Fairy bells

According to Anthony Baines, in The Oxford Companion to Musical Instruments (1992), the fancifully named instrument, the fairy bells, first appeared in 1864. Advertisements in newspapers, however, only began in 1871. See Fairy bells in British newspapers.

The first advertisements, in London newspapers, were placed by the firm of R.W. Cook and Co. One of the advertisements, from the Daily Telegraph and Courier (London) 27 October 1871, declares:

'FAIRY BELLS, FAIRY BELLS.- these instruments, the greatest novelty of the age, are admired by all who hear them. Any one can at once produce enchanting imitations of a peal of  bells; other tunes can also be played. No wedding, garden, or water party should be without one. Price 10s 6d each. R.COOK and CO., 133 Fenchurch-street.'

10-string fairy bells.

Here is one of the instruments made by R.W. Cook and Co. Unlike the 18th century instruments, the fairy bells instrument has single strings rather than triple or quadruple courses. Piano wire is used rather than the lighter brass and steel strings used for all wire instruments in the 18th century and earlier.

The fairy bells is designed to be swung and it has the curious left-right then right-left ascending scale. It is a swung zither but it is not accurately described as a bell harp because it was widely known for decades by the name it first had in 1871. (See Fairy bells in British newspapers). The name 'fairy bells is actually written on this instrument and a man and a woman are depicted as they swing the instrument.

This is a 10-string model and probably the most common kind. The notes can be seen:

C D E F G and E D C B A

The scale goes at first from left-right and then, from the outside right it continues inwards, right-left.

Unlike the 18th century instruments the tuning pins are not at the playing end. They are on the opposing diagonal planks that  can be seen through the cut-outs in the top of the instrument (see also the photograph below).

The strings pass over the 'hitch pin' plank or bridge and fasten on to screws (not visible in this photo).  On some instruments, like this one, the bridge is carved so that the outer strings have a slightly longer string length. This is simpler than having two angled bridges but it hardly seems necessary. On other designs the bridge is not carved and sometimes there is a thin metal strip acting as a 'saddle' for the strings to pass over.

Another fairy bells (anon).

The name, fairy bells, is obviously  whimsical and plays on the idea that a mere box of wires is actually a collection of bells. Sometimes, as a conceit, the instrument is referred to as a set of fairy bells. 

These are typical dimensions: overall length, 65 cms width, 16.5 cms and depth,5.8 cms. Maximum string length, 55.5 cms and minimum string length, 24 cms.

The construction is very simple, an oblong box with tuning pin planks and a hitch pin plank or bridge, often of beech, glued and screwed to the back. On this instrument the lid slots into grooves in the sides. This makes it easy to remove to replace the strings but it is not very satisfactory as a design. Even though the top fits quite tightly it is prone to rattle obtrusively when played. Most fairy bells have tops that are pinned or screwed on.

Here is a close up of one of Cook's labels. The instrument is to be swung, or even waved, when played, and not merely swung to and fro.

R.W. Cook fairy bells.

Perhaps the first thing that anyone would play on the fairy bells would be 'rounds'. In bell ringing, playing 'rounds' is where the ringers play a downward sequence from the smallest bell the largest. In other words, a downward scale. On the fairy bells, the player simply has to sweep from the middle to the right with the right thumb and the middle to the left with the left thumb. If the instrument is waved about, the result really does sound strangely like the sound of bells, or the sound of bells at a distance.


With a bit more practice the fairy bells player could learn the Westminster Chimes. In fact, the Westminster Chimes was probably played thousands of times over the years, even in professional performances. These, and other little novelties, might seem very meagre to us today but there exist versions of 'rounds', Westminster Chimes, 'firings' (playing all the bells at once) set for concertina, dulcimer and mandolin and very probably in imitation of fairy bells performances.

From a poster advertising Bros Webb, Greatest Musical Clowns, Jojo and Rute. Many thanks to Ian Summers for sending me a copy of this poster. The instrument is not simply swung, but waved and rotated.

The Till Family on tour in America

Many thanks to Dr Michael Till  for sending me this, and other, photographs of his ancestors, the Till Family, who toured Britain and America with their 'rock harmonicon', a giant lithophone. As well as the 'rock harmonicon' the Tills played other instruments, including the fairy bells. This photograph was taken for promotional purposes when the Tills were in America and they used the name 'swinging harps', rather than fairy bells.

Even on a 10-string instrument with a range of only a tenth, there are many familiar tunes that can be played. In concerts and entertainments (amateur and professional) the instrument would often have had an accompaniment of some sort from a piano or other instrument(s). 

Although the instrument is very simple, it has an unusual sound and a very unusual way of producing that sound. A large part of the pleasure of a fairy bells performance would have been the theatrical aspect, the movements of the performer swinging an oblong box in the air, and, probably, with accompanying well-rehearsed stage 'patter'.

 A Dictionary of Musical Terms Eds. Stainer and Barrett London (1876):

'all that is necessary is prehensile power and strength of wrist...'

'One instrument of the harp kind, called the "Bell-Harp," was in constant use in the time that Hoyle wrote [i.e. John Hoyle, Dictionarium  Musica 1770] and has not completely disappeared in the present day. No great skill is required to perform upon it, all that is necessary is prehensile power and strength of wrist...The fingers of each hand grasp the body of the box, leaving the thumbs free to strike the strings. The player swings the instrument as he strikes, producing the effect of the sound of a peal of bells borne on the wind'. 

This is an interesting early reference to the fairy bells from 1876. It was understandable then, in the mid 1870s, that this novelty instrument was understood as simply a new version of the older bell harp and that the new name, and new design, was a marketing strategy by R.W. Cook and Co. But the name  fairy bells' caught on and was widely adopted for decades. For a very short while the instrument was also called the Oxford chimes and very rarely the term 'bell harp' was used for this fairy bells instrument.  Yet scholarly sources persist  with the idea that the fairy bells is 'really' a bell harp. For example:

MIMO, Musical Instrument Museums Online, "bell harp"

Europeana website 

See Fairy Bells in British Newspapers for many references to the fairy bells over many decades. 

Finally, what was behind the introduction of R.W. Cook and Co.'s fairy bells in 1871?  And why choose to call this new form of swung zither, fairy bells?

Unfortunately there are currently no answers to these questions. It has been suggested that Mr Marpham, the bell harp player in Norfolk in the 1890s  (see Players and Music in the 18th century) might have been part of a tradition of bell harp playing that carried on in rural areas throughout the 19th century and re-surfaced in the fairy bells. But, as yet, there is no evidence at all for this, there just seems to be 70 years with little or no interest in swung zither instruments.

The 'bell harp' made by Zumpe in the Kunitachi College of Music, Collection for Organology (See Kunitachi) is dated c1780 and looks very like a small fairy bells and very unlike the bell harps and English harps of that time. If it is a genuine 18th century instrument then it could have acted as the model for the fairy bells. 

The name 'fairy bells' doesn't seem to have been concocted to appeal to children and the advertisements don't target children. A fairy bells instrument about 65cms long  would be rather large and unwieldy for a child. 

It's not easy to see any kind of link with the interest in folk and fairy tales in the second half of 19th century Britain. The R.W. Cook and Co. advertisements don't exploit the 'fairy' aspect at all. The fact that the instrument can sound like bells is the most important thing, and beyond that, its selling line is that it's a fun thing to have at a party. Perhaps the name can be associated with the 19th century interest in nonsense and whimsy.

(The famous case of Arthur Conan Doyle and the fairy photographs are from half a century later in 1920).