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What are redundant bells?

Redundant bells are bells that are no longer of use to their bell tower. This might happen for any number of reasons. While often the result of a congregation dismantling or a building scheduled to be demolished, it might also be the result of a religious structure converting for secular use. Sometimes, a set of new bells are ordered to replace existing bells that are out of tune, in want of restoration, or are a better fit for the needs of a community.

Redundant bells at the Basilica of Esztergom

Image: Redundant bells are collected in a garden for public viewing at the Primatial Basilica of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary and St. Adalbert, also known as the Esztergom Basilica, in Esztergom, Hungary.

Occasionally, old bells are smelted down to be used in recasting new bells, but most often redundant bells are left trying to find new purpose in life. Whether you call them redundant bells, surplus bells, second-hand bells, or unused bells, these bells are worthy of preservation, with plenty of opportunity to be recycled for new use. Our motto: bells should be rung, not just hung. That’s why we support efforts to not only care for bells, but also to keep them ringing in situ. Let’s take a look at how to process, plan, and repurpose redundant bells.

Section image: Bronze bells from the Church of Saint Anthony of Padua in Alberobello, Italy, hang in a temporary display below the belfry. A sign reads in Italian: “Please do not touch. Thank you.”

What to do with bells in a closing church or belfry.

Bells are more than just a building’s furnishings. They are the heartbeat of a community and an aural connection to the neighborhood. Their silence will be lamented by many. If you are the custodian of a bell tower or bell that has become redundant, the National Bell Festival can help guide you through the process of rehoming your bells.

Secure unused bells

First, consider the bells’ security in the interim period between closure and reuse or relocation. When a bell tower is closed, the unused bells are left vulnerable to theft and vandalism. Care should be taken to properly secure and monitor the belfry, so that the bells and bell tower do not become tempting targets of criminals, vandals, pranks, and dares. Alternatively, should the situation require, the bells could be relocated to a more secure facility or deposited with another institution for temporary safekeeping.

Thoughtfully consider a bell’s heritage and potential

Next, plan a path forward for the bells. Bells can last for centuries, ringing in good times and bad. They become an intrinsic part of the community. What will you do with these valued objects now that they have fallen under your stewardship? We recommend one of these scenarios, in order of descending preference.

  1. Whenever possible, bells should be kept in their original setting and regularly maintained and rung. Adjusting the ringing schedule or opening the tower for historical tours might better align the bells with the building’s new purpose.
  2. If the bells must be removed from the belfry for safety, structural, architectural, or other reasons, they should be rehoused for use in a purpose-built structure on the same grounds.
  3. If it is not feasible to relocate the bells for use on-property, the bells should be exhibited for public display in a protected location at ground level, with signage contextualizing the history of the bells. In this manner, the bells are available for lifting back into a tower at a point in the future.
  4. If it’s not possible to maintain the bells yourself, they should be repurposed for the benefit of the local community. Engage with community leaders to determine how to retain the bells and keep them serving the same neighborhood in a nearby location.
  5. If bells must travel outside their native community, then they should be sent to a new location with an understanding of provenance and all the guarantees afforded artifacts of equal age and significance. 

The motivation behind these recommendations is two-fold: to keep bells ringing and operable, and to ensure proper historical documentation and context. For additional background on giving bells purposeful use in a new setting, read our letter to the editor of The Economist.

Section image: The bell at All Saints' Church in Wrabness, United Kingdom, resides within a wooden cage, having been relegated to the churchyard after the bell tower collapsed in the 17th century.

Bell yes. Sell no.

Selling bronze for scrap or tossing bells into landfills should be avoided. If bell disposal is based on economic motives, there are alternatives to the auctioning of bells that should be considered.

  • Engage with your town council, business improvement district, or neighborhood association to find a local buyer for the bells. 
  • Facilitate a local fundraising drive to crowdfund the value of the bells for reinstallation in the community. 
  • Seek out specialist bell brokers and resellers, who are equipped to facilitate the safe relocation of a bell. 
  • Contact nonprofits, like the National Bell Festival, who are dedicated to the care and preservation of bells and who can help you find a suitable buyer.
  • Donate your bells to an accredited nonprofit organization, the value of which may be tax deductible.

Rings or sets of bells should be kept together and not dispensed separately. Whenever possible, the bells should be relocated complete with their original headstocks, wheels, clappers, and fittings.

The original 1936 Berlin Olympic bell on display outside the south gate of the Olympiastadion in Berlin

Image: The redundant 1936 Berlin Olympic bell on display outside the south gate of the Olympiastadion in Berlin.

Depending on the laws which govern your specific location, especially if the bells are of considerable age or historical significance, you may need to apply for permission to remove, sell, or otherwise dispose of the bells in your tower. Consult your area planning commission for advice on a case-by-case basis.

Section image: A few of the more than 90 church, school, rail, post, and ship’s bells dating between the 17th and 20th centuries on display within the Museum of Bells at Lubart's Castle in Lutsk, Ukraine.

Take action to save redundant bells.

If you know of a bell that needs a new home, give us a ring. We can provide guidance and support in planning, funding, rescuing, and reinstalling redundant bells. We like to get involved early, when the structure’s closure is likely or imminent, rather than too late when missteps or risks might already have been taken. Don’t leave a bell to languish. Help protect the history that hangs above us for future generations to study and enjoy.

Section image: A bronze bell with a deep verdigris patina, the third largest in a set mounted for swinging, hangs within a bell tower in the Netherlands.