The Bell without a Belfry

by JESSE C. MILLS, Chief Librarian of the Tennessee Valley Authority, Knoxville, Tennessee, and former Assistant Director of Libraries, University of Pennsylvania.

From "The Library Chrobicle", Vol XXXIX No. 1, Winter 1973.

In the entry hall of the Dietrich wing of the University Library stands an old bell, without a belfry. It is the Old Academy Bell, cast by Thomas Lester of Whitechapel and received in Philadelphia in March 1752. Unlike the Liberty Bell, cast at the same foundry and delivered in August 1752, this bell did not crack at the first stroke, was not recast, and did not crack a second time. it has a tone as clear and challenging as the day it arrived from England 221 years ago.

It is called the Academy Bell because it hung in the belfry of the Academy of Philadelphia, the parent of the University of Pennsylvania. The history of the bell is one of the strangest stories in Philadelphia, involving Benjamin Franklin, fire companies, belfries, churches, and the Trustees of the University.

This account of the Academy Bell is based on research by Dr. William L. Turner for his doctoral dissertation at the University of Pennsylvania, where he received the PH.D. in 1952. Dr. Turner, now professor of English at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., became interested, in the course of his research on the history of "The College, Academy, and Charitable School of Philadelphia," in the bell's fabulous story and took the trouble to search out all references to it in the records of the University, the fire companies involved, and the church -in whose tower it last hung.'

In July 1750, the Union Fire Company, founded by Benjamin Franklin in 1736 and the first of many such companies of mutual protection, felt the need for a bell to sound alarms and summon the members with their leather buckets and stout linen bags. The company voted twenty-five pounds for the purchase of a bell and, in the minutes of the meeting at which the vote was taken, included the stipulation that it should weigh no less than five hundred pounds. Not knowing what a bell of that size might cost, although they had already voted twenty-five pounds for its purchase, the members decided to seek information in New York where such a bell had been lately imported. The members found that their twenty-five pounds was not enough. But they were not willing to vote any more.

So the membership chose two of its number, B. Franklin and Dr. Philip Syng, to approach a rival fire company, the Hand In Hand, and suggest the possibility that the two companies purchase the bell together. It was hardly likely that they would need to use it simultaneously but if they did, who could say for whom the bell tolled? Therefore the Hand In Hand agreed to underwrite the difference between the final price and the Union Company's twenty-five pounds.

The bell was ordered from England after exactly one year of deliberation and consultation, -in July 1751, by the Union Company, according to an entry dated July 30, 1751, in that company's Minute Book.

Whereas the gentlemen concerned required a year to order, the manufacturer in England needed only eight months to cast and ship the bell to America. It came in March 1752. It was twenty-three inches high, sixty-five inches in circumference at the base, and bore the inscription around its sides:


The total bill was forty-one pounds and two shillings-sixteen pounds and two shillings more than the amount voted by the Union Fire Company. The Hand In Hand got a bargain.

But neither company, it was soon discovered, had a belfry wherein to hang the bell. There was more deliberation.

Finally, Franklin, a man of ingenuity, suggested that, since the Academy, which had opened on January 7, 1751, had a belfry without a bell and the two fire companies had a bell without a belfry and since both needed the bell for different reasons, they work out an agreement with the Trustees of the Academy whereby they could hang the bell in that belfry and it should be sounded for school hours and for alarms for fires in properties protected by the two companies until such time as they, the owners, should choose to remove it.

The bell was delivered to the Trustees of the Academy at Fourth and Arch with the stipulation that "they would suspend it in a Belfrey [sic] then erected ... on the said Academy, which from its central situation would at once render the Bell useful to the design of the said companies in importing it (which was to give alarm to the inhabitants of the city in Case of Fire) and answer the purpose of the Academy in giving Notice to the Scholars of the Hours of Meeting."

The fire companies drove a shrewd bargain: the Trustees of the Academy agreed to pay the cost of installing the bell, and they assumed the expense of maintenance. Entries in the Academy (later the College) Day Book through 1776 show the following expenditures:

March 14, 1752 -- oil for Bell -- 1/9
March 17, 1759 -- To Edmund Wooley for repairing the Bell, Wheel, etc. -- 1/8
July 28, 1764 -- New Bell Rope purchased -- 18/8
June 18, 1776 -- Paid four pounds for mending clapper of College Bell

In 1802 the College, having outgrown the building at Fourth and Arch, secured the "Presidential Palace" on Ninth Street between Market and Chestnut (where the William Penn Annex Post Office is now) and moved thereto. The southern half of the Old Academy Building, the half which had the belfry, was deeded to a group of Methodists. But the bell was not included in the sale. The College Trustees planned to move the bell to the new building, but such a move was impractical until they could build a belfry, and they couldn't build a belfry without a building. Therefore the bell, for a second time without a belfry, would have to hang where it was until the College could get a building with a belfry.

About this time the two fire companies remembered that the bell was theirs. They disapproved the proposal to move it to Ninth Street and sought to recover their property. The College Trustees refused to relinquish it-although they did not actually have it.

For more than a year, the two companies tried to negotiate with the Trustees of the College (now the University). Finally the two fire companies ordered their negotiators, on November 2, 1803, to seize the bell and remove it to Christ Church for safekeeping. The representatives demanded the bell of the University; the University refused. The representatives demanded again; the University refused. These demands and refusals continued for four years. (There is no record, but it is probably safe to assume that in the meantime the Methodists were making good use of the bell, without either paying rent or guaranteeing maintenance.)

In the autumn of 1807, the University gave in and surrendered the bell.

Once the Union and Hand In Hand Companies had their bell back, they were again in exactly the same situation in which they had found themselves fifty-five years before: they had a bell without a belfry.

Although the fire companies had not learned in fifty-five years the lesson of a belfry, they had not forgotten the lesson of Dr. Franklin: use somebody else's belfry. At a meeting on October 28, 1807, the Union Company resolved

That Samuel Wheeler and Edward Penington be a Committee to join with the Committee appointed by the Hand In Hand Fire Company and that they be authorized to make an offer of the Bell to the Corporation of the City on the condition that they cause a Building to be erected in a central situation for the said Bell and direct that it be rung in case of fire only.

While the generosity of the two companies was being made known to the City Fathers, the bell was stored in Edward Penington's Sugar House Store. It remained there for two years. Meanwhile the City Fathers ungraciously refused to cooperate with the two fire companies.

In October 1809, Samuel Wheeler was approached by the wardens of the recently completed St. James Episcopal Church, located on the comer of Seventh Street and St. James (now Commerce); the wardens inquired about the possibility of obtaining the bell for the new church's steeple. After a year both companies agreed, "provided that it [the bell] shall be rung upon all occasions of fire." The wardens accepted the condition. The bell was taken out of Edward Penington's Sugar House Store and hung in the St. James Church belfry. The following receipt was duly entered -in the minutes of the Union Fire Company on January 3, 1810:

Receiv'd Philadelphia Nov. 14, 1809 of the Union and Hand In Hand Fire Companies a Bell, formerly known as the Academy Bell, (the same being their joint property) for the purpose of hanging in the tower of St. James' Church to be rung as an alarm Bell in the time of fire and other Alarm, and also to be used as Church Bell for that Church. The same being committed to us by the said Companies for the above mentioned uses, and to be returned to them on their joint demand, injuries resulting from the use thereof otherwise not imputable to negligence to be borne by the said Companies. [Signed] Thomas Cumpston, Church Warden of the United Episcopal Churches in the City of Philadelphia.

However, the sexton of St. James must have been either lazy or forgetful. Perhaps no one told him when there was a fire. At any rate, an ever-diminishing number of alarms were announced from the church.

Between 1810 and 1827, one of the fire companies went bankrupt and the other joined forces, and a new company, the Phoenix Hose, became the successor of both. On April 25, 1827, a committee of three men was appointed by the Phoenix to petition the trustees of the University of Pennsylvania:

The Undersigned, a Committee appointed by the Phoenix Hose Company, to petition your honorable body, concerning the Bell in the Cupola of St. James' Church beg leave to state that having understood that the said bell was under your care, and by you given to the vestry of the said Church, on condition of its being rung in times of Fire, but they having for a long time neglected that duty (it not having been rung but once since last August, and that on a Sunday evening about a month ago, as they were shutting up the Church, for a false alarm) and the said Hose Company having frequently requested that the Vestry of said Church to have it rung, but to no purpose; do as a last resource come to your honorable body, and take the liberty of requesting of you the favor of permitting them to remove it to their Hose House, where they will have a suitable place erected for its reception, and cause it to be rung in times of Fire, in the same manner as the Bell at the State House.

John Briggs
Charles H. Dinger
George P. Janeaway

Exactly twenty years before the owners of the Bell had been pillorying the Trustees of the University to give it up.

This time the Trustees decided they had no power to act in this situation, although they had power to refuse in 1807. The wardens of St. James, being in possession, had the weight of the bell and the height of the steeple on their side, and the bell remained where it was.

In 1869 St. James was razed and a new church erected by the congregation at the comer Of 22nd and Walnut streets. The bell was moved to the new location. It no longer sounded any alarms.

In 1945 the congregation sold its property at 22nd and Walnut to the Atlantic Refining Company as the site for a filling station. Demolition was begun in April 1945. At this time, without minutes, petitions, ceremony, or special deliberation, the bell was quietly turned over to the University of Pennsylvania, largely through the efforts of Mr. William Du Barry, an officer of St. James and Vice President of the University.

For 193 years, the name used had been the "Academy Bell"--not the Union Fire Company Bell or the Hand in Hand Bell or the Phoenix Bell. Therefore the bell came back to the Academy.

The Academy at Fourth and Arch is gone; the "Presidential Palace" is gone; the fire companies are gone. Two St. Jameses are gone. But the bell and the University remain. And for the third time in its history the bell has no belfry. The Library has no belfry either, but it has an honored place for the bell, which rang the last time for the dedication of the Van Pelt wing of the Library where, as President Gaylord Harnwell announced on that occasion, "it shall remain as long as the building shall stand."


1. I am grateful to Dr. Turner for permission to draw upon his dissertation for this paper.

2. "ThoS. LESTER MADE ME" appears on the shoulder of the bell in raised letters; so far the inscription was evidently a part of the bell as it was cast. The remainder of the inscription was poorly planned and poorly executed. The additional information seems to have been planned to occupy the rest of the shoulder, but "COMPANIES 1752" ran over to a second line. The letters are incised, and were probably not a part of the casting.

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