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The Bells of Smith

The Bells of Smith

The bells of Smith College are comprised of distinct sets of bells in College Hall, the Mendenhall Center for Performing Arts, The Helen Hills Hills Chapel, and Wilson House in the Quadrangle. Each of these sets of bells, particularly the Dorothea Carlile Carillon in College Hall, and the peal of change ringing bells in the Mendenhall Center for the Performing Arts, bring with them a unique history and set of followers and patrons, invested in keeping alive their rich tradition.


Though physically seen by few, the bells of Smith College’s Dorothea Carlile Carillon in College Hall has the potential to reach the ears of many students, professors, and visitors to the Smith campus. The collection of 48 bells, since the original installation of 12 bells in 1919, has undergone a number of replacements, additions, and renovations over the course of the century, and has graced the college with arrangements of popular songs and music in the earlier days of the collection. The first 12 bells were donated by Mr. and Mrs. W. Wilson Carlile (Florence Jeffrey 1893) in memory of their daughter, Dorothea, a victim of the influenza epidemic of 1918 who had died in her first year at Smith 1). These 12 bells replaced the original college bell, a gift from Mrs. Seelye at the opening of the college which was relocated to John M. Greene Hall (and now rests in Wilson House) 2). The presence of these bells, the collection of which was christened the Dorothea Carlile Chime, was seen as very symbolic and commemorative. According to the purpose of the chime as stated on the Deed of Trust, “the bells will tell for her the stirring weed of wide inspiration, of close bonds and sure fellowship, of gladsome search for beauty in its every phrase, with confidence in a larger happiness triumphant.” 3) They were also played at the memorial service for John M. Greene and dedication of the chime. As recounts a witness, “The simple but beautiful memorial service at their dedication struck the note of joy in living and of high ideals which the Carlile family wish to perpetrate through their gift. And the quiet picture of the whole college standing about in the sunset shadows or strolling slowly beneath the lofty elms to listen to the first notes of those bells…must have been very gratifying to the donor.”

Designed to perform popular, classical, or traditional songs in three and sometimes four part arrangements, a carillon consists of at least two chromatic octaves and 23 bells, played on a clavier with the clenched hand. The smaller version of this, called a chime, rarely exceeded 15 bells 4). With little over an octave, the first set of bells installed in the tower of College Hall had a limited range. The original twelve bells of the Dorothea Carlile Chime were cast by an American bell foundry, the Meneely Bell Company of Troy, New York, with bells running from E flat 5 upward to F65). All bells but the largest are held stationary and struck by clappers, operated from a keyboard. In the early days, this keyboard consisted of heavy wooden levers (one for each bell) and corresponding counterweights, making the act of playing the bells extremely difficult, slow-moving, and nearly “impossible” to practice, as each lever had to be operated by hand6).

After World War II with the approval of the Carlile family, plans were made to expand and renovate the collection for the first time. Starting in August 1952, the 12 original bells were re-cast by Paccard of Annecy-le-Viux in France, and 3 more bells were added for a total of 15 bells. Major structural changes were also implemented, eliminating the “cumbersome counterweights” and installing a new, light keyboard7). Further donations to the collection in 1957 allowed for the collection to reach 23 bells, allowing the Dorothea Carlile Chime to become the Dorothea Carillon 8). The most recent collection of 47 bells was reached in 1976, where all bells were re-cast and newly shaved to give more precise tuning. Smith College’s copy of the Bicentennial Liberty Bell, one of only 2400 bells made by the Whitechapel Bell Foundry in London, England, was added to this collection9)10). The carillon was finally completed in May 2009 with the addition of the final D sharp that was omitted from the 70’s expansion. The bell bears an inscription chosen by Music Director Peter Bloom, taken from a French poem of Marceline Debordes-Valmore, which in English reads: “When the bells in the evening slow down time in the valley, if you have no friends or lovers close to you, think of me! Think of me!”11). The completed carillon is scheduled to play for the 2009 commencement exercises.

Student involvement with the carillon was an important part of its presence on campus from the very early years. One student, a student from the music department and usually a senior, was elected “carillonneur” each year—a great honor but also a job that requires time commitment and dedication. The official carillonneur must play in two half hour concerts on Sundays, and have some hand at arranging melodies with the range of the carillon, for a number of years, only 12 bells12). The Sunday concerts were very eagerly anticipated and remained tradition for a number of decades. The point was made, “A Sunday at Smith is a day of quiet. No victrolas or radios may be played, and so the chimes constitute the musical program for the day.”13) Usually there would be an apprentice learning the art alongside the official player, so as to keep the carillon tradition afoot. Fortunately for carillon students, a digital carillon clavier was added in the room beneath the actual clavier, allowing the carillonneur to practice in private 14). Though few current students are familiar with the carillon now, there still exists the Carillon Composition Prize, for best original composition for carillon, and best individual transcription15). In the past, students have played repertoire ranging from folk songs and hymns in 2-3 part harmony, patriotic songs, and arrangements of classical pieces such as Beethoven’s Minuet in G, and Bach’s “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring.”16).

Though it is uncertain what further role the Dorothea Carlile Carillon will play in Smith’s history, it has not yet been lost to history. In December 2008, Smith College participated in the “Ring the Bells for Peace” initiative on December 21, 2008, where bell-ringers across the country rang their bells at noon in honor of peace. The Carillon is often played at Commencement, and demonstrations are still given on occasion, such as during the holiday season in December.


Interest in change ringing at Smith began in the 1960’s, when plans were being made for the construction Center for Performing Arts (later renamed the Mendenhall Center for Performing Arts). Amidst the ambitious plans for the new center, which included dance and theater studios, a performing arts library, and theater venues for performances, a new tower was being constructed, with no plans for immediate use. Meanwhile, a group of students observed the construction from across the street in Tyler Annex, where they met to ring changes on handbells (for there did not exist any English bells) 17). Led by experienced change-ringer Alice Dickinson, Professor of Mathematics and Statistics at Smith College, a movement was started to gather support for the installation of a peal of bells in the new tower 18). These efforts found support with President Mendenhall, who found financial support for the project in spring of 1967. 19) In addition to specific families who donated money to purchase the bells themselves, the tower required additional support and strengthening to prepare for the added weight of the 8 bells, totaling 4,500 pounds, not to mention the heavy stress the bells would inflict on the tower when in full swing 20). Commissioned from the Whitechapel Bell Foundry in London, England, famous for casting the bells in Westminster Abbey, Big Ben, the original Liberty Bell, and the bells in St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, each of the eight bells for the Smith peal is inscribed with an inscription chosen by the donor, and arrived in Boston on April 5, 1968.21) The six original bells, along with Mr. William Theobald, a representative from Whitechapel to aid in the assistance of ringing and installing the bells, arrived in Northampton a week later, their arrival in Boston complicated by the recent assassination of Martin Luther King 22). Once interest in change ringing had been aroused and financial means secured, the next task was to train a team of ringers. Unlike carillon bells, which are played with keyboard-type hammers, which strike the bells above so as to create melodies, a peal has bells whereby “each bell is rung by one ringer, who weaves its note not into a tune but into a mathematical series of ‘changes’”… “yield[ing] a fuller, richer sound than stationary bells struck with a hammer.”23) Bells rung in this fashion are attached to a wheel enabling 360-degree rotation. As describes Nancy Frazier in her article “The Discipline and Delight of Change Ringing”, “before changes begin the bell is swung back and forth until it reaches an inverted or “up” position where a length of wood called a stay slides into place”24), and the bell is ready for ringing. Change ringing is not without its dangers—failure to properly grasp or keep hold of the rope could result in “ropelash” or a freely swinging rope. Frazier reassures, “broken, whipping and strangling ropes are ominous but not common occurrences.”25). Once the ringers get a sense of handling the ropes and bells, then actual patterns or changes are practiced and learned. Bells are numbered from smallest to largest, and rung in sequence such that each bell sounds once before any of them repeat. The “changes” happen when one of the bells changes position in the sequence; for example, instead of the No. 3 bell following the No.2 bell in a consecutive 12345678 sequence, the two bells would switch places, and the new sequence would become 13245678. Changes can either be called out, or experienced ringers can follow “methods” by which they keep track of their bell and its position in the sequence, depending on what kind of a ring the team is attempting. Different patterns have developed different names, some of which include “Grandshire” “Hunting” “Kent and Oxford” “Cambridge Surprise”, and “St. Clement’s Bob Major” 26). A peal in change ringing, is an accomplishment for a change ringer. It is very difficult to perform perfectly, and is described by Frazier as “a discrete task requiring at least 5,040 changes and allowing no visual aids to remind either the conductor or other ringers of the sequence.”27) To celebrate the opening of the Clark Science Center at Smith College, the Smith Change Ringers performed a Quarter Peal of 1260 Plain Bob Minor (another name for a pattern) on May 15, 1967, conducted by Alice Dickinson 28)). The performance was presumably on handbells, as in 1967 the large bells had not yet been installed.

After the bells had arrived and were installed in April 1968, more than 50 interested ringers were trained on the use of the bells by Smith Professor Alice Dickinson and William Theobald from Whitechapel. The group was scheduled to play for the first time on May 11th, but it resulted in the first campus riot, presumably responding to the sound of the bells in practices, which can be heard from Green Street and surrounding parts of campus. One article was optimistic, declaring, “if you can’t beat them, enlist them; they seem to change sides rapidly when they get a rope in their hands.”29) In the early years of Smith Change Ringing, beginning in 1968, the ringers were supervised by Mrs. Dickinson; however, once more students gained expertise, student captains were elected, such as Betsy Griffing ‘77.30)

A letter from President Mendenhall to Joan Hutchinson ’68, one of the student initiators of a change ringing group, indicates a desire for starting a “bell book” on the history of the bells and installation. Reads the letter, “I would like to have the history, details about the bells, their installation, etc. written up for a start of a log book, recording all further progress in the tower methods and touches rung, visits made, and so on.”31) Further investigation on such a book would be necessary for the interested reader.

The tradition of Change Ringing at Smith was recently revived in the fall of 2008 with the help of experienced ringers Marjorie Batchelor ’73 and Alan Winter from Cambridge, England.32) The new group of ringers, under the name of the “Ting Tangs: The Smith College Ringers”, rehearses once a week and has performed at campus events such as Parent’s Weekend, Valentine’s Day, and Rally Day, and more recently, maintain their own web page. 33) Hopefully, with such recent efforts, the Smith bells will never suffer from want of use. Their sound evokes more than just Smith tradition—as Frazier writes, “bells have inspired poets, novelists, composers and scholars. The least they have done is to announce the time of day, and the most they have done is to fill a day with the resonance of life and death.”34) We are fortunate to have a bit of that history with us.


Smith College is unique in being one of only three undergraduate institutions to have both a set of change ringing bells and a carillon. Since this is unusual, occasionally alumnae dedicated to a particular collection would feel jeopardized when the other was expanding, as was the case with a number of dedicated carillon donors in the 60’s, when money was being raised to support the peal instead. In reassuring one such alumna, President Mendenhall reveals an interesting, abandoned plan for the future of the carillon: “I know that you and George Mair hope that someday the carillon will have a bigger and more commanding location. My own opinion is that this will eventually replace Park or Hopkins House, but meanwhile the set of bells in the Center for Performing Arts is my 1st objective and I would love to find some support for it.”35) Mrs. Harris did, in fact, support the change ringing bells—the first 5 bells were funded by her donations. The “bigger and more commanding location”, unfortunately, was never actualized.


In honor of the Bicentennial Celebration of the Declaration of Independence in 1976, the Whitechapel Bell Foundry in London, England, producers of the original Liberty Bell, made plans to produce 2400 limited edition Liberty Bells, cast at the same site, scaled down a fifth. Donated by Mrs. Rachel Blair Marshall ’17 and Mr. Peter W. Marshall in honor of the class of ‘17’s 60th anniversary, the Liberty Bell replica is a bronze casting with two silver plates, cast using a special “lost wax” method which preserves the 170 different letters on the bell. 36) A 1971 letter from Mrs. Marshall announced the further gift of a display case for the bell ($100), with the intention of housing it in the George F. Mair room when the library was completed, where it resides today. 37)


Wilson House in the quadrangle is unique in having a bell tower. The Martha Wilson House, named after the 1893 graduate, was originally intended to be the background of an outdoor auditorium. When the Dorothea Carlile Chime was installed in College Hall in 1919, the original college bell, a gift of Mrs. Seelye at the opening of the college, was moved out—first to a temporary location in John M. Greene Hall, and later to the tower in Wilson house, which until that point had been empty. It rings with the bells in College Hall, and the Helen Hills Hills Chapel to announce Mountain Day 38).

1) Smith College Archives, text from handout given to tour, December 2008
2) Lincoln, Eleanor Terry and John Abel Pinto. This, The House We Live In: The Smith College Campus from 1871 to 1982. Northampton, MA: Smith College, 1983, p. 24, 131
3) August 1952, Release At Will. College Hall: Carillon, Clippings, and Press Releases 1919- Box 198 Smith College Archives. 20 Buildings and Grounds.
4) , 5) , 14) SCA, Handout, December 2008
6) “Chimes at Smith College” Music. 8 November, 1929. College Hall: Carillon, Clippings, and Press Releases 1919- Box 198 Smith College Archives. 20 Buildings and Grounds
7) August 1952, Release At Will. College Hall: Carillon, Clippings, and Press Releases 1919- Box 198 Smith College Archives. 20 Buildings and Grounds
8) “Bell Will Complete College Hall Carillon.” Sophian. 15 October 1957
9) Chapkin, Robert. “Smith College Carillon Rings Out Sharps and Flats.” Springfield Union. 5 May 1976
10) “Certificate of Ownership”. Bells: History of Bells on Campus (folder), SCA, 34 Administration, Dean of Faculty Files
11) Smith College News Office. “Long-awaited Bell to Complete Smith College Carillon. 16 March 2009. <>
Original text of the poem in French:
Quand les cloches du soir, dans leur lente volée
Feront descendre l’heure au fond de la vallée,
Si tu n’as pas d’amis ni d’amours près de toi,
Pense à moi! Pense à moi!
12) “Smith College Chimes” Music. 28 September, 1938
13) “Chimes at Smith College” Music. 8 November, 1929
15) Prize Competitions. Smith College. <>
16) Mair, “Smith’s Musical Bells.” SAQ May 1956
17) “Bells 1968-1997” SCA, Box 193 Center for the Performing Arts, 20 Buildings and Grounds, Box 7, Folder 2
18) , 22) , 29) “New Ring of Six in American Girls’ College” The Ringing World. 5 July 1968
19) “Bells 1968-1997” SCA, Box 193 Center for the Performing Arts, 20 Buildings and Grounds, Box 7, Folder 2
20) , 21) , 25) Ibid
23) Pamphlet: Whitechapel Bell Foundry, Bells: History of Bells on Campus (folder), SCA, 34 Administration, Dean of Faculty Files
24) Frazier, Nancy. “Who Tolls the Bells.” Daily Hampshire Gazette 21 May 1977; Bells: History of Bells on Campus, SCA
26) “Smith’s Change Ringers—Bells, not bats in this belfry.” Daily Hampshire Gazette. 21 January 1981
27) , 30) , 34) Frazier, “Who Tolls the Bells”
28) Peal Card, SCA, 32 Office of the President, Thomas C. Mendenhall files, Series VII Buildings and Grounds, Box 5 of 6, Mendenhall Center for Performing Arts-Bells (1966-1975
31) Letter from Mr. Mendenhall to Ms. Joan Hutchinson, SCA 32 Office of the President: Thomas C. Mendenhall Files
32) Cormier, Ellen, “Musical Group Rings in the New School Year” The Sophian. 18 September 2008
35) Letter to Mrs. Charles U Harris from President Mendenhall. Folder: Mendenhall Center for the Performing Arts—Bells (1966-1975) 32 Office of the President Thomas C. Mendenhall Files
36) “Certificate of Ownership”; letter from George F. Mair, Dean, 31 May 1977; “Maintenance”; Bells: History of Bells on Campus (folder), SCA
37) Letter from Mrs. Rachel Blair Marshall ’17, 5 November 1979; Bells: A History of Bells on Campus (folder), SCA
38) Lincoln, Eleanor Terry and John Abel Pinto. This, the House We Live In: The Smith College Campus from 1871 to 1982. Northampton, MA: Smith College, 1983. P. 24, 1981

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