The Bell Tower of St. Michael’s Church
By 1751, the English Colony of Charleston, South Carolina had outgrown the Parish Church of St. Philip’s. The Colonial Assembly divided the parish and built St. Michael’s with a large steeple to contain a ring of bells and a clock. The steeple also served as a navigational landmark for the harbor and as a look-out tower during the Revolutionary War, War of 1812, War Between the States, Spanish-American War, World Wars I and II as well serving as a fire look-out tower until the late 1890’s. The ring of eight bells with a tenor (the largest bell) of 17.5 cwt.(1945 lbs.) was cast in 1764 by Lester and Pack of London. When the British retreated after the Revolutionary War, they stole St. Michael’s bells as a prize of war. The bells were recovered in London and returned to the joyous citizens. Later, two bells cracked and were sent back to England to be recast. When the War Between the States began, the state government confiscated bells and recast many as cannon. While the bells of St. Michael’s were not recast for artillery, they were sent inland and were cracked when the shed in which they were stored burned during the burning of Columbia, South Carolina. At war’s end, the Vestry reclaimed the metal and had the bells recast in London at the original foundry. The new frame was incorrectly installed by the local workmen, and the bells could not be rung. From 1868 until 1993 the bells were only chimed. After the 1989 hurricane, the Vestry again sent the bells back to London to the original foundry, now named The Whitechapel Bell Foundry Ltd., to have all the fittings replaced. A new wooden frame was fabricated and in 1993, the bells were returned to Charleston and rehung by Whitechapel, the original founders. Local ringers are now learning this ancient and uniquely Anglican art form and the bells again ring out over the city with the sounds of Change Ringing.
A View of the Historic Chiming Clavier
Washington McLean Gadsden chiming the bells of St. Michaels
The chiming clavier, located one floor above the ringer’s room and one floor below the bells, dates from the late eighteenth or very early nineteenth century. Even though the bells were rung full circle by pulling ropes until the Civil War, this device seems to have been used when there were insufficient ringers. A bell does not ring unless it actually swings. A chiming device such as this strikes the clappers against the stationary bells. The ropes shown were tied to the clappers unlike the ringers’ ropes which are attached to the wheels. The eight bells may e chimed by a single person, but to be rung, the bells require one ringer per bell. This clavier, though extant, is no longer in use. Chiming is now performed from a keyboard in the choir loft. Simple melodies arranged for 8 diatonic notes are chimed on the bells before the service on Sundays during Advent and Lent.
Washington McLean Gadsden, shown here, chimed the bells for 61 years, retiring on October 1, 1898. He died July 20, 1899.
Four of the bells, numbers 8, (foreground-left), 1, (background-left), 2, (background-right), and 3, (foreground-right) have been rung up and are awaiting the ringers’ pull to begin the ringing. The other four bells are outside the view of the camera. The bells are behind the large louvers in the octagonal section of the tower. Bells one through five are named for the orders of the angels. Bells six, seven and eight are named for archangels.