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Trevor S. Jennings wrote the Shire book title “Bellfounding”, published in 1988. He also self published a summary of his research on the history of bellfounding, “Temporaray site Bellfounding technology and the itinerant Bellfounders Technique”, in 2006 (hereafter abbreviated to TSBFT).

There is a great deal of useful information in the latter book, albeit not so well sorted by period. In one way this doesn’t matter, but I prefer to know how things change through time, because that makes it a proper history rather than a collection of anecdotes. Having said that, it is less of a problem with this topic because the technology stayed the same for hundreds of years; in fact I’ve come across a French foundry that still uses mould material recipes which are hundreds of years old. The Shire book though is another matter, containing a number of mistakes or, frustratingly, information which has been shortened and not properly explained.

One of the major issues I have with the Shire book is that it has a section on the origins of bellfounding, obviously focused on England and Britain, with about 4 sentences on the permanent foundries found in towns and cities, and over a page on Itinerant bellfounders. This is a huge discrepancy, given the numbers of bells made by foundries in towns, of which we know of several thousand, compared to what we know of itinerant bellfounders – his own list in TSBFT lists about 37 from the medieval period so there certainly weren’t thousands. There’s also the fact that the town foundries continued in operation for many decades and centuries, producing both bells and cauldrons and other objects and are far more durable and important than a few itinerant founders.

“Setting up a temporary furnace and casting bells near their eventual location overcame the diffficulties of transporting large and heavy loads by inadequate means over long distances hampered by atrocious road conditions. With the founder near at hand, suspicious church wardens were able to monitor progress and exercise more direct control.”

The above statements are both slightly true and somewhat misleading. Yes, quality control was always an issue, but would the wardens really have that much of an effect, especially if the founder was getting paid by the item produced, so the quicker he made it the better. Moreover, the post-medieval ones have a large number cast in truly out of the way places such as Devon and Cornwall or parts of Wales, all a long way away from the dozen or so sites known to cast bells on a regular basis. Said sites are the sources of most of the 3,000 surviving medieval bells, to judge by Alex Bayliss’s PhD (Validating Classical multivariate models in archaeology – English medieval bellfounding as a case study, by Alexandra Bayliss), which indicates that bells were cast in a town and transported 30 or 40 miles, usually by cart, to their church, which rather spoils his point about transport.
This all shows how having a bee in ones bonnet about a specific topic can warp your writing about such a topic, leading to a poor description of the totallity of the topic. The simple fact is that temporary sites were useful, almost certainly so in the 11/12th centuries before the development of large scale foundries in towns, but they surely were important in the way he thinks they were over the entire period under discussion. They certain appear responsible for a very small proportion of the bells cast in the UK, so why spend so much time discussing them?

Other errors include, on page 4, the claim that apothecaries mortars were often cast out of bell bronze. This is totally wrong, as more recent analyses have shown, and indicate how a book with a wide and long circulation (my copy was printed after 2010, with no changes since 1988) can potentially influence things. I haven’t come across analyses of mortars carried out before 1988, I suspect there were a few, but it was very hard to find information back in those days. Tin was comparatively expensive, why use an extra 12 or 14% of it, when you can just bung some lead in? Plus I understand that bells can crack, i.e. bell bronze is more brittle than a simple lower tin alloy, which given you’re pounding a mortar for a long time wouldn’t help, and I’m sure you wouldn’t want it sounding like a bell when you hit it repeatedly anyway.

Page 6 says “itinerant bellfounders played an important part in the development of bellfounding for a variety of reasons.” and although the reasons given sound well enough, there’s no evidence added, and certainly it simply doesn’t match anything I have read elsewhere. People who were not itinerant bellfounders moved about, more so than you would think, the medieval period wasn’t quite awash with hordes of folk travelling the way we do nowadays, but they almost certainly travelled further than your average 18th/ 19th century peasant. His favourite example of a founder travelling from Gloucester to Ely rather misses that they might have wanted the best one they had heard of, and that Gloucester was a known location of a permanent foundry where this fellow probably worked. Within the context of his book TSBTF this emphasis is understandable and okay; within the context of a book on the whole of bell casting, it is an unwarranted emphasis.

Apparently also reverberatory furnaces use charcoal or timber, according to the Shire book, which is a bit of a step, given that all I’ve ever read on on the ones used for bronze casting is that they use wood. It turns out in the TSBFT that some late/ post-medieval records mention the purchase of charcoal for use in the furnace, and he comments that it isn’t so good for the work, and discusses a number of related issues, such as the cost of wood in the 17th century. Maybe I’m being too critical, but the thing is, even in the TSBFT his explanation and discussion is still very random, cherry picking examples, with little overview of the 7 or 800 years under consideration.

So the Shire book shows the dangers of relying on old sources, but also of not updating books which are still in print. This happens all the time in historical topics, I’m sure you can all think of examples. TSBFT also shows the problem with an amateur outlook (Although to be fair I’ve seen this with supposed professionals too) – a lack of thoroughness. Which is not to say that it was a waste of time, rather, like everything else, you have to be somewhat critical in your reading. So more problems for meto try and avoid in my own writing!

This is a pestle I cast at Kentwell 3 years ago, fresh from the mould. It’s about 7 inches long. Making a mould for the mortar was a bit hard and not completed.
Pestle for mortar as cast