The History of the Bells of Old South College

The First Eleven

The first 11 bells were donated by the class of 1863 in 1918.  During the 1920s the bells were rung twice a day, once to wake the campus and call it to chapel at 5:30am and then again to announce mandatory chapel vespers in the evening.  These bells were cast by the Whitechapel foundry in London (also called Mears & Steinbank) and transported across the north Atlantic, evading enemy u-boats, before being installed in early 1919.

Originally there was an electric keyboard attached to a series of bellows, pulleys, and cables to move the bells’ clappers through the use of forced air ducts, in what has been described as a Rube Goldberg-esque arrangement that made bell ringing rather difficult.  Sometime between the 1920s and the 1960s the bells fell into disrepair.

Five Butterfield Bells

In 1966 an anonymous donor provided money for the repair of the instrument and the purchase of an additional five bells. It was later revealed that the mystery donor was Victor P. Butterfield, the 11th president of Wesleyan University, then in his last year in office.  The expansion brought the instrument's range to one and a half octaves, but crucial notes were still missing.  Nonetheless, the expansion enabled a wider repertoire to be played, but a notable exception was that the alma mater (“Come raise the song for Wesleyana”).

The five Butterfield bells were also cast by the Whitechapel Foundry in London, (under name of Mears & Steinbank).  In the 18th century, Whitechapel (at the time called Lester & Peck) cast the Liberty Bell; not a great endorsement for the foundry, as the bell cracked upon its very first strike in 1752.

At this time a new playing console, along with a practice keyboard, were installed by James Akwright of Beria, Kentucky.  Both claviers are made from rosewood, and to our knowledge, the bell consoles at Wesleyan University are the only rosewood consoles in the world. 

Akright also made the bell-frame out of hickory beams, leaving room for additional bells.  Some believe that hickory has a mellower, rounder sound than metal frames, or yokes.  There is evidence that at least one pre-Akwright (1966) bell had been hung in the style of a change-ringing bell, that is, with the bell connected to a large-diameter wheel, so the bell could swing freely.

About the Carillon

In the year 2001 a fundraising campaign began in hopes of raising money for the addition of seven bells, upgrading the instrument to a total of 23 and the status of carillon. By 2004, enough donors were found to fund eight bells. The eight new bells give Wesleyan a range of two octaves (plus one note). The new pitches (G-sharp, D-sharp, G-sharp, A, B-flat, B, C, and D) allow ringers to play the alma mater correctly, along with many other tunes.  Two accidentals are still missing - the C# and D# in the lower octave.

The eight new bells were cast in Holland by Petit & Fritsen, the Royal Dutch Bell Foundry. They were then shipped by sea to New Orleans and by barge to Cincinnati, where they were fine-tuned by the Verdin Bell Company.  In September 2005, Tina and Bruce Harkness and Don Swem of the Verdin Bell Company installed the eight new bells over the course of three weeks. Read detailed information about the installation and dedication of these eight bells. A documentary DVD of the installation process is also available.