Four Shires Guild of Bell Ringers

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The bells of St Mary's (or how long is a piece of string…?)

My first encounter with tubular bells in a church was in the late 1990's assisting Arthur Berry (the bellhanger from Malvern) with the removal of a set of 10 from St Johns, Dudley (closed 2002), which the church no longer used and wished to dispose of. Such bells are usually cumbersome to handle, being in this instance some 6 feet long (or 2 metres for those of you with a bent for psychometrics…) and bearing a resemblance to a steel scaffold pole - only 10 times as heavy (note the thickness of these things in the photo below! Ed). Tubular bells are best carried horizontally, which generally means it is impossible to do so in the tower or on a staircase — I recall the grazed knees and elbows at Dudley as we handballed them to ground level and the expectancy, given the area we were in, that when we took the next bell out to the pick-up vehicle parked on the roadside that the previously loaded bells (and perhaps the vehicle) might not be there! Tubular bells are not strictly made from bell metal but of a similar but brassier concoction and therefore still attract a high scrap value.

So, closer to home, there is a delightful little village named Icomb (now Glos, previously Worcs) near Stow-on-the-Wold with its own church dedicated to St Mary the Virgin.

A phone call from the churchwarden to Arthur Berry in 2008 suggested a bell was broken as it was not working. The tower contains a tubular bell chime of 8 hung in a purpose-built loft in the roof space carried on a crossbeam and only accessible by a long wooden ladder.

Such bells in the UK were inevitably made by the company of Harrington, Latham & Co of Coventry, who only produced their Patented Tubular Bells during the period 1890 to 1920. The accompanying photographs show the installation and their trade-mark with the number and note of the 2nd bell (the 4th was marked G so the octave is in the key of C).

Investigation showed one bell had fallen from its rope suspension harness, which had broken due to strain and decay.

And the how long is a piece of string? Further observation revealed that the majority of the bells were precariously supported and that several strike hammers had life-expired leather strapping and fasteners together with all pull chords (extending down into the vestry where the clavier board was situated) that had all but given up the ghost having very obviously been broken and patched up with sundry varieties of string and rope over a period of time. Even the rubber handgrips were totally decayed or worn away. Unfortunately there is no readily available parts stockist for such items these days and so, over a period of months, suitable materials were procured and fashioned to effect an overhaul.

Manufacture of stainless steel cable suspension harnesses in the workshop to precise length enabled the bells to be securely hung once again.

The tryout of the completed work was extremely satisfying with renditions of the only piece of music available tucked behind the clavier board — yes, you've guessed it — 'The Bells of St Mary's' sounding beautifully across the village!

Some months later I successfully bid on a small brass tubular bell tabletop set of 8 on eBay, enabling me to re-create The Bells of St Mary's sounding across the Four Shires hills whenever I wish. (Who knows, I may try for a quarter of Minimus one day just to keep RL-S company on Campanophile - see Quarters, last Newsletter. Ed).

'Roger de Flaedenburg' (and all photos are by him)