The Nine Tailors: "Raising" a bell--huh?

Okay, I need some help here. I just watched the TV adaptation of Dorothy Sayers’ The Nine Tailors, starring Ian Carmichael as Lord Peter Wimsey. Lord Peter stumbles into Fenchurch St Peter just in time to save the local curate’s plan to conduct a marathon bell-ringing session. Apparently Lord Peter has done some change-ringing himself, in the past, and he’s able to substitute for a member of the team who came up sick.

After Lord Peter’s introduced to the other members of the team, they say something to him about whether he needs help or not, and he says that it’s a poor change-ringer who can’t raise his own bell. So Lord Peter does something obscure, and the bell rope seems to shorten, and voila, the bell is raised.

So here’s my question: What is “raising a bell”? I read the book a year or so ago, and it wasn’t any more informative; seeing the adaptation renewed my curiosity.

And another question, while I’m at it: What rhythm is “Kent triple-bob major”?

I don’t know for sure, but I do have a WAG. It probably involves getting new church bells up into the steeple. Given the heights of many steeples and the size/weight of the church bells, I imagine that it would be a long, hard, labour intensive practice to get the bells into place.

“Raising the bell” isn’t the act of initially getting it up into the steeple.

When a bell is “raised,” its mouth is facing up. The mouth only hangs down like you typically see bells depicted when they’re not in use. Facing up, the ringers have proper control over when it actually rings.

Of course, they’re crazy heavy, so it’s hard work to get them into ringing position. You do it by ringing the bell, and each time it swings, you adjust your grip on the rope so that the bell doesn’t come down as far, until eventually it’s in the proper position.

I’m not an expert on change-ringing but my understanding is that Kent triple-bob major does not refer to a rhythm so much as to one of the possible permutations of the order in which a peal of bells can be rung. Change-ringing is a combination of both music and combinatorial mathematics.

This Canadian site has some of the details. This UK Site also has some details. I have read *The Nine Tailors * (many years ago) and my recollection is that the change-ringing at Fenchurch Saint Peter was a pretty big affair, lasting all night, possibly involving the maximum number of changes for 8 bells (i.e. 8! or 40,320).

What a coincidence, I just finished the book! It has a lot (a LOT) more obscure bell ringing stuff just casually mentioned in there, in such a manner that one gets the general gist of it without needing more but understands that it’s a really freaking complicated subject. I really reccomend the book; I’m sure the dramatized version can’t really measure up.

Oh, sorry, I see you’ve read the book. Forget that bit, then.

Finally, a Cafe Society question I actually know something about. You see, I used to be a change-ringer at St. Andrew’s Cathedral in Honolulu, although that was over a decade ago, and my mother was also a bell ringer. If you type “campanology” into Google, you’ll get quite a few sites with accurate information (“campanology” is the formal term for bell ringing). Meanwhile, Here’s a website with some relevant information.

Let’s start with ringing up. The bells used in change ringing are heavy. The eight bells at St. Andrew’s ranged from 595 pounds to 1,370 pounds, and I think that’s fairly standard. My two favorites were 769 lbs and 836 lbs. The bells are rung by rotating them. At the beginning of a stroke, the mouth of the bell is facing up. The ringer gives a gentle tug on the rope and the bell rotates until it nearly completes a full circle. There’s a wooden stick called a “stay” attached to the bell which keeps it from going full circle and holds it upright when it’s not being rung, or at least, that’s the theory. You can see a picture of the mechansim here. Bell ringers do break stays from time to time, but that’s another story. Since balancing several hundred pounds of rather old metal upside down is rather dangerous, the bells are left right side up (mouth down) when they’re not being rung. “Ringing up” is the process of tugging on the bell rope until the bell is upside down, resting on its stay. This takes a bit of time and it’s usually done at the beginning of ringing practice. Now, you may think that persuading several hundred pounds of bell to work its way upside down is difficult enough, but the other thing towers will do is do it in sequence, so that each bell rings in turn from lightest and highest in pitch to heaviest and lowest in pitch. Don’t worry – it’s not as difficult as it sounds.

On to Kent Treble Bob Major.
Obviously, if you’ve got 8 bells in constant motion, each one rotating around its axis then swinging back again, you’re not going to be able to play tunes in the conventional sense. It takes a while for an 800 pound bell to ring twice. As a result, change ringers ring patterns called, surprise, surprise, “changes” There are basic rules for these changes. First of all, when you’re talking about changes, each bell is referred to by number from 1, also called the “treble”, the lightest one to 8 or however many bells are being rung. When the bells are ringing in order from highest to lowest, it’s written out like this:

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8

The general rule is a bell can only do one of three things: change places with the bell ahead of it; change places with the bell behind it; or stay in the same place. Let me give you an idea. I’ll start with the sequence I gave you above:

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8

Now, lets have every pair of bells swap. This will result in:

2 1 4 3 6 5 8 7

If we have every pair of bells swap again, that will go back to what we just had, and that get’s boring fast. Instead, if you have the bells ringing first and last continue to ring first and last and have the middle six swap, you get this:

2 4 1 6 3 8 5 7

Combining these things in various orders results in set patterns which have been given names. For example, if you keep alternating having all 8 bells swap and then just the middle 6 swap, you get this pattern which is called “Plain Hunting”, the simplest and most basic pattern:

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8
2 1 4 3 6 5 8 7
2 4 1 6 3 8 5 7
4 2 6 1 8 3 7 5
4 6 2 8 1 7 3 5
6 4 8 2 7 1 5 3
6 8 4 7 2 5 1 3
8 6 7 4 5 2 3 1
8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1
7 8 5 6 3 4 1 2
7 5 8 3 6 1 4 2
5 7 3 8 1 6 2 4
5 3 7 1 8 2 6 4
3 5 1 7 2 8 4 6
3 1 5 2 7 4 8 6
1 3 2 5 4 7 6 8
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8

at this point, things repeat ad infinitum or until the ringers get tired or bored.
A “peal”, another major part of The Nine Tailors is ringing the bells in such a way that every possible permutation of bells is rung. For 8 bells, this comes to 40,320 different permutations according to this website which I’ve come across while typing:

I’m afraid at this point, my knowledge stops. You see, I never got a chance to ring Kent Treble Bob Major and the information I’ve been able to find about it on Google is set up for someone who knows a lot more about ringing than I’ve told you. Let’s just leave it at saying that it’s one of a set number of bell ringing patterns. If anyone’s truly interested, I’ll see if I can look it up in Mum’s old ringer’s manual over the weekend.

One final note. I keep talking about 8 bells. That’s not just because it’s convenient. You see, the “Major” in Kent Treble Bob Major means specifically that it’s a pattern rung on 8 bells. There are other names for things run on other numbers of bells. “Minimus” means 4 bells are used; “Doubles” means 5 bells are used; “Minor” means 6 bells are used and “Triples” means 7 bells are used. There are terms for patterns rung on more than 8 bells, but I’m afraid I’ve never had occaision to learn them.

Hope this helps,
2nd generation bell ringer and Lord Peter Wimsey fan!

OK, I found one more link after I hit Submit, this one from the BBC. No, that’s not me hanging from a rope at the top! :wink: This link includes the answer to the all important question “So Why Do People Do This?” A predilection toward insanity is only part of the answer!


Kick-ass post, Siege. Thanks!

Very informative Siege. I certainly have a better understanding of the basics of change-ringing now.

I feel compelled to dig out my copy of *The Nine Tailors * and re-read it.

Wow, Siege, great post! I have a question for you that was burning on my mind while I was reading Nine Tailors. When the people are ringing the bells, are those instructions written out somewhere, like taped up to the wall on big posters, or are they supposed to keep all the sequences memorized in their heads?

Thanks. I was worried about how long the post was getting.

The basic patterns are all memorized. However, the person leading the ringing can also vary the pattern by calling specific changes and variation. That person also directs the ringing in general, for example a “bob” in which two bells change places. I’m going to quickly write out part of a pattern called “Grandsire Doubles” which I used to ring in Hawaii on 5 bells:

1 2 3 4 5
2 1 3 5 4
2 3 1 4 5
3 2 4 1 5
3 4 2 5 1
4 3 5 2 1
4 5 3 1 2 
5 4 1 3 2
**5 1 4 2 3
1 5 2 4 3
1 2 5 3 4
2 1 5 4 3
2 5 1 3 4
5 2 3 1 4
5 3 2 4 1**
3 5 4 2 1
3 4 5 1 2
4 3 1 5 2
4 1 3 2 5
1 4 2 3 5

Take a look at the part I bolded. In plain hunting, normally, bell 5 would ring first, then second, then third, then fourth, then fifth again and fifth once more. Instead, it rings third twice then goes back to the front. Meanwhile, bells 3 and 4 can’t get up to the front because bells 5 and 2 are in the way, so instead they ring fourth and fifth. This is called “dodging at the back”. My two favorite bells were bells 4 and 5, and it took me a while to get the hang of this, so I wound up working up a variation of Comin’ Through the Rye to help me remember what to do then. Other people do different things.

I left out two important things.

First of all, while bells do have stays to keep them upright, when you’re actually ringing the bell, you’re not supposed to use the stay at all. Instead, the rate at which the bell rings is controlled solely by the bell ringer’s skill. I have had a bell coming down and ringing sooner than I’ve wanted it to because I wasn’t able to keep it at the balance point long enough. Ideally, when you’re moving back a place, say from first to second, you pull on the rope in such a way that it lingers just a little longer at the top of its swing before coming down to ring in its proper place. Keep in mind that while you’re doing this, there are 5 or 7 other people doing the same thing and in order for two bells two swap places, one ringer has to speed up his bell a bit while the other person has to slow down his pace so that the space between them and between them and the bells on the other sides of them remains equal. The bells on the other sides of them are also changing places.

The other thing I forgot to mention is “ringing down”. This is the opposite of ringing up or raising up. Basically, it’s tugging on the bell rope in such a way that each time a bit of the bell’s momentum is reduced so that ultimately the bell winds up at rest, mouth down. This is also done in sequence.

I think I’ve made bell ringing sound like a lot of hard, physical work. It isn’t actually. You see, while you may thing you have to be strong to get a 600 pound bell to ring in a specific position, it’s actually a lot more subtle. You can’t manhandle a bell; it outweighs you. Instead, you use a bit of physics to subtly add or reduce momentum. I’ve seen a high school freshman who might weigh 90 pounds soaking wet handle both my bells and heavier ones (his father was the tower captain). We were told that in England people could ring a full peal, something which takes several hours, and never break a sweat. We agreed that, while that was a worthy goal, Hawaii’s climate made that impractical.

I didn’t answer the question of why I love bell ringing. I can’t answer all of it, but part of it is it’s a marvelous combination of individual and group effort. When you’re ringing, you’re the only one who can control your bell, who can make it ring faster or slower. On the other hand, you’re surrounded by people doing the same thing and all of you are focused on producing beautiful music. Ringers stand in a circle and you can see the motions of people ringing their bells, one thing you use to track your place and adjust your ringing and you’re caught up in this glorious, joyful sound!

If anyone’s interested, I’ll post more later. I’ll do my best to answer. Meanwhile, breakfast awaits!


Wow, very comprehensive. Thanks for the wonderful explanation.

From the BBC site:

That was apparently the main attraction for Tristan Farnon.

It’s entirely true, in my experience. When I visited my grandmother in England a few years ago, I went to ringing practice and was invited to the local pub afterwards. A while later, one of the ringers got a call saying my grandmother was a bit worried about me and wanted to make sure I was all right.

I’ve heard rumors about ringers ringing before and after services and Sunday morning and being in the pub across the street (sometimes owned by a ringer) during the service!

I’ve enjoyed hanging out with bell ringers, SCAdians, and Mensans and all three groups seem to have the same basic attitude: if you’re crazy enough to hang out with us, we’re happy to have you!


Wow, Siege, thanks for the simple explanation!

I read Nine Tailors long ago, and I found that not understanding the technical jargon wasn’t much different from a Star Trek show (for instance) – “Let’s do a Kent Bob Triple Minor!” is pretty much interchangable with “Let’s ionize the dilithium crystals!” Similarly with sea-stories, like Hornblower or Master-and-Commander wossname, same as “Quick, lower the mizzen sail and turn the boswain a quarter past hard-a-lee!” Not understanding the technical jargon doesn’t interfere with my enjoyment of the book.

I’m trying to imagine the way this sounds, and a very early barrier to getting a real sense of it is pitch!

Given a major (8 bells), how are they pitched to one another? I assume there’s a set standard, or at most a handful of variations, rather than it varying all over the map, yes?