18th Century Robert Wells Bells – all found in America

A collection of 18th century bells by the Robert Wells Foundry in Aldbourne, Wiltshire, England. The bells were found in various locations over a period of years in Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Maryland and likely made their way to America during the country’s early years.

In this collection are nine bells – two that have been given ‘make-do’ handles  and used as hand bells, one hame box with four ‘matched’ bells, and a set of three boxed bells used on a coach, carriage or large wagon.

Robert Wells hand bellOne rarely finds bells with makers marks, and this bell is marked inside with “WR” (rather than “RW”). Bells are cast individually and any initials must be reversed in the mold in order to come out properly in the finished casting. Because of this, it is not unusual to find initials reversed. The wood handle on this bell has been attached with a large bolt and has good age. Remnants of blue paint remains on the handle, and high inside of the bell there are remnants of red paint.

Inside hand bellIn the above photo of the inside of the bell you can see the red paint remnant and the raised cast letters “WR” (should be “RW”) for Robert Wells. Also clearly visible is a deeply grooved ring where the iron clapper has hit the side of the bell for over 200 years. Perhaps during the Centennial in 1876, this ‘old bell’ was painted red, white & blue for use in a parade or other Centennial celebration. There is no number impressed on the shoulder of the bell, as some later Robert Wells hand bells had, and the appearance of the bronze suggests that this is an earlier bell casting. The bell, including handle, measures eight and a half inches high. The bell itself is four inches to top of the crown and measures just over three and a half inches across the bottom.

Robert Wells handbell

This bell, also marked with “WR” rather than “RW”,  is slightly larger than the other Robert Wells hand bell and has a rather unique ‘make-do’ handle attached – the handle of an 18th century reaping hook (the large gracefully curved tool used to harvest with). A blacksmith has cut off the long curved metal blade of the reaping hook, leaving the top thicker one inch of the blade where it enters the handle. He then split the blade remnant into two parts (like a sandwich) and attached it to the top, or crown, of the bell with an iron pin.  The remaining metal of the reaping blade goes all the way through the handle (becoming narrower as it goes towards the top) and exits the top of the handle where it is then bent over, making a very sturdy handle. There is an early-style letter “A” carved into the handle – most likely the owner’s initial. Again, the condition of the bronze, including a subtle horizontal zig-zag pattern in the bronze, suggests an earlier casting. This hand bell, including handle, measures ten inches high. The bell itself is just over four and a half inches high to the top of the crown and is four and one quarter inches across the bottom.

Robert Wells hand bell markAbove is a photo of the “WR” (reversed “RW”) mark for Robert Wells inside the larger hand bell. The “mark” has been placed lower than in the first bell, and although still very readable, the deeply worn groove where the clapper hits has worn away the very bottom edge of the mark.


set of four matched coach bells

The above is a “Hame Box” with a set of four matched bells (shown above from the back side) firmly affixed with their crowns set into a rectangle of wood and held by iron pins. The bells are   protected from the elements by a heavy leather covering or housing which appears to be the original leather housing. They do not, and are not meant to, swing freely – they ring in unison as the “box” moves from the movement of the horse, which is why the bells are ‘matched’ – to create a pleasant full tone/sound when they all ring. The bells and their “box” are mounted on two supporting iron rods that are shaped to fit onto a fitting on the hame of a horse pulling a larger coach, carriage, or wagon. These bells are larger and heavier, and have a louder and fuller sound, than the much smaller “Conestoga wagon” bells that one sees. Each of these bells is of a different size and has a different tone. The largest bell in this set measures five and one half inches across at the bottom.

view showing all four bells View of the “box” from below so bells can be seen (front view)

mark inside coach bell

The “RW” mark is inside the end bell only

The initials “RW” are only cast inside one of the bells in the set – the bell on the far left of the photo above. These bells are cast in latten and are fairly blackened with age. The leather is attached at the top with a row of rose head scuppers, or nails. You can see remnants of an additional narrow strip of leather that ran around the top under the nails, most of which has, by now, worn away. The  ”box” is eighteen and one half inches long.


A matched set of three larger bells with their crowns mounted into a rectangle of wood (as the previous bells are) and partially enclosed by a heavy leather housing. Although it appears to have been a while ago, it is easy to tell this set has had the leather housing replaced – the original housing probably having been deeper to better protect the bells from the weather. Rather than strong iron rods that fit onto holders on a hame, as the previous set of  hame bells had, this set has two thick leather straps, adjustable by a buckle, by which the “box” would hang on a coach, carriage, or large wagon. The straps are much older than the replaced housing leather – whether they are the original straps is not known. The three different sized bells are fairly large, are cast in latten, and have a robust full sound.  The largest bell measures just under six and a half inches wide at the bottom. Each of the bells in this set is marked with “R WELLS” cast into the inside. The housing “box” measures twenty inches long.