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

 

The Appeal

St Paul’s bells have rung out over the town since before the Reformation including for many national and civic occasions in addition to religious services and festivals. Being one of the earliest examples of true harmonic tuning, the current bells are amongst the finest sounding in the country. They have been pivotal to the development and advancement of change ringing in the county from the time of its inception in the early 1600s until the present day.

The clock has been a feature of the town landscape since the early 1800s and is of significance, being an early example of a public clock equipped with a deadbeat escapement. The familiar sound of the quarter and hour chimes, reinstated in 2002, have been heard across the town for many decades.

The bells and clock are deteriorating and are now in need of urgent restoration to prevent them from falling silent. The total cost of the project to fully restore the tower infrastructure, along with the clock and bells to put them in good order is estimated at £500,000. It will protect their historic legacy and ensure their familiar sounds can ring out across the town for another 100 or more years.

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Project Summary

The work to be carried out will comprise:

  • Rehanging the 12 bells on one level in a new cast iron and steel frame that is designed to accommodate 14 bells lower in the tower to minimise tower movement and providing options for lighter harmonic rings of eight and ten bells to be rung.

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

  • Complete refurbishment of the ringing room area including replacement of intermediate floors, provision of safe access to the bells and clock, upgrading the electrical system to modern standards, repair and redecoration of the internal walls, and cleaning and reinstatement of the historic peal boards.

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

 

Fund Raising

The total cost of the project to fully restore the clock and bells and tower infrastructure to put them in good order for the next 100 or more years is estimated at £500,000. A very generous grant of £200,000 has already been offered leaving a further £300,000 to raise. This is a very significant sum that has to be raised without placing demands on funds already required for the Church’s core mission within the community as a Major Parish Church, and extensive fabric repairs and renovation of the south side and north porch.  We are therefore seeking and would be very grateful for any donations, large or small.  

For those wishing to make more significant donations we have a scheme by which parts of the project, for example the rehanging of a bell or refurbishment of a clock face, may be sponsored. The names of donors and those commemorated will be permanently recorded on a suitably inscribed plaque appropriately situated, for example on the bell’s fittings or on the clock cabinet. Further details of the scheme are available on our web site and on request to any of the contacts.

The History and Art of Bell Ringing

Bells have been rung from English Church towers for many centuries; the oldest dates back to the 1100s. Bell ringing (or campanology) evolved as part of town and village life; the art and science of change ringing dating back to the 16th century when bells were first equipped with wheels that enabled them to be rung ‘full circle’ and controlled in precise and rhythmical sequences that could be changed with every pull of the rope. This continuously and progressive changing sound that can be heard from Church towers today is a uniquely English tradition that has spread to other parts of the world.

Bell ringing is a team activity that combines physical exercise and coordination with musical and mathematical abilities. This rather unique combination of skills, as much as the bells themselves, is part of our national heritage that needs to be nurtured and preserved for future generations. The bells are rung, not only to call the faithful to worship and announce the Church’s mission to those unable to attend, Sunday by Sunday, but also for weddings and funerals (the sound of half-muffled ringing is especially evocative) and for important local and national events, as well as for training and recreational purposes, including the ringers’ weekly practice. 

Recruitment

 

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 the secretary or follow the contact details on our web site for further information.

The bells

 

St Pauls Bedford has a ring of 12 bells with the largest tenor bell weighing just under 29cwt. They were mostly cast in 1896/7 by John Taylor and Co of Loughborough and are one of the finest sounding peals in the country, also being one of the earliest examples of true harmonic tuning. The 10th bell was cast and inscribed to commemorate the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Victoria and the 11th bell, inscribed as the Victory Bell, was recast in 1945 to commemorate the end of hostilities and those from the county who perished in WWII. Others of the bells were donated by or commemorate prominent Bedfordians; Thomas Gwyn Elger, Thomas Bull, Sir Frederick Howard, and George Hurst. The two lightest treble bells were cast and added in 1977 to commemorate the present Queen’s Silver Jubilee and the Centenary of the Diocese of St Albans.

 

St Paul’s has been pivotal in the development of change ringing in Bedfordshire over the centuries. As early as the 1650s there was an active change-ringing band at Bedford led by Oliver Palmer; this not long after the first ever recorded evidence of change ringing in a sermon entitled “The Devils Banquet” preached by Thomas Adams at the nearby village of Willington in 1614.

 

Until 1745, St. Paul’s possessed five bells, some of which were cast before the Reformation. In 1744 a new ring of eight bells was cast by Thomas Lester of London (Whitechapel) this being the first full octave in the county. These bells remained until the rebuilding of the tower and spire in 1868 when they were rehung and some of them were recast by Mears and Stainbank (Whitechapel).

 

The Bedford ringing band under one Isaac Hills, and later Charles W Clarke, was at the very forefront of the advancement of change ringing in the county and in founding the Bedfordshire Association of Change Ringers at a meeting held in the vestry on Monday 13 March 1882 chaired by the Vicar, the Revd R E R Watts. The Venerable, The Revd Bathurst, Archdeacon of Bedford. was its first president.

 

To ensure Bedford remained a centre renowned for the quality of its bells and ringing, consistent with its status as the County town, efforts were made to improve the unsatisfactory tonal quality and ease of ringing the old bells, and also to increase their number to ten. The Vicar, Church Wardens, and Mayor established a committee to invite subscriptions and raise the necessary funds. This led in 1896/7 to the bells being recast and rehung in the original 1868 oak frame with the two additional bells hung on girders across the base of the spire, thus creating the first ring of ten bells in the county.

 

The bells were again rehung in 1930, this time on modern ball bearings by Mears and Stainbank, although the Church architect resisted proposals to replace the aging wooden frame with a more satisfactory cast iron and steel one. During WWII the bells were removed from the tower for safety and stored in the Churchyard, being reinstated in 1945 by Taylors of Loughborough. By 1966 the original 1868 fittings, reused in 1930 and 1945, had reached the end of their useful life and the bells were again rehung with new fittings by Taylors, there being insufficient funds to replace the frame.

 

By 1970, under Stephen Ivin’s leadership, St Paul’s Bedford had one of the strongest and most capable Sunday service bands in the country and proposals to replace the frame were once again considered along with an augmentation to 12 bells. The augmentation, creating the first ring of 12 in Bedfordshire, was finally achieved in 1978 to commemorate the local and national events of the previous year, with the new bells being hung alongside the others at the base of the spire. Once again, funds were insufficient for a new bell frame and supporting structure to be installed. 

 

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. These include a lavish board recording the first peal on ten bells in the county (9/11/1896) presented by George Wells to commemorate his election as Mayor of Bedford for a third term.  Another board records the first peal rung in the county on 12 bells (12/3/1978) and also a peal to mark the centenary of the Bedfordshire Association of Change Ringers (13/3/1982). A peal rung by 12 priests of the Church (10/10/1987) is also recorded. The project will include the cleaning and restoration of these valuable historical records.  

 

Today the bells are increasingly difficult and less frequently rung, largely due to the unsatisfactory nature of the installation and movement of the dated 1868/96 bell frames. The heaviest eight bells hang in an oak frame situated part way up the louvres at the weakest point of the tower. The bell frame is supported on a pine sub-frame that is badly cracked and this rests on stone corbels that have shifted and have previously required underpinning. The frame itself has been progressively strengthened with metal tie rods and corner bracing over the years to improve its stability. The lightest four bells are hung high in the base of the spire significantly increasing the potential for tower movement. The bells weigh over 7 tons in total and exert forces of almost 30 tons on the frame and tower when rung together. The project will prevent the bells from further deterioration and falling silent, enabling them to ring out across the town for another 100 years.

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