Simpson, Van Aerschodt, Lower Beeding and Kilburn

The nine original bells at Lower Beeding, Sussex were a chime cast by Séverin Van Aerschodt in 1885. Five bells were retuned and four recast by Gillett & Johnston in 1926.

Canon Simpson in his first paper On Bell Tones discusses these bells and uses them as an example of differences in practice between UK and continental bell founders.

A recent visit to the bells by Kye Leaver and his research into their history prompted me to ask Paul-Félix Vernimmen, great-grandson of the founder, for copies of the foundry book entries for these bells. Kye Leaver also supplied me with the Gillett & Johnston tuning book entries from 1926 for the five bells that were retuned, giving the partial frequencies prior to retuning. Research by Chris Pickford confirms that figures for the other four bells have not been preserved.

Ten bells were cast for St Augustine, Kilburn by Félix Van Aerschodt (Séverin’s son) in 1898.The foundry book entries, and the tuning figures taken by Taylors when they were retuned and one recast in 1926, have now also been investigated. Actual frequencies for these bells are recorded in the Van Aerschodt books, a change in practice from Séverin’s work.

The figures for these two sets of bells before tuning, the Van Aerschodt foundry book entries, and my previous investigation into two Van Aerschodt carillons, confirms that although some of Canon Simpson’s assertions about the bells are correct, his statement that ‘the foreigner, and in particular the Belgian, takes the fundamental as the principal note, and tunes the bells by it’ is not supported by any of the evidence considered here. All the bells investigated had their strike notes (i.e. nominals) tuned by ear. This is especially confirmed by the new evidence for Kilburn.

Foundry book entries for Lower Beeding

Paul-Félix Vernimmen’s email to me sending the scans of the foundry book pages says: “The bells were cast in 1885, but Séverin died that year the 13th November. We can see that the notes after the casting and tuning are not from his hand.”

The format of the tuning book entries for these bells is almost identical to the records for the 53 bells at Eaton  Hall and Philadelphia previously described. Here is the entry for bell 2 in the chime, using carillon numbering, i.e. bell 7 in the ringing peal:

As with the Eaton Hall and Philadelphia bells, the customer and weight in kilogrammes are given across the top, and the strickle used (VIII in this case). The customer is Miss Hubbard, who gave the Beeding bells. On the right are the mould settings: mouth diameter (0.900m in this case), diameter at the head (0.506m), soundbow thickness (0.065m) and height (0.650m). The bell is predicted to have a minor tierce (Mineur).

In the centre are the dimensions of the bell as cast, the note before tuning (avant plus bas que si), meaning lower than Sol-Fa note Si) and note after tuning (après, à peu prés si), meaning almost Si. So the bell’s strike note was tuned up, presumably by machining the rim, otherwise known as skirting the bell.

Here is the entry for bell 6 in carillon numbering, i.e. bell 4 in the ringing peal:

In this case the only tuning information given is ‘au sortir de la fosse mi’ which translates as ‘came out of the casting pit Mi’. Either this bell wasn’t tuned, or the tuning information wasn’t recorded. I incline to the former interpretation.

Here is the full set of foundry book entries, including conversion of the note names from Sol-Fa to the note-names we commonly use for the final note of each bell:

Carillon no.Peal no.PlannedBefore tuningAfter tuningNoteMy comments
91La#un 1/4 plus bas que la#LaF#tuned down by 1/4 semitone
82Laun fort 1/4 plus bas que laSol#Ftuned down by 1/4 semitone
73Sol1/4 plus bas que solFa#D#tuned down by 1/4 semitone
64Faau sortir de la fosse mi C#maiden
55 sharpMiau sortir de la fosse rè# Cmaiden
45Rè#au sortir de la fosse rè Bmaiden
36un fort 1/4 plus bas que rèDo#A#tuned down by 1/4 semitone
27Doplus bas que sià peu prés SiG#tuned up
18La#un fort 1/4 plus bas que la#LaF#tuned down by 1/4 semitone

Apart from the comments on tierces (majeure or mineure) there is no reference to anything but strike notes in the foundry records.

The pitch reference used by Van Aerschodt is Do (or A)=452Hz, known as Old Organ Pitch. Relative to A=432Hz (the pitch standard used by G&J in the 1920s) each note would be around a semitone higher, i.e. the bells would be in the key of G.

Subsequent history of the Lower Beeding bells

A full history and description of the bells at Lower Beeding is available on Kye Leaver’s website on Sussex Bells.

As Kye Leaver relates, when the bells arrived in the UK they were judged badly out of tune. Gillett and Co (who were supplying the clock for the church) did some retuning, witnessed by Canon Simpson. The fifth (of the ringing peal) was certainly tuned, the tenor not. This tuning would have been restricted to adjusting the strike note relative to the other bells.

The next tuning information we have about the bells dates from 1926 when they came into the Croydon foundry for retuning and recasting. Unfortunately the figures for the bells that were recast do not survive, but the tuning books have the figures before tuning for the remaining five bells:

1          G
2          F#
3340-2364.0674-1179.3796-891.31052-408.61332904.4E +18
4306-2330.7600-1165.0720-849.4912-440.11176688.8D +2
5 sharp300-2292.9576-1163.6688-855.9908-375.61128616.6C# +30
5          C
6257-2352.2489-1238.5604-872.9740-521.31000408.1B +21
7226-2361.3440-1207.9540-853.3632-580.9884194.6A +8
8        7900.0G

The nominal of the tenor is estimated, to allow the nominal cents for each bell to be calculated. Features to note about these figures are: first, the hums, which in bells 3, 4, 6 and 7 are no more than half a semitone sharp; second, the primes, which are a little sharp in 3, 4 and 5 sharp and almost exact in bell 7, and the tierces, which verge on the major in bells 4, 5 sharp and 7, a result of the soundbow shape. Following the tuning done by Gillett & Co in the 1880s, the nominals are broadly in tune, the errors ranging from 5 cents flat to 16 cents sharp.

Foundry book entries for Kilburn

The bells at Kilburn originally comprised a chime of nine (eight bells plus a semitone) and a heavier clock bell. Seven of the smallest bells plus a recast bell form the current ring, after tuning by Taylors in 1926. The clock bell was returned to the tower untuned and the semitone bell was broken up.

Here is the entry in the foundry book for the smallest bell at Kilburn:

The layout of the entries for Kilburn is again very similar to those already investigated – this bell weighed 84kg and was 0.514m in diameter. The interesting new information is at the bottom. Both lines include a number ‘du tonomètre’. A tonometer is a set of tuning forks, spanning a range of frequencies, spaced by a constant number of cycles per second. We know that the Van Aerschodts had such a set of forks covering the range 196Hz to 512Hz in steps of 4Hz. There is a picture of them on this page.

The two lines translate as ‘out of the casting pit’ and ‘after the lathe’. So a frequency was measured before and after tuning. In this case, the frequency has gone up, so the bell must have been machined on the lip. Very few of the Kilburn bells have a frequency before tuning, but all have one after. As ever, the notes given for these bells as the mould was set up (La#) are aspirational, and the notes of the bells after tuning are often different.

Comparing the figures after tuning from the foundry books, against the Taylor records for the bells as received prior to any work, is illuminating:

 Van Aerschodt foundry bookTaylor records
Bell no.Wt (kg)Dia (m)Freq.Wt (kg)Dia (m)HumPrimeNominalNom/4Nom/2

Cleary there is a good correspondence between the Van Aerschodt and Taylor weights and diameters for all the bells.

As regards the frequencies of the bells, Van Aerschodt was judging them by ear against the tuning forks. The forks had limited range, and pitches assessed by ear have an octave ambiguity. The best matches are marked in grey in the above table, and are against the quarter- and half-nominals (i.e. one or two octaves below the nominal, i.e. the strike note), depending on which forks were available. The match against the hums and primes is often poor, as these bells are not true-harmonic. See below for the statistics which confirm this.

This comparison proves that Félix Van Aerschodt was tuning strike-notes, i.e. nominals, not primes.

Canon Simpson’s comments

In Canon Simpson’s first paper On Bell Tones, he proposes than an ideal bell should have hum, prime / fundamental in octaves – what we would call true-harmonic. In advancing this theory he describes six peals of bells: Terling, Essex (which had been investigated by Lord Rayleigh); Fittleworth, Sussex, on which he had conducted tuning experiments; Eastry, Kent; Stoke-by-Nayland and Lavenham, Suffolk; and Lower Beeding. He uses Lower Beeding as an example of differences he claimed between UK and continental practice.

Simpson says “But with respect to . . . the relative positions of the three principal tones – there was nothing to distinguish them from an ordinary English peal. There was the usual approximation to octaves, but we only noticed one instance in which the relation was true. In the seventh bell, the fundamental was a true octave below the nominal. But it was evident that this bell had been greatly altered, and we have reason to feel sure that, originally, the fundamental had been flatter than the nominal, as in most English bells, and as was, and is, the case with the tenor bell by its side.

As the G&J measurements from 1926 show, in fact the hums of the five bells for which we have figures are better – closer to the octave – than typical old-style UK bells. The primes of four of the five bells are either slightly sharp or almost the exact octave. In old style bells, the prime partials would have been rather flatter.

Regarding the prime of the seventh bell, Simpson suggests that it had been tuned and sharpened by Van Aerschodt. But there are two reasons why this is very unlikely. First, there is no sign in the foundry book entries I have inspected of any tuning except to strike notes (which in effect is tuning the nominal). The hum and prime would move roughly together with the nominal as the strike note was adjusted and intervals between them would be preserved. Second, even with today’s knowledge and equipment, sharpening the prime relative to the nominal is very difficult to do.

Simpson is right to point out that the seventh had been greatly altered (compared to some of the bells which were maiden) as the Van Aerschodt records show that it was skirted to raise its strike note.

Simpson goes on to say “That the foreigner, and in particular the Belgian, takes the fundamental as the principal note, and tunes the bells by it, is equally certain and unquestionable. The very fact that he calls it, as he does, the “fundamental” is almost conclusive. And no one can visit a Belgian foundry and engage in discussion about the bells without being convinced on this point. But we have clearer proof than this. The Belgian peal at Beeding was pronounced by the founders to be correctly in tune, and the seventh bell, in particular, they declared to be exactly in tune with the eighth. So it was, as to the fundamental; but, as regards the nominal, it was very flat, and the whole peal, generally painfully out of tune to the English ear.

There are two reasons to think that Simpson is mistaken in saying that the bells were tuned by the fundamentals / primes. First, as already mentioned, the only tuning information in the Van Aerschodt foundry books relates to tuning of strike notes by ear against tuning forks which in effect is tuning the nominal. Second, examination of the actual partial frequencies of the Lower Beeding bells and the carillons at Eaton Hall and Philadelphia shows that the nominals, rather than the primes, are much closer to the musical scale.

To illustrate this numerically I did a regression fit of the intervals between the nominals and the intervals between the primes against an equal-tempered scale (which previous work on the two carillons suggests is the temperament that was used). In the figures below, the correlation coefficient shows how closely the partials match the scale – a perfect match would be 1.0. The intercept shows how much the tenor or bass bell is out of tune, in cents, based on the regression average across all the bells. The standard deviation shows the spread of the partial intervals, in cents. For example, at Eaton Hall the standard deviation of the nominals of 22.1 cents indicates that 68% of the bells have a nominal which deviates by this amount or less. For the Kilburn bells, the regression uses the actual frequencies recorded by the founder, rather than an assumed equal temperament.

InstallationBellsFit of nominalsFit of primes
  CorrelationInterceptStd DevCorrelationInterceptStd Dev
Eaton Hall280.9993612.4822.10.99704-100.4647.3
Lower Beeding50.998376.3612.60.99266-4.2329.0

For Kilburn, the fit of the hums is very much worse that of the primes.

In every case, the figures show that the nominals are a much closer fit to the musical scale than the primes / fundamentals. I think that the reason for the error by Simpson is that the continental founders he spoke to were tuning strike notes, i.e. the pitch an octave below the nominal, and due to the relatively good primes in their bells, there was confusion between strike pitch and prime.


I am grateful to Kye Leaver for bringing the Lower Beeding bells to my attention, for his research into their history, and for extracts from the G&J tuning books.

Paul-Félix Vernimmen kindly scanned the relevant entries from the Van Aerschodt foundry books.

Chris Pickford did searches and confirmed that tuning figures for the other four Lower Beeding bells are not preserved either in the G&J or Taylor archives – Taylors did not quote for the work in 1926. Chris Pickford provided the Taylor book extracts for Kilburn, and Heather Pickford helped with the French translations.


Dove’s Guide entry for Lower Beeding

Dove’s Guide entry for Kilburn

Elphick, G Sussex Bells and Belfries, Philimore 1970 p. 346

Leaver K The Bells of Sussex, article on Lower Beeding

Simpson, A B On Bell Tones, Pall Mall Magazine Vol. VII September to December 1895 pp. 183 – 194, also available on this website