St Paul’s Church Bedford: Tower, Clock, and Bells Appeal

Article by Stephen Stanford published in ‘The Spire’ Oct/Nov 2021

St Paul’s bells have rung out over the town since before the Reformation not only for religious services and festivals but also for many national and civic occasions. The current ring of 12 bells was cast by John Taylor of Loughborough mostly in 1896/7 and is amongst the finest sounding in the country, being one of the earliest examples of true harmonic tuning.  The bells and ringers at St Pauls have been pivotal to the development and advancement of the art of change ringing in the county since its inception in the early 1600s. The walls of the ringing chamber are adorned by many boards recording peals rung to commemorate national and Church events and the notable ringing achievements of the Bedford band.

 

The clock was made by John Moore & Sons (Handley and Moore) of Clerkenwell, London in 1811 and reinstated in 1867 when the tower and spire were rebuilt. It has four eight-foot dials and is the largest clock in north Bedfordshire. It is also of historic significance being one of the earliest examples of a public clock equipped with a deadbeat escapement. The clock is a feature of the town landscape and a focal point enhancing St Paul’s Square. The familiar sound of the quarter and hour chimes were reinstated in 2002.  

 

Some of the tower fabric is now in a poor state of repair, and the bell installation and clock are deteriorating and in urgent need of restoration to prevent them from falling silent. The bells have become increasingly difficult to manage, and are thus less frequently rung. The heaviest eight bells hang in an oak frame at the weakest point of the tower, supported on a pine sub-frame that is badly cracked, resting on stone corbels that are shifting. The lightest four bells are hung high in the base of the spire, increasing the potential for the tower to move. The bells weigh over 7 tonnes in total and exert forces of almost 30 tonnes on the frame and tower when rung. The clock auto winding and chiming mechanisms are no longer serviceable and the drive shaft and gears to the hands are worn. Additionally, the external clock dials and hands are in need of restoration.

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The bell chamber showing the 1896 lower frame with the four lightest bells in the upper frame across the base of the spire (Photo by James Saunders)

 

In 2019, encouraged by the Dorothy H Porter Trust, a requirements specification was prepared and quotations sought for a full restoration of the tower, clock and bells. Various consultations took place with an independent structural engineer, the church architect, and the DAC, and proposals were obtained from the leading firms of bell-hangers and clock engineers. The total cost of the project to restore the tower infrastructure, along with the clock and bells, and put them in good order is estimated at around £500,000. 

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Cracks in the pine bell frame foundation beams (Photo by James Saunders)

 

A sub-group of the fabric committee has been established to progress the project and an appeal. The Dorothy H Porter Trust and The Friends of St Pauls have generously committed to support the project and Charles Whitbread has kindly agreed to chair an appeal.

Our vision for the project is

  • To restore the tower, clock and bells and put them in excellent order for the foreseeable future (100 or more years) ensuring continued awareness of the Church’s presence at the heart of the town.

  • To undertake the highest quality and most complete restoration possible, consistent with St Paul’s status as a Major Parish Church.

  • To create an environment that encourages and supports the training and development of bellringers thereby maintaining the historic legacy, tradition, and art of bell ringing.   

 

The work will include

  • Re-hanging the 12 bells on one level in a new cast iron and steel frame that is designed to accommodate 14 bells on one level, with options for two additional bells to create lighter rings of 8 and 10 bells.

  • Refurbishment of the obsolete clock drive, winding, and chiming mechanisms, installation of a new clock display case and other works to include cleaning and gilding of the external clock dials and hands.

  • Repairs to the tower structure and refurbishment of the ringing room including, safe access to the bells and clock, upgrading the electrical system, and restoration of the historic peal boards.

  • Installation of an automatically operated sound control mechanism enabling the bells to be heard fully for services and rung less obtrusively at other times.

 

Currently an appeal brochure, web site, and other social media presence is being established that will provide additional information about the history of the tower, clock, and bells; also details of the appeal and its progress including how to donate and provide support to the scheme. 

The PCC, The Friends of St Paul’s, and The Dorothy Porter Trust will host an evening event in the Church to launch the fund-raising appeal, when the bells will be rung and there will be an illustrated talk by Chris Pickford, former County Archivist and St Paul’s Ringing Master, and a demonstration of change ringing on handbells.

If you would like to have further information about the project and appeal, please contact one of the Churchwardens, Ann Collett-White, secretary to the tower, clock and bells sub-committee or the author, steve.h.stanford@gmail.com

The project will greatly improve the ease of ringing the bells and create options for lighter harmonic rings that are more suitable for the training and development of ringers. We always welcome new recruits and if you are looking for a fascinating and sociable pastime and might be interested in joining our active local band, we would be very pleased to hear from you. Please contact James Saunders jrbsaunders@yahoo.com

Stephen Stanford (Project Leader and Chair of the Tower, Clock and Bells sub-committee)

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The ringers in action at a recent Monday night practice (Photo by Cliff Harvey, Bedford Camera Club)