Four Shires Guild of Bell Ringers

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A Rare Bell (re)discovered and a Mystery solved

I became involved recently with the discovery of a rare bell. This came about by reading some historical notes a fellow villager had compiled about Wormington Church. This church has a small, enclosed bellcote with a short spire constructed on top of the west end of the nave roof. It contains one bell of about 3½cwt by William Bagley 1700 (hung for ringing; but it would be horribly foolish to do so). It has been said the church had a tower at one time, which contained three bells, but there are no signs on the stonework of such a structure being there, so it was thought to have been a mistake or a proposal that was never built.

To compound the mystery, the Rev H T Ellacombe, the Victorian bell historian and author of 'Church Bells of Gloucestershire' published in 1881, recorded that Wormington had three bells, but he gave the church's dedication as Holy Trinity (it's St Catherine), so he was thought to have mixed Wormington up with somewhere else, particularly as his records do have errors.

A sketch of the church in 1843 recently came to light. It shows the church with a tower. It was easy to see why there were no signs in the stonework, because the tower, of wood, was situated where the bellcote currently sits; that is, on top of the roof. Apparently the tower needed major repairs, so in 1885 it was removed and the bellcote was put in its place. It was obviously there when Ellacombe published his book.

The question of the apparently-incorrect dedication was solved when reading a book about Wormington published in 1917, in which the author stated that the dedication was Holy Trinity, or St Catherine. So Ellacombe was correct on that. This also provided further confirmation that at one time Wormington Church did, indeed, have a tower containing three bells.

This was very intriguing, particularly as Ellacombe recorded that one of the bells was cast by John Clarke, but that it was cracked. John Clarke is now known to have cast bells at Evesham's bellfoundry, although it appears he cast only in 1711. He may well have been a relative (a son?) of William Clarke, who, with Michael Bushell, cast bells there between 1703 and 1707. John may have restarted the foundry in 1711, but unfortunately for him the land upon which the foundry and the adjoining Abbey Gatehouse stood was sold in 1711, so his bellfounding was very short-lived. He is therefore the last of five bellfounders to have cast bells in Evesham. There is one bell by him, the 2nd of the ring of 3 at Whatcote, Warks, and a record of one likely to have been cast by him, a small bell at Combrook, Warks, known to have been cast in Evesham in 1711. Unfortunately, this bell was recast by Mears & Stainbank in 1867, as one of the three small bells there now by them.

Another historical note by my fellow-villager caught my eye. It said that, on removal of the tower, one of the bells was sold for scrap, because it was cracked, and another was sold to a Churchwarden in Ashton Gate, Bristol. Ellacombe noted the John Clarke bell was cracked, so that was the one that was scrapped: shame. Hmm, I wondered; is the bell sold to Ashton Gate still in existence? Would be rather nice to know if it is. A trawl through Bristol Diocese's bell records revealed that St Francis, Ashton Gate still has one bell, dated 1711 and founder '?Abraham Rudhall'. Oh my gosh, that date, 1711, plus uncertainty about the founder! Surely a Rudhall bell would be easily identifiable? Is it too much, I wondered, to hope that Ellacombe made one of his errors about the cracked bell, and that – possibly – the bell at Ashton Gate is in fact the John Clarke bell?

I knew the person who had supplied the data for the bell record and was able to contact him with a plea for help. There was a reply next morning, saying he'd turned up details from his own records that confirmed the Ashton Gate bell is indeed by John Clarke. Hurray!!!

The supporting data he gave me showed the bell had had a very exciting existence since being at Ashton Gate. The original church had been bombed twice during the Bristol blitz, the second time leaving the church unusable. The bell had been in an open bellcote on the roof, so was lucky to escape damage. It was again lucky to be saved when the church was demolished, the bombing having rendered the building uneconomic to rebuild. When a new church was built 1951-53, the architect wrote to Albert Hughes of Mears & Stainbank (now Whitechapel Bell Foundry) for advice on hanging it 'dead', for which the foundry provided a new canon-pad, bronze canon-hooks and the new clapper, all for £16-3s-0d. The architect mentioned 'the bell is inscribed 'John Clarke 1711'. Mr Hughes replied, "....I cannot find anything about John Clarke. Not one of my reference books mentions him."!

So, a rare bell has come to light – yet again, apparently, but this time more permanently and also is recognised as such. Rather sadly it isn't now 'just round the corner' from where I live, nor is it now local to where it was cast. But very happily and by a large slice of luck, it still exists.

Chris Povey