GONGS & TABLE BELLS & DINNER BELLS
Strategically placed in the hall, the gong summoned family and guests to meals; the servants were then called with a table bell.
The gong's tones are both sonorous and penetrating and can reach parts of a spacious home that no other device could hope to reach. Reverberating magnificently up and down stairs and round corners, the gong is a very practical attention-grabber.
Gongs have an ancient and versatile history. They have served variously as instruments of
striking courage into the hearts of troops who carried them (and terror, doubtless into those who heard them on the
march); as religious artefacts, sounded in temples through out the Far East; in place of a clock
or chimes they have been used to sound the hour in mosques and palaces; in
ceremonial contexts they have been used to herald an important person's arrival; and tuned gongs have
been played as musical instruments.
Gongs originated in the Orient. India, China and even Africa, all had their versions,
but the stronghold of gongs was the Southeast Asian archipelago. The word 'gong', imitative of the sound made, is Malayan; and
arguably the greatest adherents of the gong are the musical Burmese and Javanese.
THE TRADITIONAL GONG
Most gongs have a metallic plate or disc which is cast or
hammered with an upturned rim and suspended in a frame. It produces a resonant note
when struck with a beater or mallet, the heavy end of which is covered with felt or
leather. The usual brass alloy used is four parts copper to one of tin, somewhat less tin than
would be found in bell metal.
The wood of the frame rather depends on where the gong was made. It might be teak,
mahogany, rosewood or coromandel, though frame made in England tended to be of oak
unless they were in imported hardwoods. The size of gongs ranges from small hand-held
examples about l0cm / 4in in diameter through to somewhat larger table-top types and, finally, to
hefty, floor-standing models that may measuring more than 90cm / 3ft across.
The level of ornamentation often increases with size. Smaller gongs tend to be on the
plain side with possibly no more than a raised
boss, while larger ones are framed in all kinds of motifs, from Tudor to art nouveau. Some even include a representation of an elephant head, with the beater resting across the tusks.
The gong summoned family and guests to the table and, once there, the master or mistress of the house would use a table bell to call the servants. Table bells are small hand bells, which at their simplest have a wooden handle above a metal bell with a clapper.
The finest table bells are very attractive, moulded in a variety of metals from steel to brass or silver, perhaps with elaborate engraving or moulded designs. Novelty table bells in unusual shapes are of special interest.
TABLE BELL AND GONG COLLECTOR'S NOTES
Table bells and table gongs make attractive sideboard ornaments and are sold at antiques
shops fairs. Good examples occasionally turn up at less specialized venues, such as car
boot sales and jumble sales, and, although bargains can be had here, you should watch
out for recent reproductions. As always, it pays to really know what you are looking for.
Large, floor-standing hall gongs are less easy find because they are relatively large
and impractical for modern-day houses. They do appear in antiques shops and at antiques
fairs, and at specialist auctions, but perhaps the best bargains are to be had at country
clearance sales where good Victorian examples may fetch relatively little.
INTRODUCTION OF THE GONG
of the gong as a dinner bell may well have begun as a colonial custom. Instinct
suggests it was a vestige of the Indian Raj - and certainly the heyday of the gong was
Victorian, although it continued in wide use in the Edwardian period and between the wars.
However the custom started, gongs were in England in the early 19th century, as
the following complaint from 1816 confirms:
"I have had equal doubt concerning my dinner call; gongs, now in present use, seemed a
new fangled and heathenish invention."
The most sensible setting for the gong was at the foot of the main staircase, from where
its resonance might be most effectively distributed. In days gone by, the striker would be
the butler if the household could afford one; otherwise the task fell to one of the maids.
The gong, stand and beater of table gongs
might be entirely of metal - often brass or silver plate - but in hall gongs usually only the gong itself is in metal, supported from a solid wooden stand and struck by a wooden-handled, leather-headed beater. There is, nevertheless, considerable variation in hall gongs. The endless range of styles covered not only contemporary Victorian and Edwardian designs but also included popular historical fashions. There were, for instance, Edwardian gongs manufactured in the style of designers Adam and Sheraton.
Table bells for calling the servants are first recorded from the 18th century. Novelty bells
seem to have been introduced in the late 19th century. A very appealing example is a silver tortoise; when its tail is pressed down a buzzer sounds and its head nods up and down. A hallmarked pair in working order are not only amusing, they are also particularly valuable.
CHECK THE CONDITION
Apart from the need to be aware of late 20thcentury reproductions, there are few other problems when buying. If something is said to be of silver or gold, check the hallmarks. Look also at the general condition; the metal at the centre of the gong may be worn very thin and the head of the beater may need refurbishing. Check that table bells work; the clapper is sometimes missing and more complicated mechanisms may actually be broken.