Historical bells in the Western Cape

7 October 2015

Tertius de Wet, Pieta van Deventer (both from the Department of Statistics and Actuarial Science, Stellenbosch University) and Jef Teugels (from the Department of Mathematics, Catholic University of Leuven, Belgium) have been doing research for a number of years on the cultural/historical, physical and acoustical aspects of bells in the Western Cape.

Tertius de Wet

Tertius de Wet

The overall purpose is to discover, document and disseminate that part of the South African/Western Cape heritage as portrayed through bells. Although the Western Cape is particularly rich in historical bells, these have not received much attention as a part of the heritage of the province.

During research field trips, pictures are taken of the bells and its surrounding places of interest, e.g. of the church where a church bell hangs. Where accessible, measurements are made of the physical properties of the bells and recordings are made of their acoustical properties. Background on a bell is researched in terms of its date of founding, name and place of the founder, background to the meaning of inscriptions on the bell, the reason for obtaining that specific bell or from that specific founder. Also, the historical “route” of a bell to its current location is often intriguing, e.g. some bells came from shipwrecks along our coast but ended up in a church or on farm.

The information and data thus collected, processed and analysed, is being used primarily in two ways. An inventory of bells has been developed and the SUNDigital storage system of Stellenbosch University is used as repository for it. In this way the information becomes more accessible, inter alia through internet (google) searches. Currently SUNDigital contains our bell information on the Cape Town CBD area, the Winelands district and the Overberg district. The inventory is of course dynamic and is being updated regularly as new information becomes available. Information on the other geographic areas of the Western Cape is being developed and will be added to the inventory once they become more “complete”.

A second use of the accumulated information is to serve as basis for the writing of academic papers. These papers cover a cultural/historical aspect of the research, e.g. our recent papers on the often forgotten but unique 39 bell carillon of the Cape Town City Hall and another on the bells on Moravian Mission stations. Another outcome of our research is that data are used to investigate and write on statistical aspects of the bells, e.g. analysing the acoustical quality of their sound or trying to identify unknown founders of bells, the latter similar to author identification of manuscripts.

One of the focus areas of our research is the Stellenbosch area, an area that contains a large number of bells in churches, on farms and at public buildings. Many of these are of historical value e.g. the one bell of the Rynse Kerk dates from 1664 (so far the oldest bell in the country), at the Elsenburg Agricultural College hangs an old VOC bell from 1729, on the Lanzerac estate is a bell dating from 1722 and at Nooitgedacht one from 1769. Each of these bells has a “story” to tell that needs to be “discovered”.

 

Although we have covered most of the obvious places where bells are found, especially churches and farms, we are well aware of the fact that there are still many bells “hidden away” in places other than the more well-known locations or perhaps lying forgotten in a loft on a farm. We would appreciate receiving information on any such possible places where bells could be found. This will definitely add to making the inventory as complete as possible.

Tertius de Wet can be contacted at tdewet@sun.ac.za or 073 633 7872.

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