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The hook in St John’s Street (2)

• The letter by Francis Formosa regarding the enigmatic hook in St John Street, Valletta made interesting reading (May 22) and the assertions made by the author are probably true. However, I feel uneasy regarding the campanological link stated therein. This anecdote has been passed on from one generation to another since time immemorial. I think it is about time to contest this assertion based on studies which I undertook on the subject of bell installation.

While it must be stated that the hook may have already existed before the St John’s Co-Cathedral main bell was installed I find it rather odd to consider that the hook was installed specifically to raise and install the bell.

The largest bell at St John’s ,which weighs seven tons and was cast in 1748 during Grandmaster Pinto’s reign, was not raised from the Merchant Street side but from the arch facing Republic Street. This is one of the reasons that deems the use of such a hook specifically for this purpose unlikely.

Another reason is that the installation of artillery and such heavy artefacts was done using rope block and tackle (buzzelli) in conjunction with a gantry made of two (normally wooden poles called grabja – similar to that installed on the Maċina building in Senglea.) The end rope of the tackle used to lead straight down towards the street level and diverted parallel to the street level by a pulley (pistega or pastjiega). The tail end of the rope would have been tied to something sturdy. However, the gradient of the road from St John’s towards the hook discourages the use of the hook for a bell-raising purpose.

A gang of men at ground level would have formed a long line behind each other, pulling the end tail of the rope (similar to a tug-of-war) with those at the end rushing again to the front to raise the load.

The most plausible route that the load bearers must have taken to raise the great bell was through Zachary Street, which has a better gradient than St John’s Street and is perfectly in line with a pulley installed in the ground to divert the direction of the pull.

Until the use of mobile hydraulic cranes in recent times, bell installation was a village event involving the strongest men to make up the much needed manpower. Such an occurrence happened in most of our parishes, probably the most notable being January 17, 1932 in Birkirkara where a bell slightly heavier than St John’s was raised in little less than an hour.

(The author is a campanologist, conservator and restorer of marble, stone and bronzes.

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