Saving Old North Church bells

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

''Listen, my children, and you shall hear/ Of the midnight ride of . . .''

Geoffrey Davies?

Unlike the patriot-hero of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's famous poem, Mr. Davies is not riding out to save a nation.

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Instead, he is in the waning hours of a crusade to save the bells in the tower of Boston's Old North Church - the same tower in which, on April 18, 1775, Paul Revere saw the twin lanterns that effectively signaled the beginning of the American Revolution.

And although Mr. Davies, who teaches chemistry at Northeastern University, is an Englishman, Paul Revere would probably have approved of his activities.

Not only did Revere's foundry manufacture bells, some 42 of which are said to have been identified; but Revere was himself a bell ringer at Old North Church. He signed a contract there in 1750, at age 15, to be part of the customary eight-man team that pulled the bell ropes on ''the first ring of bells cast for the British Empire in North America'' in 1744.

Those words, in fact, are cast into the 948-pound ''sixth'' or ''A'' bell of the eight-bell set. Of the 19 rings of bells known to exist in North America, these are the oldest - and, says Davies, the best. Cast by Abel Rudhall in Gloucester, England, they were so artfully designed that each one apparently required no further tuning.

Nor have they needed any since. ''The bells have not materially altered since 1744,'' says Davies, who also learned to ring changes at age 15 and now trains in the Boston area. Climbing the wooden stairs toward ''the trembling ladder, steep and tall'' that Longfellow described, he notes that these powder-gray bells predate the Liberty Bell by eight years - and that none of them is cracked. ''You're looking at a set of bells that are the equivalent of a Stradivarius (violin),'' he says.

But the bells have been largely silent during this century - a victim of benign neglect and the slow destruction caused by the rainwater that washes into the open belfry. Although the bells themselves are in excellent condition, the headstocks and clappers have deteriorated. So have the metal bearings, which were last replaced in 1845 and must be oiled constantly.

And when the bells are rung ''full circle,'' the wooden supporting frame moves dangerously - since, says Davies, ''there is 9,000 pounds of horizontal thrust in each direction when the bells are being rung.''

So Davies is spearheading a campaign to raise $100,000 to restore the bells. His plan calls for a strong steel frame as well as for lowering the bells deeper into the belfry. Then, he says, a watertight roof can be installed above them, with large trap doors which open to let the sound out - or close to keep it in when the bell-ringers are practicing.

A similar solution was used in 1976 in rehanging the bells at Boston's Church of the Advent, where Davies is ringing master. That project cost $56,000. Since there are no bell foundries left in America, it was carried out by the Whitechapel Bell Foundry in London. Whitechapel, the successor to Abel Rudhall's works, will also be asked to carry out the Old North Church project, which should take about three months to complete.

''These bells are the voice of this church,'' says Davies, who notes that they were purchased by a public subscription begun in 1743 that raised (STR)1, 200. Now, he says, the bells are worth millions of dollars - and are, in fact, irreplaceable, since the finer points of casting the copper-and-tin bell-metal alloy have disappeared.

''It's a treasure,'' agrees the Rev. Robert W. Golledge, the Episcopal vicar of Old North Church. ''One has a stewardship when you inherit something as important as this,'' he adds. The bells, he notes, have rung for every significant event in the nation's history since the repeal of the Stamp Act in 1766.

Now, however, the project has become ''very urgent,'' Davies says. Only one-quarter of the way toward his fund-raising goal, he needs to finish by Dec. 31. Why the haste? Because, he says, he wants the bells to ring on April 18, 1983 - which is not only the anniversary of Paul Revere's ride, but also the bicentennial of Gen. George Washington's declaration of peace between Britain and the United States on April 18, 1783.

When the work is done, there will apparently be no dearth of bell ringers. The art form has grown in recent years, Davies says, and the North American Guild of Bell Ringers now has some 400 members.

''The people of Boston are going to hear Paul Revere's bells,'' he says enthusiastically - adding that they will sound just as they did to the patriots.

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