Thursday, April 22, 2021

Once Upon a Bell

City Bell at new City Hall
Once upon a time, the City of Nashua had a bell that sat in the cupola atop City Hall to announce fires, holidays and deaths. (That's the old City Hall as the one to the right is the current or new City Hall, circa 1939.)

But, it's been decades since the bell, aka the City Bell, has been in service to the community. Now, that once prominent bell is relegated to a corner of the current City Hall municipal plaza.

It's a sight I pass constantly when walking on Main Street, and curious about its history, Because it's interesting to learn more about the city we now live in, I decided to learn more (a lot) about it and, of course, to share (because that's what I do).

The City Bell has quite a history dating to the mid-1800s when it was cast by a British foundry. The bell is inscribed as follows: Naylor, Vickers & Co. 1860, Sheffield, No. 1665, E.Riepe’s Pat.
Foundry and patent markings on City Bell, Nashua, NH
The Sheffield, England, steel company of Naylor, Vickers & Co. commonly referred to as Naylor Vickers Co., was known worldwide for cutlery and other steel products. And, it has long been acknowledged for the cast steel bells it produced in the mid to late 19th century.
Naylor Vickers Co advertisement (Internet source)
Brothers-in-law, George Porter Naylor and Edward Vickers formed a partnership in 1853 in Sheffield as steel manufacturers. In 1855, they started producing cast steel bells. The British patent under which the steel bells were produced was taken out by a German contact, Ewald Riepe who found a way of casting steel and excluding air from the melt to avoid loss of carbon. 
Naylor Vickers Sheffield, England steel bell production (Internet source)
An 1860 advertisement for Naylor Vickers Co. described the bells as “having a very pure, melodious sound, peculiar to cast steel; and as the elasticity of this material seems to produce more powerful vibrations, their sound penetrates to a greater distance.” While that may true, many English church goers, used to hearing the sound of bronze or copper bells, did not appreciate the sound and said it sounded like “rusty, tin cans.”
Naylor Vickers Co. catalog (Internet source)

Steel bells had their place. The benefits of steel over bronze was its relative cheapness and comparative lightweight. A 48-inch diameter bronze bell weighed 2,200 pounds compared to a steel bell of the same proportions which would weigh 1,500 pounds and be much less costly.

For more then 40 years, Naylor Vickers Co. produced steel bells weighing between 35 pounds to 7 tons and shipped them to Africa, America, Asia, Australia, and Europe, among other places. Only 204, about 25 percent of the known production, were sent to the U.S. 

Today, many of these bells are located in churches and public places throughout New England, including Holy Cross Catholic Cathedral, Boston, MA (1859) and Faneuil Hall, Boston MA, 72 inch diameter (1866). And, the one in downtown Nashua, NH, weighing 2,414 pounds and 55 inches in diameter.

The exporting of bells began soon after the company started producing the bells helped largely because the company had established a sales office in Boston, MA, before bells were being cast. There were also offices in New York City and Philadelphia, PA. At the time, these were the largest, most important cities in the country. In city directories of 1865 to 1875, the business was described as "iron, steel, and bells."  The bells were exported to North America more as a sideline, and the term "bells" was dropped between 1875 and 1885, possibly because production was declining. 
Old City Hall, Nashua, NH
(Nashua Experience book)

The City of Nashua purchased its bell in 1863 for $827.35 after Issac Eaton, a former chief of the city’s fire company, wrote in a 1861 report that the city needed a bell so firefighters could have a clear signal to alert them of fires. The bell was hung atop old City Hall in late September 1863, three years after being cast. It rang not only to warn of fires, but also commemorated holidays, other events, and the deaths of presidents and prominent locals.

The last time the City Bell was rung at old City Hall was after the announcement of President William McKinley’s assassination in September 1901.

In 1936, after decades of service, it was taken down when the tower housing it was deemed unstable to support its weight. It was thought that removing the bell would extend the building’s life span. That expectation was short-lived. 

By 1939, the city had completed a new City Hall at another Main Street address. The old City Hall was demolished in 1939 along with an adjoining Municipal Records building. The gold eagle atop the original building was relocated to the new building, but the bell was not as fortunate.

When it was taken down, the bell was transported to a gravel pit until citizens complained about the location. It was moved to the city barn on E. Hollis Street. When it was learned that the city had received an offer from a concern that wanted to break it up to sell as old metal, another public outcry ensued and the bell remained in the barn.

In 1939, a new City Hall was built; the old one was demolished in 1940. While the gold eagle atop the original building was relocated to the new building, the City Bell was left behind. It was gifted to the Greek community for use in a local church. The only stipulation was that the church bear the expense of removal and set up at. It hung in the Church of the Annunciation on Ash Street for nearly 30 years until the mid-1970s, when the church merged with another Greek church and moved out. The bell once again was left behind; however, the Fellowship Baptist Church moved into the building, and it was once again used.
City Hall bell relocated to 109 Main Street near site of old City Hall (Internet source)
This bell didn't linger and in 2003 it was on the move again, this time to Court Street, near the present Nashua Public Library. It was outside on display until 2008 when it was transported to Nashua Foundries for restoration thanks to the efforts of a city intern and a hefty $40,000 contribution from a local philanthropist for its restoration.

After restoration, the bell was relocated (again). In 2008, it came full circle and was placed on Main Street at the site of the original City Hall (photo above).
City Hall Plaza, 229 Main Street, Nashua, NH
In 2015, the bell moved to its current location on the current (new) City Hall plaza. Based on its history, it won't come as a surprise to me, if the bell moves again at some future date.
City Bell, Nashua, NH
Plaque at base of City Bell details its history and movement in Nashua, NH
After exposure to New England weather in the 13 years since its restoration, it's badly rusting. Perhaps another local philanthropist will step up with restoration $ sometime in the future.


My name is Erika. said...

It's good the bell made it back, even if it is no longer in the belfry. I can't believe it was destined for the scrapyard. It is a piece of history, and probably should be displayed inside city hall out of the elements. I hope it gets another needed restoration some time soon. Happy Earth Day. Hugs-Erika

Laurie said...

It would have been a crime to trash that beautiful bell, I’m glad it’s home again, I agree with Erica, it should be out of the weather, beautiful photos on this journey today!

Coastal Ripples said...

What a fascinating history that bell has. I’m sure it has many stories to tell. Hopefully it will continue to bring pleasure to your city. B x

Barbara Rogers said...

Great that you researched all the places that bell has lived...and I also vote (absentee of course) that it have shelter from the elements.

Doris Fahnestock said...

Wow, that's quite the story! Hope someone comes up with the $$ for another restoration.

Jeanie said...

I'm so glad the bell is back. And I just love that you are exploring lots of the bits of your city. What a fun way to thoroughly get to know it.

Edna B said...

The bell really did a bit of travelling in its lifetime. It's a shame to see it rusting now. You have a super day my friend, hugs, Edna B.

David said...

Beatrice, Nice job of of my favorite activities too! Can't wait to start traveling and noting historical places. Your 158 year old bell has quite a history. It's too bad that its rusted. I'd want it in use in the bell tower if it was me. When I went to prep school in NY, we had a bell tower and the bell rang every 15 minutes from the time we got up in the morning until bedtime at night. It was comforting in a way... Stay Safe and Take Care, Big Daddy Dave

Emma Springfield said...

It's fascinating to learn the history of the bell. Following its many moves was a good story.

Bijoux said...

13 years doesn’t seem like that long to do such damage, but I guess harsh elements will do that. A very interesting story about its movement through time. New churches no longer seem to have bells, but I do enjoy hearing them ring. We were married in a little country church that did have a bell and my brother-in-law was in charge of ringing it right after we were pronounced man and wife.

R's Rue said...


Jon said...

Thanks for another interesting and well-researched post. These bells are really works of art and I'm glad that they are being saved. I knew that many are extremely heavy - but I was shocked to learn that some made by the Naylor Vickers Co. were seven tons. Wow! That boggles the mind.

L. D. said...

It is a well traveled bell. It could use a cleaning for sure to get rid of the rust.

DUTA said...

Great research!
No big problem nowadays to treat the rust, restore the bell's look and place, and put in use.
The bell should be on the top of a high building or tower - the higher the tower the further away people could hear its sound and enjoy it.

William Kendall said...

I'm accustomed to the bells of our Peace Tower, which is still chiming even with the work going on in the building.

Lee said...

Interesting post, Beatrice. And one which brought back memories from many years ago.

I spent my childhood and teenage years in Gympie, a regional town in Queensland. The clock in the town hall struck on the hour and half hour throughout those years. And, now that you've reminded me, the bell at the Catholic Church high on a hill chimed, too. It's a long time since I've heard the chiming of a town or city's bells.

Rita said...

Interesting to know the history of the huge rusty old bell. You really do your research! :)

David M. Gascoigne, said...

It would be a shame to let this piece of history succumb to the elements. Bells are quite wonderful. There are still small towns where bells are rung from church towers and the sound is deeply satisfying. On a visit to the UK several years ago I met a family of bell ringers to the whom the skill was passed down from generation to generation. They took obvious pride in this element of the patrimony of their village, of which they were an integral part. All should not be lost to modernity and efficiency.

Sandra said...

now I am wondering if it can be Rung and if it will ever be Hung again and trying to guess what it would cost now. back then that was a LOT

Linda G. said...

Informative post, as usual. That bell has done lots of travel in it’s time.

Rob K said...

Great research, Dorothy. What a fascinating story. That bell has such a fabulous history.