A bell has begun ringing in downtown Williamsport recently – and it is one that has been silent for some time. The Lycoming County government maintenance department has repaired the bell in the tower at the courthouse by correcting some corrosion issues with the piston that rings the bell.
The hourly chime that you can now hear is really the sound of history. The bell that hangs in the free-standing tower on the plaza was made over 200 years ago – in 1804 – to be hung in the tower of the first courthouse, which was also built that year. According to the History of Lycoming County, Pennsylvania (edited by John Meginness in 1892), the cost of the bell was around $300, and it measures two feet four inches across the open end, is two feet high, and weighs between 500 and 600 pounds. It was hauled from Philadelphia in a wagon by Gen. John Burrows, one of the commissioners at the time.
“George Hedderly made me…”
The maker of the bell was George Hedderly, a bellfounder who emigrated to America from Nottingham, England, in 1793. The inscription around the top of the bell reads: “George Hedderly made me in Philadelphia, Anno Domini 1804.”
John Hedderly of Devon, England, has provided the following information about the bell maker George Hedderly, who is John’s distant relative (first cousin, six times removed).
George was born in 1755 in St. Marys, Nottingham, England. He was apprenticed as a framesmith in 1769, when he was 14 years old. (A framesmith was someone who made weaving frames. Nottingham was famous at that time for lace making.) He later worked with his father and brother, Thomas II, probably doing the frame building and bell-hanging work.
On the death of his brother, George found himself in charge of the foundry. Trade was not brisk and he resorted to regular advertisements in papers. After the death of his first wife, Hannah, he married a second time, to Sarah Sills in 1792. In March 1793, the son of George and Sarah – Francis – was baptised at St. Mary, Nottingham. Shortly thereafter, George disappeared from Nottingham and emigrated to America, leaving his wife and child in England.
In America, George formed a partnership with John Bailey, a New York artisan. On February 27, 1794, they placed an advertisement in the New York Daily Advertiser announcing the establishment of the ‘New York Bellfoundery’. By 1798, he had moved his business to Philadelphia, where he operated the foundry until his death in 1813. A number of bells that he crafted here in America are known to have survived:
- 1804 Raleigh, NC, courthouse bell
- 1804 Williamsport, PA, courthouse bell
- 1805 Hillsborough, NC, courthouse bell
- 1806 Old Swedes Church, Southwark, Philadelphia
- 1794 Sunbury, PA, courthouse bell, now hanging in the First Presbyterian Church, Sunbury, PA
- 1807 First Presbyterian Church, Trenton, NJ
Sights and Sounds of History
It is said that the county courthouse bell was rung so vigorously in 1815, on the reception of the news of peace at the close of the war of 1812, that it was heard a distance of eleven miles. We aren’t promising that you will hear the bell from eleven miles away, but stop by the courthouse around the top of the hour and you’ll hear the bell chime a bit of the past. You’ll also be able to see history – the Hedderly bell is easily visible hanging in the clock tower on the west side of the courthouse plaza on West Third Street in downtown Williamsport.
Information for portions of this article provided by George Dawson of Nottinghamshire, England (http://www.georgedawson.homestead.com/archaeology.html) and John Hedderly of Devon, England. Other information excerpted from History of Lycoming County, Pennsylvania, edited by John Meginness. Text written by Joan Blank for the June 2007, edition of “County News” – the quarterly newsletter for employees of Lycoming County, published by the Human Resources Office, County of Lycoming.
By Joan Blank