THE SEAL MYSTERY

Dickon R. Love, August 2000

seal.jpg (16821 bytes) The Whitechapel Bell Foundry archives contains a book known as the "Peals Book" which records details of complete rings of bells cast there during the 18th Century. (The foundry also cast single bells, although these were never recorded in the Peals Book.) One of the entries in this book is simply entitled "Seal". This describes a ring of 6 bells cast with a tenor of 9-3-5, which seems to have been latterly annotated with the date "1758".
There are two towers in Kent called Seal - one is Ss Peter and Paul, near Sevenoaks and the other is the neighbouring St Lawrence, Seal Chart. There is also a village called Seale in Surrey.
St Peter & Paul, Seal, Kent
For a while, it was assumed that the tower in question was Seal, and the weight 9-3-5 has even appeared in the Kent County Association Handbook and Dove's Guide to the Church Bells of Great Britain. However, on inspection of the details of the bells currently in the belfry, there are some glaring anomolies:
Bell Cast Founder
Treble 1886 John Warner & Sons
2nd 1660 John Hodson
3rd 1660 John Hodson
4th 1758 Lester & Pack
5th 1957 Mears & Stainbank
Tenor 1886 John Warner & Sons

Sure enough, one of the bells was recast in 1758, so Whitechapel did do some work here then, but since the Foundry did not retune bells at that time, bells were never returned to the foundry or weighed - the ring would therefore not have qualified to appear in the Peals Book. However, add to this the fact that two of the bells are older than 1758, that the 1957 bell replaced a bell cast between 1371-1392 by William Burford, and that the former tenor was cast by Stephen Swan in 1609, it seems very unlikely that the Peals Book ring went to Seal. The straw that broke the camel's back to this argument is the revelation that there were only 5 bells at Seal in 1758 - the treble was actually an addition in 1886.

The Peals Book details don't fit Seal Chart or Seale in Surrey either. So if this ring of six was not destined for Seal, then where did it go?

The most likely explanation is that these bells are actually the ring that went to St Mary the Virgin, Selling. The Whitechapel Broadsheet which listed all their new rings of bells refers to a new ring that went to "Sellen" in 1766, with a tenor of 10 cwt. Of this ring of 6, the treble, 3rd and 5th were recast by Mears & Stainbank in 1899, who also added two trebles to complete the octave. All 8 bells were then recast at the Whitechapel Bell Foundry in 1980 into the 6cwt eight that hang in the tower today.

While the original 1766 bells are no-longer with us, there are records which do give us a good indication of their dimensions. For a start, the bells that were scrapped in 1980 were weighed at Whitechapel, and we also fortunately know the scrapping weights of two of the 1766 bells in 1899. Putting the information on the weights together yields the following table:

Bell "Seal"1 Selling (1766)2 Selling (1899)3 Difference (lbs)
Treble 5-0-12 ? 5-0-16
2nd 5-3-4 5-2-20 - +12
3rd 6-0-27 6-0-24 5-3-8 +3
4th 6-3-6 6-3-12 - -6
5th 7-3-1 7-2-7 7-1-8 +22
Tenor 9-3-5 9-3-10 - -5

1 From the Whitechapel Peals Book
2 Bells 2,4,6 scrapping weights as measured 1980 at Whitechapel (CJP); Bells 3, 5 from Mears & Stainbank 1899 (NJD).
3 Scrapping weights as measured 1980 at Whitechapel (CJP).

J.C.L.Stahlschmidt in his "Church Bells of Kent" (1887) noted the diameters of the 1766 ring, although his measurements are general treated dubiously unless validated. However, there are more up to date sources. Putting the information on the diameters together yields even more striking similarities:
Bell "Seal" Selling
(1766 - Whitechapel)
Selling
(1766 - Stahlschmidt)
Selling (1899) Difference
Treble 28" 28" 28" 0
2nd 30" 30" 30" - 0
3rd 32" 32" 31" -"
4th 33" 33" 33" - 0
5th 35" 35" 34" "
Tenor 38" 38" 38" - +"
Given these similarities, and the fact that the 1766 ring for Selling is missing from the Whitechapel Peals Book, it now seems very likely that in fact the 9-3-5 ring went to Selling. This entry in the Peals Book was probably written up at some time later, with the scribe confusing the names "Sellen" and "Seal". The date 1758 looks as though it was entered some time later still by someone checking to see when the last invoice was sent to Seal.

St Mary the Virgin, Selling, Kent

There is a theory that the attibution of the Peals Book entry with Seal may have been started when Mears began sending out their "framed notices" out to towers in the 1880s and 1890s. This was a simple form of advertising designed the emphasise the firm's long connection with the parish. However, the details on these plaques were often highly suspect. (As an example, Mears sent a plaque to Hatton in Warwickshire with details of the old Rudhall eight. The weights were all approximate and based on Rudhall's lists rather than their own documentary evidence from their foundry records! They hadn't realised that in the mean time, the bells had been recast by Barwell and reduced in number to six!) There is no framed notice on the wall at Seal at present (the ground floor ring also doubles up as a vestry which makes such things less permanent anyway), but it is possible that one was received once. Likewise, there is no framed notice at Selling, but any old one would have been superceded by a new one in 1899, both of which have been superceded by that of 1980.

See also the page on the history of Selling.

(With thanks to Christopher J. Pickford and Nicholas J. Davies for providing some of the above information during their researching activities and assisting with the hunt for the real Seal!)