There are a number of persistent legends surrounding Old North Church’s iconic bells. In this episode of our web series 99% Sure, Old North’s researcher T.J. Todd debunks these myths and tells the true history behind our bells.
See below for the video, episode transcript, extra information, and sources!
If you’ve ever been to Boston’s North End on a Saturday or Sunday, you may have heard cascading bells echoing throughout the neighborhood. Those are Old North’s change ringing bells: this is a specialized style of ringing using particular patterns, rather than playing a song – that’s what gives them that cascading, flowing sound. There are actually a couple of persistent legends about these bells, so let’s start by dispelling those, and along the way, we can learn a lot of their true history in the process.
Legend number one: despite some big claims on the internet and elsewhere, these were not the “first bells in the Americas.” Even within the British Empire, there are plenty of records of bells that pre-date ours. And Spanish and French territories in the Americas had bells very early on.
This legend does stem from a seed of truth at least, in that these were the first set (or what they call “peal”) of change ringing bells, so the first of that particular type of bells in North America. So while still impressive, it’s much more nuanced than Old North simply being “first”.
Legend number 2! Which is the common belief among many of our visitors that Paul Revere cast these bells. That sure would be an excellent story, but unfortunately, it can’t be true. Ours were cast in 1744, meaning Revere would have been 9 years old. He was a precocious kid, but not THAT precocious. In fact, they were cast in England by a man named Abel Rudhall – he even inscribed his name on one of the bells.
But… there is a connection to Revere. To explain this, let’s go back to when the bells arrived. So they were cast in England in 1744 by Rudhall. By 1745 they arrived in Boston, and Old North had eight brand new change ringing bells – but no regular ringers for them. Nobody in Boston was practiced in the change ringing style, which takes a full team and very precise timing to do. So, despite having eight bells it seems only one or two were rung at a time for special occasions. Eventually, 5 years later, some North End teenagers (so the story goes) formed a bell ringing guild. They offered their services to the church, and by 1750 the first change ringing was taking place at Old North. This guild wrote a contract with the minister, and amongst the signatures, one particular name should “ring a bell” (pun!): that’s Paul Revere, 15 years old at this time. Thus, Revere didn’t make the bells but was one of the first bell ringers at Old North. He wasn’t a member of the church but was apparently fascinated by what must have seemed to him like these fancy new gadgets from England.
So, by exploring and debunking these legends about Old North’s bells we’ve learned quite a bit. What else can we say about their history?
For one, like many things at Old North, the bells were paid for by subscription, or individual donations – a topic that’s verrry complicated so we’ve included a separate discussion about it below. But they were purchased for 560 British pounds, a hefty sum back then. Between the prestige of cascading bells, a unique sound in colonial America, and the tall steeple, Old North was essentially designed to show off privilege and prestige.
Also, each bell has an inscription by Rudhall and it’s in the first person: for example, bell number 8 says, “Abel Rudhall of Gloucester cast us all,” I guess as a little self-promotion. Bell number 7 is the most interesting, as it states, “Since generosity has opened our mouths our tongues shall ring aloud its praise.” Again, that “generosity” is quite complicated, but the idea was that a bell “speaks” the inscription every time it strikes.
A bit of a random story, but: getting the bells to Boston seemed to have been a bit problematic. A man named John Baker was supposed to accompany the bells across the ocean and help set them up, but at the last minute Baker basically said he totally wanted to go but that his wife wouldn’t let him, and indeed she (supposedly) “fainted” at the very thought of a dangerous trip. So Rudhall sent written instructions and a model for Old North’s congregation to mimic as best they could. I don’t mean to mock, I can’t even look at a ship without getting seasick, but maybe don’t throw the wife under the bus as your reason why?
There also remain quite a few mysteries. We don’t really know how they got the bells up there, in the tower, especially considering the lightest bell is about 620 pounds, and the heaviest weighs 1,545 pounds. Also, beyond Paul Revere, we don’t know much about most of that first guild of bell ringers.
And lastly, we don’t know how often actual “change ringing” took place at Old North, though we think it was rather infrequent throughout the church’s history. For starters, we don’t know how long that first guild lasted or if others took their place after. By the 1800s, the bell mechanism had been altered so that the bells could be simply struck or “chimed” by one individual. In 1894, change ringing briefly resumed with a new guild, but after only a year they too disbanded. On the whole, it seems that -actual- change ringing, with a full team of eight doing the complicated patterns, was relatively rare at Old North.
By the mid-1900s, change ringing hadn’t taken place here for decades. But a major restoration took place in the 1970s and 80s: the wooden wheels were replaced, the bells were restored, and a volunteer guild formed to ring the bells regularly every Saturday and Sunday. This volunteer group still rings the bells today (they are who you would hear visiting the church today): so once again, we have change ringing at Old North!
So, one of the most interesting things is that when you hear the bells of Old North today, it is a relatively rare event throughout the church’s 300-year history. That adds something special to the experience now. Long into the future, if the church ever struggled to find bell ringers again, visitors could look back at this time with nostalgia, wondering how the bells must have sounded, ringing their precise patterns throughout the North End. At least as far as the bells are concerned, our present time is, historically, a noteworthy era.
On debate over “the first bells in the Americas” legend:
In regards to the claim that Old North’s bells were the first in the Americas, some of the confusion may have originated with bell number 3, which is inscribed with the potentially confusing quote, “We are the first ring of bells cast for the British Empire in North America.” This quote does not say the first bells in the Americas as a whole but does seem to make the claim for being the first in the British Empire. However, the use of the word “ring” in that inscription is important: in this context “ring” refers to the complete set of this particular type of bells. So in other words, it reads, “We are the first change ringing bells cast for the British Empire in North America”.
On the other hand, historical superlatives (“the first”, “the biggest”, “the worst”) never seem to be in short supply, so the legend may have nothing to do with the inscription and more to do with how facts can get exaggerated over time.
Bells that were older than Old North’s:
In addition to bells in Spanish and French territories, author Richard Rath details in “How Early America Sounded” the many British churches that had bells in Massachusetts alone: Cambridge in 1632, Hingham in 1633, Salem 1638, Newton (Cambridge Village) in 1639, Boston by 1641… and many more (Rath, 61-62).
On change ringing, in general:
Compared to typical church or town hall bells, change ringing has a few aspects that make the style unique. Each bell requires an individual ringer (even in the present – when you hear the bells today, you are hearing the individuals of the current guild ringing each bell in precise order). And with change ringing, the bells are actually mounted on wheels, and the wheels do a near-full circle turn. So rather than chiming or striking the bells, which is how most church or town bells operate, the rotation of the bell itself is what causes the clapper to strike.
Additionally, rather than playing a song, the bells are rung to play numerical patterns. The “change” in the term “change ringing” comes from the fact that you change that pattern repeatedly over time. Each bell rings within a fraction of a second of one another, and there is no break between changing patterns. Thus, for any individual bell ringer, it takes extremely precise timing to know exactly when to ring their bell in the current pattern, and a lot of planning/practice ahead of time to know where they will be in line after the change is called out. Then, of course, multiply that knowledge across eight ringers – each needing to know where they are, and where they will be next, if the change in pattern is to be seamless.
Thus, when the bells arrived it was problematic to find eight bell ringers. The skill and teamwork required also mean amateurs can not easily “fill in” in a pinch, without a lot of observation ahead of time. For a full team of eight, all would need to have the time and willpower to dedicate themselves to ringing for hours at a time, every week. That might explain why even with the first guild, the contract only listed seven bell ringers (that also means the first guild wasn’t technically doing change ringing, but we can give them a little leeway).
Learn more about change ringing by scrolling down to the second section on our Sounds of Old North page.
On Abel Rudhall:
There is not a lot of easily accessible information about Abel Rudhall. Even the pronunciation of his name is uncertain (as you can tell from us alternating a bit in this video): it could have been “Ruddle”, or perhaps emphasized the second syllable more like “Rud-ull”, or was closer to something like “Rude-hall”. For our video, we settled on something akin to the first two options.
On the original bell ringers:
We say “the story goes” that they were teenagers and friends because we don’t actually know much about the ringers beyond Revere. The assumption by historians has been they likely were around the same age and that they were friends who offered their services as a group. Perhaps this was the case, or perhaps one or more of the members had a different story. We also don’t know much about their lives outside of bell ringing.
We do have some limited information on one of the ringers: Josiah Flagg. His family’s connection to Old North is unclear, but Flagg was 13 when he joined the guild. Later in life, Josiah was a jeweler, Revolutionary War soldier, and musician. He married Elizabeth Hawkes and the two had nine children together (whatever his parent’s original connection to Old North, Josiah himself remained quite connected, with many of the children appearing in church baptismal records – though, interestingly, he does not appear in the pew records). One son, Josiah Flagg, Jr., later took up dentistry and appeared frequently in ads in the late 1700s. We are hoping to find more information on Flagg and the other members of the guild over time. But currently, it remains difficult to generalize about the group as a whole.
On why the subscription system was complicated:
Funding via subscription meant that individuals in the congregation contributed what they could or wanted on a voluntary basis. This acted as a sort of “crowdfunding”, and meant that the church would not have to bankrupt itself, nor cut back on services or maintenance. But this remains such a complicated subject due to where the wealth came from for these subscriptions. We know that some who donated were enslavers; others did not directly enslave people, but still made their wealth directly through industries that did. Not all donors were directly linked to slavery, but it does mean that the bells were at least partly paid for through the proceeds of enslaved labor. Examining all the ways, big and small, that slavery was linked to early American history is important for truly understanding this time period, as well as the history that follows.
On how frequently actual “change ringing” took place at Old North Church:
By 1768 at least, the wardens of the church ordered that prior approval was needed to ring the bells at all, apparently out of concerns over the safety of the tower (history later proved that that was good reasoning – see “Great Gale of Boston” and “Hurricane Carol”). It seems possible, or maybe even likely, that change ringing was not taking place when that decision was made and possibly hadn’t been for some time.
No record of bell ringers has been found regarding the rest of the 1700s, and that gap in knowledge continues well into the 1800s. It seems likely that the sexton might toll a single bell, at times, for special occasions. And technically it is plausible that change ringing did occur, and that the church either did not document it or that the documentation was lost. But the likely answer is that change ringing was extremely rare in the church’s history.
Beginning in 1847, one person would ring using a new system that would strike or “chime” the bells. This was briefly interrupted in 1894, when a new guild called the “Old Colony Guild of Bell Ringers” offered to do change ringing again. This new guild formed after a major repair and renovation of the bells and bell ringing chamber. But the Old Colony Guild only lasted a year before disbanding and the chiming system was reinstalled. Beginning with John H. S. Jewell in 1847, and with only that gap from 1894-1895, a member of the Jewell family traditionally served the church as the bell ringer until 1935.
By the 1960s and 70s, change ringing hadn’t taken place here for so long that pipes for a fire suppression system had actually been installed through many of the wooden wheels, preventing the bells from turning over – and making change ringing impossible. That all changed (another pun) with the restoration project in the 1970s and 80s: the fire suppression system was relocated, creating space for the wheels to turn, and the wooden material was replaced to safely allow for change ringing once again. That wooden material that was replaced may have dated back to the last major overhaul in the 1890s.
Babcock, Mary Kent Davey. Christ Church, Salem Street Boston-The Old North Church of Paul Revere Fame: Historical Sketches (Colonial Period, 1723-1775). Boston: Thomas Todd Company. 1947.
A Philadelphia bell pre-dating Old North’s (and a colonial soundscape):
Boren, Braxton. “Sounds of the City: The Colonial Era.” Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia, Rutgers University. 2013. https://philadelphiaencyclopedia.org/archive/sounds-of-the-city-the-colonial-era/
On colonial urban life in general; use of bells in cities, particularly smaller bells for patrolling city watchmen:
Bridenbaugh Carl. Cities in the Wilderness: The First Century of Urban Life in America, 1625-1742. New York: Knopf, 1955. http://id.lib.harvard.edu/alma/99154267548703941/catalog
For British bells pre-dating Old North’s:
Rath, Richard. How Early America Sounded. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 2003.
And for bells as early as 1598, in the Spanish Empire:
Simmons, Marc. “Peal of Bells was Part of Colonial Village Life.” The Santa Fe New Mexican, updated June 25, 2016. https://www.santafenewmexican.com/news/local_news/peal-of-bells-was-part-of-colonial-village-life/article_53e91735-66ac-51aa-817c-30aac6f61d58.html
The importance of town hall bells in history:
Sloane, Eric. “The Sound of Bells.” American Heritage, Volume 15, Issue 4. June 1964. https://www.americanheritage.com/sound-bells