In anticipation of our symposium on ‘Parish Soundscapes’, and having been treated to a preview of the Berkswell Bellringers’ stall, I have been looking into some of the bells of parish churches of my own research area of Gloucestershire. Digging primarily into my favourite local sources, the parish registers, I came across a number of references to bells and the casting of bells.
Bells were, and still are, items of great importance, and symbols of pride and prestige for parish communities. The parishes of Almondsbury, Arlingham, Great Rissington, Lechlade, Quenington, St John the Baptist Gloucester, Standish, and Tytherington all record the casting and repair of their bells in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. We might expect to find these events recorded in churchwarden’s accounts, yet they are here too, amongst baptisms, marriages and burials, written, almost as community members, into the histories of these parishes. The type of bell, how much it cost and who cast it are often recorded. At times this serves as a memorial of the great expense parishes were able to meet: in Great Rissington the 1601 treble bell was commissioned from John Charter, a founder in Reading, and paid for by subscription. The names of each of the 112 subscribers are listed, in a kind of who’s who of the parish pious.
Bells’ roles as monuments to the piety, charity, good neighbourliness and good credit of parishioners are also identifiable in the Gloucestershire registers. Arlingham, a parish in the ‘loop’ of the river Severn, had a near full set of bells cast in 1717. These bells were dedicated to the parish, its ideals, its chief inhabitants, God, and the bells’ founder. The pre-1717 bell bore the inscription ‘Peace and Good Neighbourhood.’ The five new bells cast in 1717 bore the following: 2) ‘Abra. Rudhall bell founder. 1717.’, 3) ‘Prosperity to this Parish. A R. 1717.’ 4) ‘Peace & Good Neighbourhood. A.R.1717.’ 5) John Carter & Richard Fryer, churchwardens. 1717.’ 6) ‘Come when I call/ To serve God all. A. R. 1717.’ The bells then symbolised the ideals of devotion, peace, prosperity and good neighbourhood, and served to venerate the memory of their founders and the men who were likely their procurers. As some of the largest and most expensive movable goods parishes might buy, bells were important items of material culture, and as the loudest, most recognisable noises regularly made in the parish, were highly aurally significant. To have one’s name or motto inscribed upon one was then a great source of pride, renewed and repeated with each practice and peal.
Procuring bells was not always as smooth as at Arlingham however. At Almondsbury in 1573 the tenor bell was broken by some over-enthusiastic ringing, and the ensuing three-decade quest for a replacement was written up in the parish register by incumbent vicar John Paul. One William Bewall, of repute ‘the best rynger in the paresh’ gave the offending pull breaking the bell, and bell caster ‘Old Jeffreys’ of Bristol was recruited to produce a new one. His first attempt ‘faylyng in sound’, Jeffreys senior enlisted Jeffreys junior, and together they cast a further bell in 1575, which ‘with hewyng contynued in some good sort unto the yeere 1603 and then with chymyng dyd rend’. Our talented, boisterous ringer William Bewall caused the ‘myshap’ once again. Having been twice disappointed by the Jeffreys’ bells, the parish sent for John Long of Cirencester, on the recommendation of local man, Mr Chester. Cirencester is 35 miles from Almondsbury, no doubt seeming much longer when laden with the largest and heaviest bell in Almondsbury’s peal. Unfortunately John Long was not able to produce a working bell, casting it twice in 1604, ‘both tymes badd to the domage of the paresh’, before Almondsbury gave up on him too. The register notes that Purdy of Bristol, ‘who shold by bargeyn fyrst have cast the tenor… cast the same as he now ys, but nothyng so sweet in sound as he was 40 yeeres before.’ Here we get a sense of the problems of parochial procurement, and the ‘consumer power’ exerted by communities when purchasing large and important items. Finally having found a bell that fitted and worked, albeit not a patch on the old bell, vicar Paul also happily anthropomorphised it into another member of his flock.
Whilst William Bewall may seem to have been particularly unlucky in managing to break two tenor bells in his distinguished bellringing career, in comparison to John Hale of Hartpury, he was remarkably lucky. Practicing ringing one day in 1692 with his group of fellow ringers, John was pulling the 3 bell. Either through a loose component in the headstock, or a particularly mighty tug on his behalf, the bell came loose and was sent crashing down into the ringing chamber, landing on him and killing him. Bewall died amongst his ringing group, perhaps not the worst way to go. Ringing groups were important centres of sociability, particularly among young, boisterous men. In Cirencester in 1794 a ‘Freindly [sic] Society or Ringing Clubb Held at the Black Horse Cirencester’ was set up, in a rather polite formulation, with its own constitution (yet still meeting in a pub 500 yards from the church…). Edward Sherring of Forthampton also died under a bell, but not in the highly sociable act of ringing. In 1788 he was “killed by the falling of a Bell one of which he went up to turn”.
Such campanological misfortune could come from on high as well as the chamber floor. In 1605 the parish of Olveston was beset by a great storm of thunder and lightning. John Paul, the vicar of Almondsbury, recorded in his register that on 28 November 1605 there was
a great thunder clap and fearfull lyghtnyng with a storme of hayle, in which the towre of Olveston church was rent, the steeple covered with lead was sett on fyre under the bowle of the wethercocke, and the steeple consumed, the lead and fyve sweet belles molt, the chauncell burnt, and the body of the church hardly saved.
Whilst John Paul’s narrative is dramatic and engaging, it tells the story of the destruction of the bells with no real gloss or interpretive flourish. Such flourish was provided by ‘P.S.’, a schoolmaster in Olveston, and the acronymical author of Feareful newes of thunder and lightning with the terrible effects thereof, which Almighty God sent on a place called Olvestone, in the county of Glocester the 28. of November last. This 30-page pamphlet contains just three short pages on the lightening, fire and the damage in the parish. The remaining 27 pages are taken up by lengthy providential proselytizing, with the author at pains to unpick the soteriological implications of the storm and damage, and to link it to the recently-foiled Gunpowder Plot. The destruction of the bells is particularly significant. The parishioners were said to love ‘their sweet ring’, of what the author judged ‘very tunenable but often abused bells’. It was this ‘abuse’ that rankled most for P.S. For him the lightning was a clear sign from God. It supposedly destroyed the strongest parts of the church, yet left the weakest standing, showing ‘that strength to him is weakenesse, and weakenesse to him is strength.’ The thunder was too much for the parishioners, as it ‘ cast one hither, another thither, and some downe’, as people scrambled around attempting to save their possessions from a blaze that was now raging on the church roof, dangerously close to neighbouring houses. The bells were melted and destroyed, as the
wrath of God, would no longer suffer to jangle [them] then or ther for their ignorance of God, and his goodnes, or their unthankfulnes, or for any other sin, which was doth the cause of this, and is the cause of all other his judgements.
It was to the great shame of this parish that after this almighty storm and fire, in which luckily nobody was killed, ‘divers lament the death (as it were) of their Belles, but no one there so much as mention, the guilt or punishment of sinne.’ Bells, as important community symbols were here lamented too much. It should have been to their own sins that the parishioners of Olveston turned, in the mind of P.S. Rather than a source of piety and spiritual instruction, as at Arlingham, these bells, for P.S., symbolised ungodliness and spiritual corruption, perhaps hinting at the culture of those enthusiastic young men who met for practices at places like the Black Horse in Cirencester.
Having given a precis of some of the lives of the early modern bells of Gloucestershire, I would be very interested to hear of comparable examples in other counties, particularly given the social and symbolic significance of the bells collated here.
D18/597, Notes relating to manor and parish of Arlingham
P86/1 SP 1/1, Cirencester Ringing Club general register
P120 IN 1/1, Driffield Parish Register
P146 IN 1/3, Forthampton Parish Register
P154/9 IN 1/1, St. John the Baptist, Gloucester, Parish Register
P165 IN 1/1, Hartpury Parish Register
P197 IN 1/2, Lechlade Parish Register
P261 IN 1/2, Quenington Parish Register
P268 IN 1/1, Great Rissington Parish Register
P305 IN 1/3, Standish Parish Register
P344 IN 1/4, Tytherington Parish Register
P.S., Feareful neuues of thunder and lightning with the terrible effects thereof, which Almighty God sent on a place called Oluestone, in the county of Glocester the 28. of Nouember last : hauing prefixt before it, a short discourse, concerning two other admirable accidents that soone after ensued / truely related by P.S. ; and dedicated vnto the Kings Most Excellent Maiestie. (London, 1606)
Green, A., ‘An Almondsbury Parish Register‘, Transactions of the Bristol and Gloucestershire Archaeological Society 78 (1959), pp. 175-179.