The Bells of St. Helen's - Cliffe History

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The Bells of St. Helen's

by Mike Rickard



This is the story of our bells and their journeys;   journeys to and from their makers in Leicestershire   separated by a century and a half; a journey through time as   they pass down the tradition of church bell ringing from   generation to generation of ringers and worshippers; and   also, by their involvement in church services they mark the   beginning of a journey into wedded life or the end of that   journey at a funeral.

The pealing of church bells plays a  part in most of our lives at some time and it Is important,   maybe even our duty, to play our part in ensuring the   continuation of a great tradition that has been entrusted to   us by our ancestors and passing it on for the service and   enjoyment of the community in the future.

Again, on   behalf of the current band of ringers, thank you for your   interest in our pastime and passion.

We hope you   enjoy the story of St Helens church bells.

Pictured From Left to Right:
Back Row: Jaspar Wright;   Mike Rickard. Middle Row: Bryan Boughton; Julia Boughton;   Wendy Sisterson; Lucy Wright; Beverley Slade; Georgia Hales;   Alan White.
Bottom Row: Jan Boughton; Lauren Hatcher.
Other current band members not pictured: Edna Hales; Jeff   Cowling; Chris Burdett; Craig Palmer.

There are churches in England that have had bells   since the 13th Century. Many (as here at St Helens) started   with a single bell that was augmented over the years by   adding one or two new bells at a time.

Originally bells   would have been attached to a wooden headstock, with wrought   iron spindles at each end suspended in bronze bearings. A   lever and rope attached to the headstock allowed the ringer   to swing the bell through a small arc, so that the clapper,   hanging freely inside the bell, struck it at its thickest   part near the lower edge. This style of ringing was known as   swing chiming and was the primary technique adopted for   several centuries.

Eventually it was realised that a bell   could be swung higher by replacing the chiming lever with a   quarter wheel. This not only increased the volume of sound   but also exhibited the tonal qualities of the bell.

This   principle was then further extended to the use of a complete   wheel, which allowed the bells to be swung in slightly more   than a full circle.

The now familiar basis of   English-style full circle ringing in which a set of bells is   rung in descending diatonic scale was now possible.

During the last couple of centuries church bell ringing has   evolved into a pursuit which, apart from serving the church,   develops a strong sense of community amongst its   practitioners and a fascination which often lasts for life   from the age of 9 or 10 years old.

Lauren, St   Helens' current youngest ringer.

The majority of   people will have heard the peal of bells ringing out across   the neighbourhood from the church. Some people hate the   “noise” because it disturbs their Sunday morning “lie in”.   Others find the sound beautiful and it has become an   integral part of celebrations for weddings and national   victories, sadness at deaths and funerals and especially the   summoning of worshippers to church on Sunday mornings.

In   some parishes the number of people who practice bell ringing   as a hobby that provides both physical and mental activity   is unfortunately decreasing.

Against this current trend,   we are proud of the fact that, at St Helens we are able to   attract many youngsters who consider church bell ringing to   be a wonderful and exciting pastime.

St Helens   band boasts ringers from a wide range of ages. (Pictured are   Alan, Georgia and Beverley)

Bell ringing is good   fun and you will always be welcomed to visit other towers as   part of the great network of bell ringers.

There are more   than 5000 church towers In the U.K containing bells suitable   for ringing and approximately 250 “peals” overseas, mostly   in other English speaking countries (Australia, Canada, New   Zealand, South Africa and U.S.A).

What’s more; learning   to ring is entirely free! All that is required is commitment   to regular attendance at the “band's” weekly practice and,   when proficient, at Sunday service ringing.

Wendy and Jan keep an eye onthe "changes"
Being taught to ring by experienced ringers takes the   form of two phases, the first being to learn to handle a   bell competently and safely. This stage may take anything   from a few weeks to six months according to an individual’s   aptitude and time spent in the tower. The second stage   involves the integration of the new ringer into “rounds”   with fellow members of the band. This normally takes a few   more months of concentrated effort at the beginning but the   learning process is never ending.

Lucy concentrates hard to leam a new skill under the   watchful eye of Jaspar.

The bells are rung manually   and rotate full circle. Each bell is operated by a rope   attached to the wheel on the supporting beam of the bell   itself and the ringer controls the bell on the balance at   the end of each revolution.

Church bells are large,   ranging in weight from a few hundred pounds to several tons   and a ring can consist of 4 - 12 bells. Bells are hung in   strong frames of either oak or steel that allows them to   swing through 360 degrees. The mechanism achieves such a   good balance that youngsters and older ringers are able to   control the largest bell with ease.

The usual arrangement   of bells in the frame is such that their ropes hang in a   circle in the ringing chamber below. Woven Into each rope is   a tuft of brightly coloured wool (the sally), which marks   the position where the ringer catches the rope while   ringing.

Bells are rung from the “mouth up” position and   with a pull of the rope, the bell swings through a full   circle to the “up” position again and with the next pull it   swings back in the other direction.

The practice of   church bell ringing is more precisely referred to as “change   ringing”, an English tradition started in the early part of   the 17th Century, which has changed little since its   evolution. Change ringing consists of ringing bells so that   the order in which they sound is systematically changed.

The Bells are tuned to a normal (diatonic) scale and it is   usual to start with ringing down the scale from the lightest   (treble) to the heaviest (tenor), a sequence known as   “rounds”.

Once a steady rhythm has been attained in   "rounds” the order in which the bells sound Is then altered   to give different sequences called “rows” or “changes”.

Changes may either be called out individually by the   conductor, a style known as call change ringing or   alternatively, made to a pre-set pattern known as “method   ringing”.

In the latter, each ringer must learn that   method in order to know when his or her particular bell must   sound in each row.

The sequence then returns back to   rounds to complete the session.

Call changes and a few   standard methods with interesting names such as “Plain Hunt”   and “Grandsire Doubles” are rung in most towers thus making   it easy for visiting ringers to join in with other bands.

As ringers gain proficiency with experience there are many   more advanced methods, which provide a continuing, challenge   over time.

The ultimate test for experienced ringers is   the ringing of “a peal” in which 5,000 or more changes are   rung without breaks or repeats and lasting for about three   hours.

The bell tower at St Helens is located at the west   end of the church and contains a ring of eight bells which   were cast by John Taylor Bellfounders in 1859/1860 at the   order of the Reverend E.H.Lee.

Prior to 1859 the tower   had contained a ring of six bells, one late Medieval bell   (the first recorded single bell, hung in 1585), three other   bells cast by Joseph Hatch in 1615 and 1630 and a treble and   tenor bell cast by John and Christopher Hodson In 1670 and   1675 respectively.

The metal from these original bells   was used in the making of a new ring of six, which left the   foundry by canal boat on Sunday 12th June 1859 (Whitsunday)   and was first rung on Monday 4th July of the same year.

A   new Oak bell frame was manufactured by John Taylor at the   same time and laid out for eight bells. Two new bells to   complete the octave were cast on 17th July 1860, although   for reasons unknown, they did not leave the works until   Saturday 7th December 1861.

The bells were subsequently   restored in 1923 by the now defunct bell hanging and bell   founding partnership of Alfred Bowell & Sons of Ipswich.

At this restoration the original wooden headstocks were   removed from the bells to facilitate the fitment of new   metal headstocks.

Bowell also turned each of the eight   bells presenting unworn surfaces of the sound bows (the   thickest part near the lower edge where the clappers hit the   bell).

The frame arrangement was also stiffened and   modified in order to provide better rope fall.

The   invoice for this work in 1923 was £190 with an additional   sum of £15 for the provision of chiming apparatus (a   separate campanile system allowing the playing of tunes on   the bells). The final cost of the current works is expected   to reach the staggering sum of £40,000!!!

It is interesting to bring the   history of each bell into focus by considering world events   that correspond with their individual installation dates.

1585 First bell (No. 3) by Giles Reve

                            •          Just   20 years following the introduction of the Potato into   Europe from South America

                            •         3 years   later the Spanish Armada were defeated by the English

1615 No. 5 bell by Joseph Hatch

                            •          5   years before the Mayflower arrived in New England

                            •          A   year later William Shakespeare died

1630 No. 2 &   No. 4 bells by Joseph Hatch

                            •          King   Charles II was born

                            •            Dutch art was at it’s height with exponents such as   Rembrandt and Rubens

1670 Treble (No. 1) by John   Hodson

                            •            Charles II of England and Louis XIV of France secretly   signed a treaty in Dover ending hostilities between their   Kingdoms

1675 No. 6 bell by John Hodson

                            •          Just   12 years before Isaac Newton’s book Principia was published   containing theories that continue to shape our    understanding of the laws of Physics today

                            •          The   construction of the Royal Observatory at Greenwich began as   Charles II laid a foundation stone

1859 6 No.   bells recast by John Taylor

                            •          Big   Ben’s bell was activated

                            •            Charles Darwin’s book Origin of the species published

1861 2 No. new Trebles by John Taylor

                            •            Charles Dickens wrote the novel Great Expectations

                            •          The   outbreak of the American Civil War

                            •          2   years later the first underground railway opened in London

1923 Refurbishment by Alfred Bowell

                            •          Just   3 years after the first general radio broadcasts in UK and   USA

                            •          1   year before the death of Lenin

On Wednesday 7th August 2002 an engineer from John   Taylor Bellfounders undertook a full survey of the bell   frame, bells and fittings.

John Taylor was the company   that recast the original six bells from the tower in 1859   and added a further two in 1860.

The oak frame itself, as   installed in 1859 and strengthened in 1923, was found to be   in sound condition and the engineer stated in his report   that “ I consider that the bell frame has many years of good   life in it yet".

It was simply recommended that the frame   timbers be thoroughly treated with an appropriate   preservative containing both insecticide and fungicide   therefore guaranteeing longevity of the timber members.

The following illustration shows the primary parts of a   typical bell arrangement as a means of identifying each   appropriate recommendation made by the engineer.

a - Headstock b - Stay c - Up of bell d   - Blocks e - Wheel f - Groove g - Garter hole h - Clapper I   -Slider k - Cannons I - Frame m - Gudgeons n - Sound bow

John Taylor Identified that the design of headstock   installed in 1923 created problems In terms of balance of   the bells, connection of the clapper assembly and tightness   of bolt assemblies.

This arrangement also meant that   significant bending and shearing forces were placed upon the   bell bolts.

The gudgeons and bearings (the pivots upon   which the bells turn) showed evidence of working loose and   leaking oil.

Whilst these symptoms were considered to be   normal wear and tear after an intervening period of 80   years, they were nevertheless, expected to lead to a   relatively rapid deterioration in the quality of striking   and swing of the bells.

All of the clappers were   flattened and starting to laminate after many years of wear   and the crownstaples (the parts securing the clappers to the   bells) were similarly wearing.

The rope pulleys were worn   and the action of the ropes over the years had formed   grooves in the timber pulley wheels, which resulted In   increased friction during ringing and thereby affected the   action of the bells.

The wheels had also been replaced by   Alfred Bowell In 1923 and were described by Taylor's   engineer as being “a little crude and of an unorthodox   profile’'.

Each of the sliders and their tracks were   reported as being worn at their ends and congealed through   grease and oil, which had exuded from the gudgeon bearings   and fallen upon them.

One of the bells in need of a little refurbishment.

As a result of the foregoing observations John   Taylor’s engineer concluded that....”although the bells are   by no means in an un-ringable state, I am quite certain that   the condition of their fittings and particular the bearing   assemblies means that they are going to deteriorate on a   relatively rapid basis over the next 5-10 years. The church   therefore, needs to consider a major restoration project”

The engineer recommended that the eight bells be removed   from the tower and transported to the bell foundry to   provide the following restoration;

(i)       Turning of the bells to present unworn surfaces of their   sound bows to the blows of the clappers.
(ii)      Tuning of the bells to set them into a proper scale   relationship and to enable the tones of the bells to be   released resulting in “a more musical aspect”.

It was   further recommended that new hollow box section cast Iron   headstocks of curved section be fitted to the bells to bring   their centres of gravity nearer to the pivot points.

The   gudgeons and bearing assemblies were recommended for   replacement by heavy duty, self-aligning ball bearing   assemblies utilising sealed lubricated units.

Other   fittings recommended for replacement were timber elements in   the

form of: -
(i) Hardwood wheels
(ii) Stays
(ill) Sliders
(iv) Rope rollers working on sealed ball bearings and boxed in to protect   the bell ropes.
These recommendations indeed   represented, as John Taylor’s engineer reported, “major   restoration” of the bells and fittings.

However, the   project would mean that further (and possibly irreversible)   deterioration of the bells would be halted and ensure the   passing on of the long tradition of church bell ringing at   St Helens church to future generations in the parish.

Following the engineer’s report It was agreed to   include refurbishment of the bells In the SHINE (St Helens   Is Never Ending) £300,000 fundraising project set up to   facilitate major repairs to St Helens Church.

Thanks to   the tireless efforts of SHINE and generous donations from   kind benefactors the PCC were eventually able to announce   that the refurbishment could proceed.

The final rounds   before removal of the bells were rung out across the Parish   on Sunday 5th March 2006. The following week saw enabling   works being carried out by members of the band of ringers In   the bell tower to allow the bells to be removed.

At 9.00   a.m. on Saturday 11th March 2006 a team led by the Bell   Restoration Sub­committee of the Kent County Association of   Change Ringers and aided by a number of local volunteers   commenced the removal of the bells.

Bryan   Boughton, the Band’s Captain prepares the bells for removal.

Starting with the tenor bell (being the largest   and heaviest), the bells were hoisted clear of their   mountings by means of chains and blocks suspended from   timber beams in the roof of the tower. Each bell was then   gently lowered down through hatches in the floors of the   Bell Chamber, Clock Chamber and Ringing Chamber   respectively.

The tenor bell is lowered through   the hatch of the Bell Chamber.

Finally, at around 11.00   a.m. a packed St Helens gasped as the tenor bell descended   through the ceiling of the ground floor beneath the tower   for the first time in a century and a half.

All those   congregated in the church and those involved in the removal   of the bells realised that they were witnessing history in   the making.

Excited onlookers watch the last few feet of   the bell’s descent.

Each bell was lowered   onto wooden pallets and removed by pallet handler through   the large north door of the church. Each bell that is except   the tenor, which was too big to go through even this huge   door!

Following a great deal of deliberation a   plan was devised to raise the pallet assembly so that the   tenor bell could be raised above the steps leading to the   porch and out through the main entrance to the church.

Some delicate skilful manoeuvring of the pallet handler from   Inside and a forkllft from outside of the church eased the   bell through the porch gates with no more than half an inch   to spare.

The forkllft removed each individual bell to a   truck and then to Buckland Farm to await transportation to   the John Taylor bell foundry.

A bell sees daylight for   the first time in 150 years.

The Tuesday following their removal saw the eight   bells on the road travelling back to their makers utilising   a slightly different mode and speed of transport than when   they first came down to Cliffe.

Rolling up the M1 on a   diesel-powered lorry organised by Shepherd Neame, the   journey would have taken a matter of a few hours (even   allowing for the M25I).

Back in 1859 the reverse journey   commenced from John Taylor’s works by canal boat.

John   Taylor Bellfounders continues a line of bellfounding that   has been unbroken since the middle of the 14th Century, when   a Bellfounder called Johannes de Stafford was active only 10   miles from the site of the present foundry.

Since 1784   the business has been in the hands of the Taylor family and   is now proud to operate the largest bell foundry in the   World.

John Taylor settled in their current   premises in Loughborough in 1859 and the St Helens Bells   were In fact the first bells cast at the new foundry.

Everyone at John Taylor therefore, considered St Helens   bells to be the “Stars of the Show” upon their return after   150 years.

This interesting fact came to light during a   visit to the foundry by members of the bellringers and   congregation on 4th May 2006.

Jill and Robert greet the   “Stars of the Show” during a visit to the foundry.

Products made in the John Taylor Bellfoundry have been   exported all over the World and the largest bell in Britain,   “Great Paul” at St Paul’s Cathedral in London and weighing   In at 17 tons was cast in Loughborough in 1881.

In   comparison, St Helen’s heaviest bell, the tenor, might be   considered a “lightweight” but still tips the scales at 14   cwt or approximately three quarters of a ton.

Whilst the   bells were away members of our band of ringers carried out   preparation of the bell frame and Ringing Chamber.

The   bell frame has been cleaned and treated with preservative in   order to ensure its integrity for another 150 years and the   Ringing Chamber will be re-decorated for the first time   since 1973.

Visitors from St Helens Church at the foundry

With the bells returned and shortly to be heard   ringing across the parish again one may reflect on the   fantastic achievement represented by the refurbishment.

A   major project of this kind does not happen without the   involvement of many people and a record of events such as   this booklet represents would be Incomplete without   acknowledging their generosity.

Many individual and   corporate benefactors have kindly donated funds and the fact   that you have purchased and are reading this means that you   are one of those.

Others have given their time and   efforts towards the organisation of numerous ingenious   fundraising schemes over many years.

Some have helped to   keep the costs of the project to a minimum by assisting with   the removal, preparation for and re-installation of the   bells.

Without all of these folk the project   could not have taken place and the bells of St Helens may   have deteriorated to a condition where they would have been   unringable. However, in acknowledging the magnificence of   the current project, one should also express gratitude to   the bellringers and church members of past generations.

This current refurbishment, as we have read, Is not the   first project that has been carried out to allow the   tradition of church bell ringing to continue at St Helens.   Indeed, the 1859-1861 project would have represented an even   greater physical and financial challenge to the parish.

The legacy of our former peers has been passed down to us   over more than 400 years and everyone Involved in this   project can be proud that our bells may now continue to ring   out to the glory of God for many generations to come.

© 2006, Mike Rickard
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