Parkinson Tower’s hidden secrets – the history of the bells and its current residents

As focus is inevitably drawn towards the University’s ambitious capital investment projects, including Nexus and the Sir William Henry Bragg Building, it’s easy to forget that the University of Leeds is home to a number of iconic buildings that have helped support such a high standard of research and teaching on campus. The most iconic of these must surely be the Parkinson Building (the location of which much of Sir William’s work took place)

The recognisable building can be seen from across the city (and features in the University’s logo) – the view of the city and beyond, from the top of the tower is incredible.

The Portland Stone building was designed by Thomas Arthur Lodge. It took 13 years for the building to be complete and open due to World War II. Construction started in 1938 and during the war the building was used as a Ministry of Food storeroom – it was not opened as a University building until 1951. The Grade II listed art deco building stands at 57 metres tall and was named after a major benefactor of the University, Frank Parkinson, who oversaw many new build projects from 1936 onwards.

When the bells were installed in the tower in 1953, there were doubts around using synthetic chimes, it was agreed upon that imitation chimes were out of the question. A chime of four bells was installed with a tenor bell having a pitch no higher than A-flat. The four bells, costing £1,863, weigh nearly 33 cwts (264 stone).

An original chime was composed and it was agreed that the chimes “should be obvious rather than complex, tuneful rather than attempting any particular melody and should imply the simplest of harmonies” and that they shouldn’t be reminiscent of the Westminster Bells in any way.

Professor Denny from the University’s School of Music recorded several compositions, the series to be approved is known as the ‘Leeds Quarter’.

At the first quarter hour they play: – G A D B G – 5 notes

At the second quarter they play: – G B A D B A G A B G – 10 notes

At the third quarter they play: – B A D G B A D B A B D G A D B G – 16 notes

At the hour they chime: – G B A D B A G A B G A D G B A D B A B D – 21 notes

The clock mechanism is serviced twice a year, along with other tower clocks at the University (Leeds University Business School, Devonshire Hall and the Brotherton Library) by Smiths of Derby. The exterior of the tower is cleaned and the masonry is checked every 6-10 years, in 2012 it was scaffolded, cleaned and re-pointed – the hands of the clock on all four sides of the tower were removed and the clock mechanism was overhauled at the same time.

A recent visit to the tower was not to check on the masonry or the clock, however, but to check on the habitat of one of its residents. The University’s Sustainability Team have installed a box camera in the tower to observe and encourage breeding in a listed species of bird that has taken an interest in nesting in the tower over the last five years. Peregrines (latin name Falco peregrinus) normally like to nest on rocky outcrops on moorland, however, due to urbanisation, they are increasingly found in cities.

The vantage point of Parkinson Tower makes it an ideal location to nest for the peregrines (they previously had an interest in the dome of the civic hall!) The box and camera were installed in 2014 however, the birds chose another alcove leading to an unsuccessful attempt at breeding. Now that the box and camera have been moved, it’s hoped that the birds will nest this year.

Watch this space for more on the peregrines and with luck, a live feed of the box camera where we hope they will nest and breed from this year!

Notes:

  • Any works on the tower are completed outside of the nesting season to avoid disturbance of the peregrines (in line with legislation).
  • The peregrines are a schedule 1 listed species under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981.
  • They have a wingspan of 95-115cm and there are known to be 1,500 breeding pairs in the UK.
  • Thank you to Ripon and Leeds Bells for the published information on the Parkinson Tower, written by Chris Nicholson, retired from the University’s Estates Team.

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