The College Bell resides in the cupola of the Wren Building and is typically rung by graduating seniors on the last day of classes. The current bell is William & Mary's sixth.
The first College bell was acquired soon after the reconstruction of the Wren Building after the fire of 1705. In June 1716, the Visitors directed that "a bell of 18 inches Diameter at the Brimms" be ordered from England. It apparently arrived the next year, and thereafter its existence is well documented by eighteenth-century records. It is unknown what caused the bell to be replaced in 1839.
The English bell served until June 1839, when a new bell was purchased from the Tredegar Iron Works in Richmond. Student infractions around this time involved clandestine ringing of the College bell, often during the middle of the night. Consequently, just two years after being bought, the second bell cracked and had to be replaced. This event is recorded in the Faculty Minutes for July 5, 1841: "it appearing that the Turret Bell of the College was cracked and unfit for use, Profr Millington was appointed a Committee to confer with Tredegar Company who had furnished the same, and to make the best arrangement he could for having the Bell recast, and put in order before the opening of the next Session of the College."
However, a different foundry, for D.I. Burr & Co. was paid $60.80 in December 1841 for recasting the College bell.
Both replacements (the second and third bells) were evidently replicas of the 1717 original. Thomas Samson, a partner in D.I. Burr & Co., wrote the College in 1879 as follows:
"A good many years ago, when as a partner of the firm of David I. Burr & Co., I was one of the proprietors of the old Richmond foundry, the old bell of W.&M. College, which had been broken by some of the frolicsome students, from an undue strain to which the boys subjected it in having a good time in ringing it at midnight, to the serious detriment of the repose of more orderly of the matriculates and of the professors, was sent to me to be duplicated. Our directions were to recast the bell as nearly in facsimile of the original as we could attain, preserving the date, which was 1717, and the legend in raised letters, Knowledge is Power, which was done; the patterns for the work being cut by my own hands, whilst the casting was done by my partner, Mr. James Poe.
The bell supplied by me, I presume, fell victim to the flames which consumed the College building in 1859. If not I would be glad to be advised of its fate." A copy of this letter can be found in the Chronology--1876-1880 Subject File.
A fragment of a bell was found after the 1859 fire; however, it is unknown from which of the first three bells it came.
After the 1859 fire, the college purchased a new bell from Fairbanks & Company on April 6, 1859.
The fourth bell was presumably destroyed in the 1862 fire, though no record to that effect has been found.
Sometime around 1888 it was found that the fifth bell had cracked and that it needed to be replaced. The sixth and current bell bears the inscription:
BUCKEYE BELL FOUNDRY 1889
VANDUZEN & TIFT
The bell's iron supporting yoke has these words cast into it: MENEELYS ROTATING YOKE PATENTED 1868.
The current bell is larger than the original bell. It weighs about 650 pounds, is two feet-three inches tall and measures two feet-six inches in diameter. The bell and yoke are cast iron. The yoke is anchored to a wood frame and its wheel is also wood. During the Restoration, the bell was stored in a free standing box in the College Yard.
Today the bell can be rung by swinging a pull cord on the second floor or rung by a hammer by pushing a button on the third floor. A computerized mechanism can produce a steady toll (either every 3 or every 10 seconds) or cause the bell to ring automatically on the hour.
- Notes on the College Bell: Based in part on a report by Catherine Schlesinger
Material in the Special Collections Research Center
- Chronology--1876-1880, University Archives Subject File Collection, Special Collections Research Center, Swem Library, William & Mary.
- Office of the Bursar Records, Special Collections Research Center, Swem Library, William & Mary.
- Faculty Assembly Records, Special Collections Research Center, Swem Library, William & Mary.
- Bell Fragment, University Archives Artifact Collection, Special Collections Research Center, Swem Library, William & Mary.
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