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For Whom the Bell Tolls

By Alexis Haslam, community archaeologist

As the restoration project heads towards its final phases, the erection of the scaffolding around the eastern side of the Tudor courtyard has provided a unique opportunity to examine areas of the Palace which are rarely seen. Several weeks ago I climbed up the clock tower to chat with Emma (our project’s conservation team supervisor) and the rest of the brickwork team about the state of the structure and if they had noticed anything interesting during the works. During this conversation the bell at the top of the tower was mentioned. It bears the Roman numerals MDCLXXVI – dating it to the year of 1676.

This started me thinking. The bell looks down upon the Tudor courtyard and has been marking the passing of time and people at Fulham Palace over years, decades and even centuries. However, I couldn’t recall it ever ringing! I have been assured that it rings on the hour and on the quarter hour (although like Big Ben it is currently silent during restoration works around it). It is rung by the clock directly beneath it which was built in 1770 by Edward Howard of Chelsea. Prior to this the bell would have probably been rung by hand and may have hung above the Palace’s old medieval chapel (now long gone, but you can see the faint outlines of in our lawn in the summer). My curiosity won a battle against my fear of heights, and I climbed up to see the bell for myself. After checking the numerals on the bell, I walked around the other side to see that it also bore the name ‘Henry London’, and a symbol of three bells within a circle.

large bell

The sign of the three bells

A quick bit of research assured me that the bell has been noted in the past, by Warwick Rodwell in his Archaeological Appraisal and Plan of 1988 (Rodwell 1988, p60). He records a ‘chapel bell made by Henry London’. But what did those three bells in the circle symbolise? Again, after further research it transpired that this was of course the ‘sign of the three bells’, the symbol of the Whitechapel Bell Foundry. This foundry was established at least as far back as 1570 and was famous for casting Big Ben and The Liberty Bell. The three bells insignia was first introduced in the 16th century and was used until 1700 when Richard Phelps took over the company.

So our bell is 343 years old and was made in Whitechapel. But who is ‘Henry London’? The master bell founder at Whitechapel in the year our bell was cast was James Bartlet, so Henry wasn’t the person who made the bell. So who could he be? The resident Bishop at the time was the plant loving Henry Compton and, as it transpires, he regularly signed his name as ‘Henry London’. So mystery solved. Our bell was cast in 1676 and was commissioned by Bishop Compton who modestly decided to ‘name’ the bell after himself. Old Henry indeed.

I then started to research Bishop Compton’s relationship with the bell foundry. Some ten years before our bell was cast, the City of London was razed to the ground in the Great Fire which destroyed 87 parish churches and of course St Paul’s Cathedral. That’s a lot of lost bells! Wren’s St Paul’s was consecrated by Henry Compton on 2 December 1697, yet it wasn’t ‘topped out’ until 1708, and was only officially declared complete on Christmas Day 1711. In the meantime, the Cathedral purchased ‘Edward of Westminster’ in 1698, a great bell which once hung in St Stephen’s Chapel in the Palace of Westminster. This was being transported to St Paul’s on New Year’s Day 1699 when it slipped off its carriage just by Temple Bar and cracked. Rumour has it that ‘Bell Yard’ on the north side of Fleet Street is named after this incident. The bell was recast nine years later, in 1708, renamed ‘Great Tom’ and hung in the South-West Tower of St Paul’s. Unfortunately this casting failed and it was recast by Richard Phelps in 1709. This failed again; bells quite often failed due to their one-off nature and the fact that any impurities or air bubbles can cause them to break when they’re hit with force. ‘Great Tom’ was recast again in 1716 and this bell survives today. You can still hear it chiming the hour at St Paul’s Cathedral. It seems that the Fulham Palace bell was probably one of Compton’s more successful castings, with the subsequent accidents and failures presumably leaving him with somewhat ringing ears!