furnace. The clay crucibles were brought to white heat before the charge of metal was slid in; the melting process involved two further coke charges and once molten, a third charge would bring it up to the correct temperature. Only then could the crucible be extracted and the contents conveyed to the bell mould. The latter, of conventional type, was set below a grating in the floor through which projected a tundish, a deep dish-shaped iron vessel with a refractory lining and central nozzle. The advantage of this was that the tundish could at once be filled from the first crucibles; subsequent pouring from the individual crucibles would ensure that it never drained completely until the mould was full, and provided a sufficient head of metal to allow of regular and even flow. It required discipline and skilled co-ordination, and was without doubt dangerous. Some 150 crucibles were used in casting the San Francisco bell and the drama of the scene can be imagined. After cooling, the bells would be removed in the normal way and fettled down, being dispatched with a finish of grey paint, no doubt to protect and bringing the bells to a degree of resemblance to conventional ones.

It remains to give an account of the more important installations of steel bells in this country . Within the last two years year, three such rings have been dismantled, and it is thought not inappropriate to summarize the rise and demise of this unusual and often unfairly treated aspect of bellfounding. For the purpose of the list, the locations are given alphabetically together with the weight, diameter and note (where known) of the tenor bell. Installations no longer in situ or destroyed are given in italics.

Eight Bells

Birmingham, Moseley, 54”, 16-3-3 in D. The back 7 ex St Marie, Sheffield. Hung in a new frame by Barwell of Birmingham 1874 with a new treble by Vickers. Again rehung by Carr of Smethwick 1904. Ringing ceased 1909; rehung locally 1990 and in active use. The two trebles are almost the same note, whilst the third is three semitones flat; by contrast, the back five are “impressive growlers”.

Edinburgh, St Giles. A chime of mixed bells supplied in the 1860’s was sold, along with the small carillon of conventional bells at the end of the 19th-century. The steel bells were dispersed singly to other churches.

Hale, Cheshire, 40/1, 8-cwt in A. From Christ Church, Bootle as a set of six; tuned. Two secondhand steel trebles from elsewhere did not blend, so the two new trebles are of bronze. A successful enterprise; who said it couldn’t be done ? (RW’ 24.2.84).

Hastings, Sussex, St Clement, 52”, 15-cwt in Eb. Replacing an ancient conventional six, whose frame survives to house the new Taylor eight installed in 1963. The Vickers bells, which were in use right up till then, were scrapped. “The Steel Bells have this day been inaugurated with complete success. The ringers themselves (from by the) and the public are very much pleased with them and I am quite sure of this that a person unacquainted with the fact that they were of steel would never have discovered it for himself” (Rector, 1861) “Cast steel bells. The most awful row is made when they are rung. They sound dreadful and they are most inharmonious. We have described these bells as “tin cans”, which is exactly what they sound like” (Paul Taylor, 1960).

Hurst, Ashton-under-Lyne, 54”, 17-cwt in E-flat. Taken down c1970 and variously reported as scrapped or bricked up in the base of the tower. Last rung c.1919. “A rotten lot, not worth spending a penny on; very much corroded, tone is dead, hopelessly out of tune” (J P Fidler, 1940).

Sheffield, St Marie (now RC Cathedral). Transferred to Moseley in 1874 after which a fine Mears ring was installed in the Vickers frame (the latter replaced in 1934). There was quite a to-do about all this. (RW, 31.10.80).

Sowerby Bridge, Yorks, 50”, 14-cwt in E-flat. Taken out in the 1970’s and stored for years; now in an industrial museum in Durham, on exhibition. “When they were rung, the effect must have been peculiar to say the least, with the front five bells sounding progressively sharper, the sixth and seventh sounding painfully flat, to be rounded off by a not very melodious tenor”. (Dennis Greenwood, 1976).

Sydney, NSW, Randwick, 19-cwt in F# (?) Well maintained and in regular use.

Six Bells

Bamford in the Peak, Derbyshire. 39”, 7-cwt in A. Far too large a peal for a very small tower, unringable since 1894 and removed in 1998 when a light Taylor six was installed. Two of the steel bells remain at the church, the rest have been dispersed. “The six steel bells far exceed my expectations” (Patron, 1860). “The bells at Bamford are especially poor even for steel bells. The castings have blow holes, they are all very badly corroded, they sound dreadful, bells 3 and 4 are out of tune “ (Gordon Halls, 1996).

Bassaleg, Monmouthshire, 41”, 8-cwt in Ab. Displaced by the pleasant Mears eight from All Saints, Newport. The Vickers Bells have been saved; they were not at all bad and are well capable of a proper restoration.

Belper, Derbyshire, 42”,8-1-26. Bells taken out in 1925 and replaced by a new ring of 8 by Taylor. “You know that a strong prejudice existed in this town against placing a Peal of your Steel Bells in our Church Tower. Three months have now elapsed since the opening of the bells, and I do not hesitate to say that they give me great satisfaction. They can be heard at a distance of three or four miles and are very melodious and sweet in their tone. The admirable manner in which your bellhanger executed his work has called forth the unanimous approbation of all who have handled the bells”. (Rector, 1862).

Belmont, Lancashire, 45”, 10-1-17. A chime; hung dead an operated from a barrel. Bells hung on beams at 45 degrees. “The peal (gives) forth a volume of sound we believe much greater than that produced by bronze bells of the same size, and most musically filling our valley, when in full chime, with their deep, soft, and clearly articulated notes.” (Vicar and Church Wardens, 1861).

Bootle, Liverpool. See Hale above. They were replaced by the modem Mears eight ex Everton. “Rusty and pitted; their tonal effect is poor: the tone is metallic and penetrating.” (Taylors 1936). “Bootle’s notorious steel bells” (RW 1.7.73). Well, now...

Bridlington Quay, Yorkshire. Displaced by eight tubular bells in 1899, themselves replaced by a single bell in recent times. “The peal of six steel bells fully realizes, if not exceeds our expectations in quality of tone and power. “ (Incumbent & Church Wardens 1860).

Cambridge, NZ. 45”, 12-cwt. The second such ring for the church; the first was rejected.

Hung in a wooden tower and chimed only. (Arnold Smith, RW 17.11.2000).

Chalford, Gloucestershire, 42”, 8-cwt in G. “The fIrst tower in the world to be tenanted by a ring of cast steel bells”. As such they remain. in fair ringing order and tone.

Dover, Kent, New St James, 45” 12-cwt. “The wretched steel bells, now in the New Church” (Stahlschmidt, 1887) paid for by selling the six ancient bells from the Old Church. Rehung by Gillett in 1930’s. Scrapped when church demolished 1953; the tower of the Old Church had collapsed two years before.

Eastwood, Nottinghamshire, 52”, 18-1-11 (? with fittings). Replaced by a Taylor 8 in 1904. Scrapped. “The Cast Steel Bells have quite surpassed my expectations; and I am much pleased with them” (Rector, 1858).

Glasgow, Trinity Church 12-cwt. Hung for chiming, set out at 45 degrees and sounded from a barrel. “All bells sounded had a very short tone and showered rust down”. (R.W.M. Clouston, Bell Notebooks, 27.6.49).

Horninglow, Burton-on- Trent, 42”, 8-cwt , G. The four largest were by Naylor, Vickers and the two trebles added by Vickers, Sons & Co. The five smallest were sold as scrap in 1996, leaving the tenor as a service bell and an old Taylor six from Batley Carr installed. “A cheap substitute. Very rusty, porous and eroded. “ (Taylors, 1972).

Ingleton, Yorkshire, 45”, 12-cwt The bells remain as installed but are now chimed only.

“They are admirable in tone, and equal in every respect to bronze bells of the same size”.

(Incumbent, 1861).

Maitland, N.S. W., 14-cwt. Regularly rung in a detached tower.

Stainland, Yorkshire, 11-cwts in G. Replaced by a chime of six by Taylor, 1985. The steel bells now adorn a local deer park “Their tone is exceptionally poor a very peculiar effect is heard when the bells are struck in descending order. (Dennis Greenwood, R. W. 13.6.75).

Waddesdon, Buckinghamshire, 45”, 12-cwt in G. Well known to their many visitors. “The peal of six Cast Steel Bells has been so well hung in the tower by your bellhanger, Mr Bateman. I believe very few would distinguish their tone from the old bell metal, and in my mind they are more musical than the old style of bell” (Rector, 1863). “In the same state of hideous scabby rust these tin kettles”. (Cocks). Since when they have been twice rehung and are appreciated by all.

Wanstead, E London. Scrapped when a new Taylor six was hung in their frame in the 1930’s. In turn this frame replaced and two trebles added in 1978 by Whitechapel.

Five Bells

Mundford, Norfolk, 3-cwt. A swinging chime replaced in 1946 by a new Taylor six. Steel bells given away singly; one at Loughborough Bell Foundry Museum.

Thornborough, Buckinghamshire, 45”, 11-3-23 in G. Derelict for many, they replaced an ancient ring of four. “Completely covered with great red scales of rust which are constantly flaking off and their appearance is loathsome: their tone is said to be very poor.” (Cocks). In 1986 they were cleaned, painted and rehung in new frame with fittings including clapper control springs. The resultant job, by Eayre & Smith, is tonally and mechanically excellent. It can be done. “The steel bells ring now with a beautiful mellow tone and excellent resonance”. (Stella Mills, RW 5.9.86).

Toller Whelme, Dorset. 26”, 3-cwt in F. Not designed as a ring but later locally made full size wheels were attached to the steel ones. Bells 3 and 4 the same note. The frame is made of cast -iron standards.

Willington, Co Durham. 12-cwt in G. The tenor hung dead by Mears c1955, but the others are still hung for ringing. These bells are remarkably ornate and well preserved.

Four bells

Bicknor, Kent, 21”, 2 cwt in F. Cast for the 1862 International Exhibition in London, where they won a medal; Francis Grayling (Kent Churches 1913) pronounced them a “quackery”. Hung in a 5-bell timber frame with no.2 missing. Cast-steel stocks and curlicule-spoked steel wheels. (Dickon Love, RW 26.1.96).

Shaftesbury Grammar School (former St Rumwold, Cann). 36”, 5-cwt in B. Well preserved and ornate castings with rather “elderly” fittings. Fair tone.

Wormshill, Kent, 5-cwt. Three of the bells were of steel, two of 1863 and the third of 1887; they were disposed of a century later. The bronze second is now the tenor of a lightweight ring of six made by Whitechapel using bells from elsewhere.
These installations are representative of the thousands of bells which started their life in Sheffield. It is perhaps difficult to think that the Vickers brothers and those they hand-picked for their special duties took seriously the manufacture of church bells. But that was not their style; and an output of 7,500 bells, ranging from 7-tons to 35-lbs, confirmed to a comparatively short overall period is something in which any founder might take pride. Unattractive and inharmonious they may be when neglected, but Vickers were not concerned with little men who had no time to maintain their machinery. Colonel Tom Vickers died in October 1915 and Albert four years later. Their passing was the end of an era in their company’s history, but their name lives on and the bells ring all over the world.


This article is adapted from one I wrote for George Dawson’s “Church Bells of the Diocese of Sheffield” and I am grateful for the opportunity of revising and updating the material. I would also thank Elizabeth Beeby, of Adelaide, who kindly furnished me with copies of Vickers’ Testimonials from the unaccessioned records in the City Council Archives. I am indebted to John Taylor (Bellfounders) Ltd for permission to research and to quote from material in their closed archive, and to The Whitechapel Bell Foundry Ltd for their kind assistance. The columns of the R W (not least Arnold Smith’s recent excellent article on Cambridge, NZ), and the various county works, have been a source of information, and in this case of amusement. I have quoted freely from K C Ballaclough “Sheffield Steel” and Geoffrey Tweedale “Giants of Sheffield Steel” when dealing with the process of crucible steel-casting and the Vickers brothers respectively. I strongly recommend a visit to Sheffield Industrial Museum, Kelham Island, Sheffield, who publish these books. Best thanks, as always, to Chris Pickford, George Dawson and Ranald Clouston for personal communications and to Nick Bowden and Simon Adams for their shared interest.

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