A chime that changed the world sounded on 8 July, 1776. The Liberty Bell rang out from the tower of Independ-
ence Hall, in Philadelphia, summoning citizens to hear the first public reading of the Declaration of Independence, by Colonel John Nixon.
America was declaring its independence from the old country. But as it broke away, there were ironic echoes of the East End of London, which had given birth to one of the founders of the New World.
The Pennsylvania Assembly ordered the Bell from Whitechapel’s world-renowned bell foundry, in 1751, to commemorate the 50-year anniversary of William Penn’s 1701 Charter of Privileges.
Penn’s charter, Pennsylvania’s original constitution, speaks of the rights and freedoms valued by people the world over. Particularly forward thinking were Penn’s ideas on religious freedom, his liberal stance on native American rights, and his inclusion of citizens in making his laws.
William Penn had been born on Tower Hill in 1644 and, during the late 1660s, had attended Quaker meetings in a private house in Wheler Street, Spitalfields.
His opinions meant he was sent down from Oxford University and, in 1668, Penn was thrown into the Tower for criticising the Church of England, the first of three times he was thrown in jail for his non-conformist views.
In 1681 he at last escaped religious persecution in England, receiving a grant of territory in America, named Pennsylvania, after his father, Admiral William Penn. And there Penn signed his treaty with the Lenni Lenape Indians.
The treaty let the Quaker settlers build Philadelphia, the “City of Brotherly Love.” And in 1701 the Charter of Privileges was signed.
To commemorate the charter’s golden anniversary in 1751 the people of Philadelphia decided to commission a bell. And where better to commission it from than the East End that Penn had left 70 years before.
The Whitechapel foundry cast a bell which was swiftly shipped to the USA. But the first time it was rung the bell cracked. Its unusual weight, more than 2,080 pounds, could have been the reason, but John Pass and John Stow, founders of Philadelphia, quickly recast the bell – and ordered a replacement from the Whitechapel foundry.
The new bell arrived, but not before another problem was noticed. The bell-makers at Whitechapel had inscribed: “By order of the assembly of the province of Pensylvania.”
They may have spelt the state’s name wrong, but at least it now did the job. In 1753 the bell was hung in the newly-finished Pennsylvania State House, now called Independence Hall.
In 1777 it was removed from the city and hidden from the British occupiers of Philadelphia. Today visitors to the Zion Reformed Church in Allentown, Pennsylvania, can see where it was hidden, below the floorboards.
During the Civil War the bell became a potent symbol for Americans, when abolitionists of slavery adopted the bell as a symbol of a country cracked in two, between its black and white citizens.
The bell travelled to cities throughout the land “proclaiming liberty” and inspiring the cause of freedom.
And two centuries later, the Liberty Bell Pavilion was opened in Philadelphia, in preparation for the USA’s bicentennial celebrations in 1976.
Now, on every Fourth of July, the bell is rung (or symbolically tapped), in unison with thousands of bells across the United States.
One East Ender, who fled England and religious persecution, had been responsible for giving the USA a symbol of freedom from his homeland.