Hear Them Ring

A small but mighty group of bell ringers helps to keep history alive at Hingham Memorial Bell Tower.

By Jennifer H. McInerney

Photography by Jack Foley and Jennifer McInerney

For more than a century, a dedicated group of men and women with strong arms and steady hands has been ringing the enormous brass bells atop the Hingham Memorial Bell Tower at Old Ship Church. Depending on the direction of the wind, these English Change Bells—an anniversary gift from the township of Hingham, England—release melodious patterns into the airwaves and can be heard all around Hingham Square and all the way down to Hingham Bathing Beach.

The tower was originally constructed in 1912 and the 11 bells in the belfry were cast by Mears and Stainbank at the Whitechapel Foundry in London, the same foundry that cast Big Ben and the Liberty Bell. Thanks to a renovation project conducted last fall, the physical act of ringing the bells now “feels” even better to the individuals who regularly ascend the tower to the ringing chamber.

A steadfast ensemble of bell ringers meets on Saturday mornings to ring the bells. The group’s members include people like Hingham residents Mike and Ann Shilhan, who have been instrumental in the continuation of this time-honored tradition, and Sarah Carolan and Jason and Martha Ryan, who have advocated for the restoration of the tower and bells as members of the Memorial Bell Tower Committee. Dan Cushing grew up ringing the bells and, while he doesn’t live in Hingham anymore, he drives down from the city regularly to help teach new ringers.

“I’ve been ringing the bells here, off and on, for 50 years,” says Cushing, who started at the age of 12. In recent years, he returned to teach a new band of ringers, at the request of the Shilhans. “It’s such a great group of people, so I decided to stay.”

A Gift that Keeps on Giving

The Hingham Memorial Tower commemorates the 275th anniversary of the town’s first settlers, who arrived between 1633 and 1638 and “on the edge of the wilderness established this free plantation of New Hingham.” 

In the early 1900s, funding for the tower was raised by public subscription from the descendants of Hingham’s original settlers. In all, the ancestors pitched in $250,000 to erect the six-story, 75-foot freestanding European campanile-style tower in 1912. The crowning jewels can be found at the top of the tower, in the belfry: 11 brass bells, ranging in weight from 515 to 2,203 pounds that were delivered by boat, from “Old Hingham,” and transported by horse and cart to the hillside where the church and tower now stand. Ten of the bells are swinging bells; the 11th is a non-swinging bell. Each bears an inscription that is a copy from a bell in a church in England, including St. Andrew’s Church Tower in Old Hingham.

Bell towers of this kind are numerous in England but are considered rare in America. The Hingham Memorial Bell Tower is one of only 51 English Change Bell towers in North America and, as a result, attracts visitors from all over the country and abroad, including a recent visit from the North American Guild of Change Ringers.

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Not surprisingly, over the past century, the bells—and especially the mechanisms that enabled the bells to move and ring—suffered deterioration due to exposure to the elements, bird and animal droppings and the inevitable wear-and-tear of weekly usage.

“There were 100 years of grit and grime in there,” Jason Ryan explains. “As much as we tried to keep it clean and lubricated, these were extremely difficult bells to ring.”

A Memorial Bell Tower Committee, consisting of bell ringers and supporters, garnered the support of the selectmen, the historic commission and the community to preserve and improve the historic monument.

Following repairs and renovations to ensure the structural integrity of the tower (as well as Covid-related delays), the refurbishment of the bells began in July, 2022, and was completed that November. The outdated early-1900s open pocket and gudgeon system was replaced with modern, sealed ball bearings. The renovation also included enclosing the belfry to protect the instruments and bell carriage, with slots to allow for ventilation and to carry the sound of the bells.

“It’s like ringing brand-new bells,” Ryan says of the results. “The actual brass bells are original, but all of this stuff—the headstock and the clapper and the inside components, all of the wood of the stay and the wheels and the sliders—are new components and, most importantly, the bearings, which make these bells a thousand times easier to ring.” Even a year later, the bell ringers who congregate each Saturday morning are still reveling in the improved ease of movement they experience each time they pull the bell ropes.

“I’m glad we were able to have the project done. It was really a challenge to ring the bells before,” says Martha Ryan, Jason’s wife, who also helped spearhead the tower’s restoration. She has been ringing the bells at the Hingham Memorial Bell Tower for 15 years, since her children were young. “It was a great way for me to join in a community activity every week. It’s been awesome.”

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The Tipping Point: English Change Bell Ringing

Unlike chiming bells that move from side to side like a pendulum, English Change Bells start in an upright “mouth up” position and swing in a 360-degree circular motion attached to a wheel. As Ryan describes, the ringer pulls on the bell’s rope to swing the bell 360 degrees until it’s back in a “mouth up” position (hand-stroke) and then pauses before proceeding to pull the rope again in the other direction, returning the bell to the “mouth up” position (back-stroke).

When the Saturday morning ringers gather inside the ringing chamber, longtime ringer Mike Shilhan often leads the group, calling out the changes in the order that the bells will be rung. These bell patterns are known as “methods”—they’re not melodies, per se, but they are melodic. They’ll play methods called Whittingtons, Queens and Tittums, which the ringers have memorized, or the leader will call out desired sequences to be followed.

On a recent Saturday, Shilhan called out, “Kings,” and the ringers took hold of their ropes. Then Shilhan shouted, “She’s gone!” and they began to pull their ropes in order. The movement of the bells overhead causes the tower to sway gently, which Ryan points out is part of the structure’s architectural design: “to absorb the thrust of the bells as they swing.”

The group assembles at the tower every Saturday morning from 9:30-10:30, given a minimum of five ringers are in attendance. Now that the bells are in tip-top shape, newcomers of all ages and abilities who are interested in learning the art of English Change Bell Ringing are welcome to drop in during the first 30 minutes for instruction. While Change Bell Ringing does not take a great deal of strength, it does take patience and practice.

“There’s a precision to ringing a bell as tall as I am,” says Cushing. “It’s a combination of mind and body, to pause to let the other bells ring and not play over each other. It’s really an art, and that’s what’s fun about it.”

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The Meaning Behind The Bells

The Hingham Memorial Bell Tower was built in honor of the founders of the “Free Plantation of New Hingham upon its 275th anniversary.” The memorial bells, dedicated November 25, 1912, were cast by Mears and Stainbank at the Whitechapel Foundry, London, England, and bear the following inscriptions.


Bell One

Inscription is a copy of a bell in St. Laurence’s Church Tower, Norwich, Norfolk.

I Recall Forgotten Days Before the Settlers Came


Bell Two

Inscription is a copy of a bell in St. Andrew’s Church Tower, Hingham, Norfolk.

I Ring the Memory of the Founders of this Free Plantation


Bell Three

Inscription is a copy of a bell in St. Andrew’s Church Tower, Hingham, Norfolk.

I Ring their Courage


Bell Four

Inscription is a copy of a bell in the tower of the Church of the Assumption, Redenhall, Norfolk.

I Ring their Toil


Bell Five

Inscription is a copy of a bell in St. Swithin’s Church Tower, Norwich, Norfolk.

I Ring their Perseverance


Bell Six

Inscription is a copy of a bell in St. Andrew’s Church Tower, Hingham, Norfolk.

I Ring their  Love of  Freedom


Bell Seven

Inscription is a copy of a bell in St. Margaret’s Church Tower, Norton Subcourse, Norfolk.

I Ring  their Love  of Truth


Bell Eight

Inscription is a copy of a bell in St. Andrew’s Church Tower, Norwich, Norfolk.

I Ring their Faith in God


Bell Nine

Inscription is a copy of a bell in St. Andrew’s Church Tower, Colney, Norfolk.

I Say unto You That Many Prophets and Righteous Men Have Desired to See Those Things Which Ye See, and Have Not Seen Them, and to Hear Those Things Which Ye Hear and Have Not Heard Them


Bell Ten

Inscription is a copy of a bell in the Tower of the Church of St. Peter and St. Paul, Lavenham, Suffolk.

I Charge You: Remember your Heritage


Bell Eleven

Inscription is a copy of a bell in St. Andrew’s Church Tower, Walpole, Norfolk.

I Prophesy the Time When the Earth Shall Be Full of the Knowledge of God as the Waters Cover the Sea