London Olympics 2012 – Summoned by Bells?

At 08-12 tomorrow morning, anyone with access to any type of bell, from those on cycles to those in church towers, is encouraged to ring them ‘as quickly and as loudly as possible for three minutes’.  This is to form part of Work No. 1197, devised by Turner Prize-winning artist and musician Martin Creed and commissioned by the London 2012 Festival to mark the start of the Olympic and Paralympics.  Work No. 1197 is supported by Discovering Places, ‘the London 2012 Cultural Olympiad campaign to inspire the UK to discover their local historic, built and natural environment’, and its partner organizations include: the Olympic Lottery Distributor; the Mayor of London; the Big Lunch; the Churches Conservation Trust; and Discover Bell Ringing.


The ringing of bells has been of significance since Roman times, when they were used to announce special celebrations and processions.  Bells were rung across the UK to mark the end of World War II and, in the past, the bell at the Tower of London was rung as an alarm to warn of attack.  Writing in The Independent, A N Wilson observed ‘Church bells ring the soundtrack of Britain’, but whilst this may be characteristic of the country, they are neither designed nor capable of being rung ‘as quickly and as loudly as possible’ – the tenor bell at St Paul’s Cathedral is 61cwt.

Nevertheless, despite this and other minor quibbles, (‘why wasn’t it scheduled for 20-12 h’, ‘our team of ringers will be at work’), it will provide a clear signal that the games have started.  Whilst Betjeman might not have approved, he will have experienced a similar sound within his own parish church of SS Peter and Paul, Wantage – during the singing of the Gloria to mark the beginning and end of the Easter Triduum.

But what of the legal issues?  The law associated with church bells is well-rehearsed and the Church of England provides detailed Guidance for the 5200 churches in England with rings of five or more bells, and the others with closer to the minimum requirements of Canon F8: Of Church Bells.  However, unless they are ‘ring[ing] the people to divine service’ at 08-12 to 08-15, and are not rung ‘contrary to the direction of the minister’, (Canon F15: Of churches not to be profaned), no protection will be given by the Church’s ecclesiastical law, and the bells will be subject to the common law of nuisance, and the statutory nuisance provisions within the Part III, Environmental Protection Act 1990, as amended.  Furthermore, the Canons place joint liability on the incumbent and churchwardens in relation to the control of the church bells and bell-ringers.

Expressing his irritation at those who complain about bells, A N Wilson noted ‘[a] busybody’s work is never done’, but the issue in London may be whether the bells can be heard against the traffic noise.  To mark the publication of the Times Atlas of London, consultants 24 Acoustics were commissioned  to produce a new sound map of London to establish how far the sound of the ‘Bow Bells’ reaches in 2012 in comparison to 150 years ago.

Although noise mapping of this type is a component of the EU Environmental Noise Directive, Article 7 limits this to the ‘big, bad and the ugly, i.e. ‘all agglomerations with more than 250000 inhabitants and for all major roads which have more than six million vehicle passages a year, major railways which have more than 60000 train passages per year and major airports within their territories’.  The one-off assessment of church bells and similar nuisances is much more rudimentary, and the Guidance notes that at common law

‘[t]here is no prescribed or objective standard of what is, or is not, a permissible level of noise.  The test the Court will apply in deciding whether the level of noise constitutes a legal nuisance is the subjective test of the Court, guided by expert evidence’,

and under Part III EPA 1990

‘[i]t is not for witnesses, however expert, independent or impartial, to decide whether noise complained about constitutes an actionable nuisance whether at common law or under statute (R (on the application of the London Borough of Hackney) v Rottenberg) per Scott Baker LJ).  The subjective judgment is that of the court’.

The downloadable high resolution map produced by 24 Acoustics reveals that the zone in which Bow Bells can be heard has shrunk significantly since1851 when this extended from the City of London across Islington, Hackney and Tower Hamlets and into parts of Camden, Southwark, Newham and Waltham Forest.  However, as a consequence of traffic and other ambient noise, the chimes of St. Mary-le-Bow are only audible across a small area covering only the City and Shoreditch.  Without roads or aircraft, noise levels in London would have been similar to those in a rural location 20 to 25 dBA, but in 2012 these are typically in excess of 55 dBA.

Whilst canon lawyers will associate St Mary-le-Bow with the Court of the Arches, and pantomime-goers with Dick Whittington, the bells are also of significance to anyone wishing to call themselves ‘a Cockney’.  To qualify as a true Cockney one must be born within the sound of Bow Bells, and the new survey indicates that this is almost impossible.  There are now few residential properties within the parish, and the bells cannot be heard in the closest maternity wards – those of St Thomas’ Hospital, near Waterloo Station.  Unfortunately for would-be Cockneys, this is an area that would require a truly heroic interpretation of Article 8.


At 10 am on the following day, a full peal (i.e. over 5040 changes on seven working bells – about 4 hours of ringing) will be rung at St Paul’s Cathedral and Westminster Abbey and Southwark Cathedral.  The true sound of England, or merely a nuisance?

Cite this article as: David Pocklington, "London Olympics 2012 – Summoned by Bells?" in Law & Religion UK, 26 July 2012,

One thought on “London Olympics 2012 – Summoned by Bells?

  1. Pingback: Olympics 2012: Religion and Law Round-up | Law & Religion UK

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *