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Widecombe History Group - The Widecombe Bells Project


A talk given by Rev Preb John Scott on the history of the Widecombe Church Bells on Thursday 8th June 2000.

Please also have a look at some pictures.

Rev Derek Newport introduced John Scott, Exeter Diocesan Bell Advisor, to the gathering in the church where all six bells were on display at the rear of the church. Also on exhibition were the three old bell clappers recently donated to the church by the family of the late Lady Sylvia Sayer.

Derek started by stating that early that morning there were no bells to be seen but during the day they had all appeared and thanked the Local History Group for having the idea for the evening and inviting John Scott to come and share his knowledge.

Preb Scott told us that he had first rung the bells in this church 50 years ago. They are a beautiful peal of six.

He then produced a model to demonstrate how bells are made. Church bells are cast and that means heating the metal until it is liquid and pouring it into a mould in which it sets. It is cast from a material known as �Bell Metal� (22% tin and 78% copper). It is quite possible that the tin in these bells is local to the area and the copper would have been brought here by pack-horse and then the casting done here in the village. The three oldest bells most certainly being cast here as it was easier to bring the raw material to do the job in situ, than to attempt to transport the finished article. In those early days wheels were not used so only the raw material that was not available locally would be brought and as much locally available produce used and the work done on site. The bellfounder would arrive with the bare minimum of equipment and would set up his foundry in the churchyard or, as in the case of this parish, the field nearby known as The Brick Field. First he would dig a pit with a brick foundation according to the size of the bell he would cast, then make a core the size of the inside of the bell with loam, a mixture of clay and horse dung, and this would be shaped with a board, like a template, to make the shape and size he planned, this would be covered with tallow or blacklead so that the next application would not stick to the core. Using a mixture of clay and hay or straw, he would make a full size model of the bell and any lettering or decoration would be set on the outside of this model. Coating this with tallow and then making over it an outer mould known as a cope, bound with hoops or rope. This then had to be made completely dry so he would light a fire and bake it to drive out all the moisture. Lifting the cope off, the model bell will come off with it. This is removed, the cope replaced and so he has the space between the two layers, the mould, which will become the bell when the metal is poured in, he also makes the mould for the head which includes the loops from which the bell will be hung. He will have built a furnace nearby with a large bowl in which to melt the metal with a channel to carry the molten metal into the mould, he would then knock out a plug in the bowl and the metal would run into the mould. After it had cooled the mould would be broken up and there would be the new bell.

The bell when rung swings through a complete circle and that helps the ringer to control the bell in particularly when ringing changes, in the early days they used half or threequarters of a wheel so the bell did not swing so far.

Towers are built with wide walls at the bottom gradually getting thinner as they go up . The frame for the bells would be mounted on a ledge on the inside of the tower, as there was less thrust on the tower above bell level, there was no need for the walls to be so thick. Above this level there would be the openings and louvres for the bells to �speak� out of. The last time the bells were rehung in Widecombe Church, the beams were brought further down the tower and the beams were fixed into holes made in the walls of the tower and that has caused some of today's problems. When they rested on the ledge the air could circulate around the wood so helping to keep the wood dry, as the wood was in the walls and the granite lets the water in, there was insufficient ventilation so the wood remained wet most of the time and so the rot set in! Now the new frame will be made of galvanised steel and this should prove longer lasting and ultimately financially better for the church.

The earliest record we have of the bells was just after the reformation under Edward VI, this being the 16th century, when many of the church artifacts were confiscated by the crown, an inventory was made of all the church bells. There was an order that all the bells except one in Devon were to be confiscated, all they did was take away the clappers and then sell them back to the churchwardens by way of a fine. Four bells were recorded in Widecombe Church, one little bell in St Leonards Chapel at Spitchwick, and one little bell at the Chapel of St Peter�s, where was that? Those four remained until 1632 when they were recast by Thomas Pennington of Exeter. He was born in Barnstaple where he and his father had been working and in 1625 he moved to Exeter, close to the old city wall. In 1718 the firm ceased to be involved with bellfoundry work. Before the reformation there were many �guilds� attached to the church , the main ones the churchwardens, and guilds to various saints, then there were tinners guilds, womens guilds, young mens guilds and maidens guilds and so on. After the reformation there were still certain people who would take on similar responsibilities, today's chairman of the Young Farmers Club would be a modern equivalent!

Bell number 3 is of particular interest because if you read the inscription - John Hamlyn, son of John Hamlyn of Chittleford, gathered from the young men and maids the sum of �15. John Hamlyn was about 22 years old, so he must have been quite a leader of the young of the parish, and �15 was quite a lot of money in 1632, -- after the reformation, imagine its equivalent today! In 1746 our church records show that number two was recast, possibly by Ambrose Gooding, however it did not last and was recast again in 1774 by Thomas Bilbie. Originally oak was used for making the headstocks for hanging the bells; later elm was used as it does not split so easily, alas elm is now virtually unobtainable, and imported timbers are normally used.. In 1848 they decided to have a ring of six lighter bells instead of five so what they did was to melt down the old tenor, which was reputed to have been crazed (cracked), to make two treble bells, these were cast in the Whitechapel Foundry. In 1932 Taylors put in a new frame and rehung the bells, interestingly there is now room for eight in our tower. Widecombe has a wonderful tradition of bellringing. John mentioned several of the old ringers by name particularly Bill Miners who was a local character and captain of the bellringers. About 100 years ago it would cost about �100 to reset and rehang a peal of six bells.

Andrew Nicholson of Dorchester is currently doing the work in the year 2000.

New crown staples will be fixed to avoid future damage to the bells, rust can set in and split the tops.

The three old clappers referred to above were then discussed. They were removed from the bells in 1932 when the bells were rehung. The smallest was a typical 19th century clapper possibly from the treble which was recast in 1848.

The other two are from the 1632 bells although they have had some work done to them over the years. On careful examination it can be seen that the tops have had some repair done to them, in the form of some adaptation over the years, the work of a blacksmith can be seen on the shafts in particular. It is wonderful to have them back in the church from whence they came all those years ago.

The first church bells recorded were reputed to be hung in the 6th century in Italy.

The oldest bell surviving in Devon is about 1290.

In Saxon times 8th century there had to be a bell which could be rung at times by law.

Hand bells are quite old.

One called a �Lych Bell� was often rung in front of coffins.

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