Ring the Bells of Old South College: The Early History of the Wesleyan Carillon — Part 1 of 2

Part I: Early History | Part II: Modern History

Image from the Wesleyan photo website

2014-01-31 11.15.45

Atop a winding spiral staircase somewhere deep in South College lies the Wesleyan Carillon, a collection of 24 bells that graces the center of campus with its sweet, sweet chimes. From noon to 1 p.m. each weekday, students and faculty walking through the center of campus can hear members of the secretive Bell & Scroll society play songs like “My Favorite Things,” the Wes fight song, or any number of tunes from their collective repertoire.

But in terms of history, the South College bells’ very own Wesleyan info page doesn’t give us anything from before 1918 when the bells were finally installed. Thus, kitab and I have rooted through the binders of history kept by Bell & Scroll to provide for you a more comprehensive history of the South College bells.

The university approached the installation of the bells with a very thorough, almost manic perfectionism; the university and its higher-ups devoted the last half of 1916 and early 1917 to the efforts of deciding which company to buy the bells from, exactly how many bells the chime should have, and making sure that everything was absolutely perfect.

The bells were offered as a donation from the Wesleyan class of 1863 on behalf of William P. Hubbard, member of the class of 1866 and Republican Congressman for West Virginia from 1907-11. Stephen Henry Olin, class of 1866 and son of Wesleyan’s third president, was especially thrilled that South College would ring again. Olin, as part of his trustee duties from 1880-1925, reached out to Hubbard in Sept. 1916. He wrote,

“It would have been impossible, I think, to select a class memorial more wisely. It will, in most effective tones, remind the college and the town of that celebrated class, of which I have the honor to be an honorary member. [...] When I was at college, the tongue of the bell hanging in the South College tower was carried away. It seems almost a miracle that after more than half a century, the South College tower should receive not a bell tongue alone, but a whole chime. I wish Dr. Cummings might have lived to see the chime in place.”

(Dr. Joseph Cummings, class of 1840, was president of Wesleyan from 1858-75. We’re not sure why the original South College bell was taken away.)

Initially, the top two (and only) contenders for Wes’s bell company of choice were McShane Bell Foundry Co. and Meneely Bell Co., both of which were based in the United States. Perhaps aware of McShane’s offer of a 13-bell chime, Meneely got a bit snarky about their own 10-bell chime, writing, “We do not recommend a chime which will consist of more than ten or eleven bells at the outside. The country is flooded with cheap outfits of thirteen or more bells, many of them hanging silent in their towers either having been suppressed by the authorities or not used by the owners owing to the unsatisfactory service they render.” Low blow, guys.

Hubbard and Olin eventually took most of the preliminary work out of the hands of the university, discussing most of the proposed contracts and estimates between themselves in order to best advise the university. The Committee on Grounds and Buildings of the Trustees of Wesleyan University was officially in charge of the dealings, but Hubbard wrote to Olin early in the process, saying,

Dr. [William A. Shanklin, president of the university from 1909-23,] says that as no member of your Committee is a musician, I and three of the faculty who know something of music have been made [...] members of the Committee. As I intimated to you it was bad enough to do that without giving any reason — The reason now given is the first thing that shakes my confidence in the good judgment of the Committee, as originally constituted, however that may have been.”

Soon, Olin wrote to the extraordinarily well-named Bertram Grosvenor Goodhue, an architect also living in New York, to ask for an outside professional opinion. Goodhue recommended that Wes look across the pond for their bells, suggesting Mears & Stainbank, Thompson of Loughborough, and James Gillet on his experience that English bells have better tone and quality.Mears & Stainbank

Unfortunately, there were a few problems with trying to get bells from England. First, it’s 1916, and England was heavily involved (haha entrenched) in World War I. As the country’s metal and labor resources were limited, Mears & Stainbank and others were forced to raise their prices, and these higher prices were unlikely to drop any time soon.

Second, if several tons of metal were to be shipped across the Atlantic, the question remained of how much the import duty on bells would be. M&S thought it would be something like 20% and speculated that the fee could be waived when the bells were for “educational purposes,” but said they weren’t really sure. That didn’t help.

Third, the university didn’t have the resources necessary to install the bells themselves. Due to the mechanics and cash monies involved, Wes needed a bell expert to come over and oversee the installation, but that wasn’t very feasible for a company based on the other side of an ocean.

Thus, Olin went on a valiant two-month quest to see whether buying bells from an English company would even be worth it. My favorite letter on the English vs. American debate is from Louis C. Cornish of the American Unitarian Association in Boston. His seven-page letter, dated October 30, 1916, discussed “several technicalities” of the English and American chimes’ relative merits, going into tremendous detail about the difference in sound. “I find myself wondering if the differences in the American chime and the English peal is clearly set before you,” he wrote. “If it is, please forgive me the following explanation. If it is not plain to you I submit that this matter is of very great importance.” Importance of about three pages’ worth. Mainly, English bells are typically hung to swing, “producing a merry, ringing sound.”

In terms of the number of bells, Cornish said that most English villages have six bells, but eight are “probably sufficient.” But two extra bells could also be useful in the future. Or, he adds, maybe even three extra for a grand total of eleven? It doesn’t look like he gave a final answer on the number, but he did give a special mention to Mears & Stainbank, the company that built the Liberty Bell (!!!) and that would indeed build the Wesleyan chime. (It is technically a carillon now, but you’ll have to read about that in Part Two. Sorry.)

When the chime order was finalized in late November of 1916, Mears & Stainbank recommended Daniel F. Gibbons, a bell-hanger and English expatriate “living on your side” in Hingham, Mass., to the university and recommended that the university elevate the wooden structure of the South College tower in order to properly accommodate a swinging tenor bell for chiming and seven other bells, hung rigid for tune-playing.

Consequently, Olin and Hubbard’s almost constant correspondence in the last few months of 1916 led them to be rather good friends. Pals, even. Their first exchange was pretty formal, but after fifty letters back and forth, they were quite dear to each other.

Sometimes, their serious and detailed letters about bells and chimes would end with bright little invitations to the other and his wife out for a trip into the country, or their opinions on current events (fun fact: Olin thought that West Virginians “have done themselves credit” by rejecting women’s suffrage in 1916. Given that Wes had just stopped admitting ladies in 1909 and was once again operating as an all-male school, somehow this doesn’t surprise me). Olin even calls some of Hubbard’s letters “kind and flattering.”

It took Mears & Stainbank several extra months to build the bells. On May 7, 1917, the company informed the university that their shipment would be late because of the war. They wrote:

“As we mentioned in our previous letter, it has become increasingly difficult to carry out private work owing to the necessities of War; and the further demands upon labour for the Army (which commence to-day) make matters worse for us. This business being classed as “non-essential” makes it quite impossible for us to get any labour assistance whatever, and in the event of a man being called up, or leaving, we are not allowed to replace him even by a man over military age. All this was quite unforeseen when we prepared you last year for shipment in about six months.”

They added, “We are indeed pleased to see the entry of your Country with us and the Allies in the great struggle against militarism. President Wilson’s speech will live in History.” The war continued the necessary delay through December of 1917, when the last bells were finally cast.

Although all of the bells were complete, these delays continued through 1918. On March 12, almost a year after the company first informed the university of the delays, M&S sent Olin some photographs of the tenor bell and of the framework and said that they would ship the bells once they obtain the necessary license. On April 5, Hubbard wrote to Olin, “It is a satisfaction to know that the bells are at least in existence and that there is some hope that you and I may hear them ringing in our life time.” Hubbard really wanted to have the bells in before the next commencement, for the class of 1918, but he sounded so dejected. It made me sad.

This is not the photo sent by Mears & Stainbank, but was taken from the bells' Wesleyan info page.

This photo of the bells is not either of the photos sent by Mears & Stainbank, but is from the bells’ Wesleyan info page.

Hubbard and Olin then discussed payment for Henry Bacon, the architect who would deal with the construction of a more proper bell tower, and Daniel Gibbons, bell-hanger and carpenter. Gibbons asked for $2 a day for his hotel and $50 a week! Inflation!

The rough estimate for the bells, according to Olin, was $2300. For some perspective, $2083 back then rounds out to about $35,400 now. That was a lot for the university (it looks like we’ve been perpetually, uh, cost-conscious), and Olin suggested to Hubbard that they keep from building a tower to house the bells because it would be cheaper. “I dislike to pay the extravagant prices if I can help it,” he wrote. “The College is hard up and a saving of $1300 for a few years would benefit.”

However, Hubbard disagreed — these bells might not stand up to the wonderful Connecticut weather if left exposed to the elements. He wrote, “Bell mountings of modern manufacture may not be as enduring as those of old times, at least that is true of some other things.”

On May 23, M&S informed the university that the War Trade Department wouldn’t allow the bells to be shipped from London, even though the company was allowed to send a 15 cwt. bell to Sri Lanka three months prior. Hubbard wouldn’t get his wish for the bells to ring at commencement, disappointed at the “long dreary wait.” :( At least he got to hang out with his Best Pal, though: “Unless the bells ring for me at commencement I shall hardly meet you at Middletown. But I should like to see you this summer, and the better way to arrange that is for you to vegetate a while with me on the sandy shore where vegetation is scarce.”

But that wait was soon over! By August 10, M&S got the license to ship the bells, fittings, and framework to Wesleyan. Hubbard was very excited, and wrote to on August 18, “Pardon this tardy acknowledgement of your prompt advices of the advent of the bells. I have been lost in wonder at the immediate telepathic results produced on the British War Trade Department by the little Conference you and I had on the sand at the hither edge of the Atlantic.” Awww. Anyway, the shipping cost was about $300, and the bells were shipped out on the S.S. Khiva on September 20, 1918.

After the bells landed on October 14, the U.S. government put a hefty 35% duty on the bells, having classified them as musical instruments. Wes had to pay the fee in order to get their bells (and planned to fight the decision later but couldn’t really; the bells could only have gotten into the country free of duty if they were ‘works of art’ more than 20 years old), and transported them by motor cars to campus. They arrived on October 22, and installation started in December. Hubbard said, “We seem to have more bells, better bells, cheaper bells and later bells than if we had dealt elsewhere.”

The chime was a gift from the entire class of 1863, which was, according to the Wesleyan University Alumnus in December of 1918, “one of the most memorable classes in the history of Wesleyan University. [...]  The class took a position of leadership, not only in scholarship but also in all the activities that make up college life. They were jolly good fellows. Everybody liked them, even the president and some of the professors who occasionally tried to tame their exuberance.”

However, the chime was also in a sense dedicated to John Clark Rand, one of the most beloved members of the class. “His face wore a smile whose brightness no trouble ever dimmed. He was a genial, frolicsome, delightful fellow,” said Wesleyan University Alumnus. “Johnnie” Rand died before the class’s 50th reunion, and “his classmates felt that the sweet tones of the chimes which they wished to five would be a fit memorial of one whose soul was so full of music.”

The university decided on February 22, George Washington’s birthday, as the date for the dedication ceremony. Said Olin to Hubbard, “Ringing is the thing, and the place and form and attendance of the ceremony are relatively unimportant.” The bells rang that Saturday at noon, again at Vespers at 5:30, and the following Sunday morning at 10:30. There were 20 songs on each program, which included a special song for the class of 1863 (written by K.P. Harrington), the Wesleyan dedication hymn, the bells’ own song called “Ring the Bells of Old South College,” and other familiar songs.

Image also from the bells' Wesleyan info page.

This image of the tower during installation is also from the bells’ Wesleyan info page.

A poem called “The Bells of Sixty-Three” by C.A. Barnard, one of the last five surviving members of the class of 1863, was also read at the dedication ceremony. The last stanza reads, “But come war, or come peace: through rejoicing and sorrow, / Our voices unceasing shall ring in the day / Of the Love that ne’er faileth, the Faith all victorious, / Of the Christ who shall reign through the ages for aye.”

The inscriptions on each of the eleven bells are as follows:

  1. In 1917 the class of 1863 gave us to sound the summons of this college.

  2. For the young man, heir of the past, maker of the future, I ring.

  3. For the teacher who enlarges the mind and strengthens the will, I ring.

  4. For the preacher of the fear of the Lord, the beginning of wisdom, I ring.

  5. For the scholar who preserves learning, I ring.

  6. For the philosopher who ennobles life, I ring.

  7. For the man of science who widens knowledge, I ring.

  8. For him who in letters interprets life, I ring.

  9. For him who in art beautifies life, I ring.

  10. For the citizens, free and just, prepared to serve the state in peace or war, I ring.

  11. For him who in any station seeks not to be ministered unto but to minister, I ring.

“I am not sure that I have ever said to you how excellent your choice of a class memorial seems to me,” wrote Olin to Hubbard in December of 1918. “It was a beautiful idea, which I believe has found as perfect an embodiment as could be imagined. No memorial could last longer, speak oftener or more affectingly. There are few ways in which you could have expressed so many of the things which we old men would like to say.”

Stay tuned for Part Two for the chime’s more modern history: its conversion into a carillon, the bells’ musical quirks, and other strange fun facts!

  • Maxod

    This is so wonderful. Thanks.