Reprinted from the booklet with the same title by kind permission of Clapham Parochial Church Council. A visit to see the new bells was arranged for NCHT members in September 2011.
Clapham parish church tower is thought to have been built about 1400AD on the same site as the church destroyed by Scots raiders in 1318 or 1319. It is not known whether any bells were installed in the tower when it was built, though two ledges inside the tower indicate that there was always provision for a floor at belfry level. The oldest bell in the tower is dated 1594 but it may have come from another tower at some later date. None of the few records surviving from those early years tells us anything about the tower or its bells.
We do know that the church was extensively ‘refurbished and beautified’ in the period 1899-1902, but ‘ ... the tower was left untouched’ because of lack of funds. The lovely Currer memorial tower window was added in 1904. In 1916-17 minor repairs were carried out on the belfry roof; and in 1959 an extensive list of urgent repairs to the church included ‘repairs to stone and timber in louvres’ in at least one of the belfry windows, together with ‘repair inside tower’, ‘renew slates on tower roof’ and ‘renew lead on belfry roof ’. This work was carried out in 1963 by Brassingtons of Settle, except for repairs to the belfry window and ‘repair inside tower’. It was decided that these would be carried out only if and when funds became available. They were never done.
The earliest surviving record which mentions the bells is the Minute of a Vestry Meeting held in the church on 11 April 1774. That meeting ‘ ... agreed that the whole perquisite of tolling shall for the future belong to the sexton and ... at the same time hired Richard Wilcox and Thomas Capstick senior to ring and chime upon Sundays and ... agreed to give each five shillings yearly’. This probably tells us that there were three bells in the tower at that time. It could also hint that more ringers were needed then because more bells had been acquired. The use of the term ‘ring’ tells us that they were very probably hung for full-circle ringing, ‘change ringing’ as it is practised today, with the bell swinging a half circle to one side followed by a half circle to the opposite side.
The three bells in the tower at that time were, so far as we know, the same bells which hung there until August 2009, when they were removed for augmentation in a new frame. In addition to the bell of 1594 there were bells dated 1662 and 1720. Again we cannot be certain whether they were made for Clapham or came from other churches.
There is no further mention of the bells until 1818, when payments to bell-ringers are first noted in the churchwardens’ accounts. Also recorded is the sale of old bell-ropes in 1820 (and in many other years to 1857). Then in 1827 there was payment to bell-hangers for ‘ ... fitting up bells and tuning’, and for further work by bell-hangers in 1828 and 1831. This may have been repair work such as a new bell-frame or it may have been the installation of fresh bells. In 1836 wooden bell stays were replaced, and in 1849 payments were made for ‘ ... new work put on bell-wheel’. Repairs to bell-wheels were also carried out in 1868 and twice in 1876 so we know that the bells continued to be rung full-circle.
From the church accounts we can see that all three bells were rung regularly for many years. Each year from 1828 to 1926 three men were paid for ringing. In 1828 Edward Harrison was paid £1.5.0 (£1.25) for ringing bell no.1 (the lightest) on Sundays throughout the year, Leonard Furness was paid £1.0.6 (£1.2½p.) for ringing no.2 and William Sedswick was paid 17/6 (87½ p.) for ringing no. 3, the heaviest bell. No.1 bell is normally the leading bell and this may account for the curious custom of paying most for ringing the lightest bell. In 1827 a further 3 shillings were paid for ‘ale for ringers’ and this tradition continued every year until 1860 - though usually shown as ‘ringers extra’.
In addition to regular ringing for Sunday services the bells were also rung for special occasions; in 1830 for the funeral of King George IV (3 ‘muzzles’ were bought to muffle the bells for this occasion); in 1831 for his burial and the proclamation of King William IV, in 1838 for Queen Victoria’s coronation; in 1840 for her marriage to Prince Albert; in 1842 for the birth of the Prince of Wales, and in 1911 for a commemoration service for King Edward VII. The amount of bell-ringing in Clapham during that century is indicated by the number of bell-ropes which had to be repaired or replaced - at least 28 are shown in the accounts.
From 1849 all three ringers were paid the same amount, one guinea (£1.05). In 1862 payment was raised to £1.6.8 (£1.33) and in 1890 to £2.0.0 each. Payment remained at this level until 1924, when the total payment to ringers was £4.0.0, indicating that there were then only two ringers. In the following year payment dropped to £2.0.0, suggesting that by this time there was only one ringer left, presumably the sexton, who was always one of the ringers and a church official who also had other essential duties. No further payment to bell-ringers is recorded after this date. Interestingly, from 1908 an annual insurance premium was paid by the church Council to cover the ringers against accident. In 1920 this became ‘employer’s liability insurance’ and continued until 1926. Such cover seems to be unheard of today.
By 1928 the vicar and church Council had become concerned at the lack of ringers. They decided to install an Ellacombe Improved Chiming Apparatus which, by means of ropes and hammers, would allow all three bells to be chimed by one person. They asked John Taylor’s firm of bellfounders and bellhangers, to examine the bells to see if they were in a fit condition, saying: ‘The bells, we understand, have not been examined for a few years and one bell is not in order ...’. It is not clear whether the state of the bells was the cause or the result of the drop in the number of ringers two or three years earlier. In November 1928 Taylor’s expert, Mr J.P.Fidler, examined the bells with the help of Mr J.Swinbank, a Clapham resident, who demonstrated the bells in action. Fidler reported that the bells were indeed in a poor condition and that the tenor, heaviest, bell was cracked. After due deliberation the church Council decided to have the bells overhauled, encouraged, no doubt, by the fact that Mrs. Bessie Farrer, widow of the former squire James Anson Farrer, had agreed to pay for the tenor bell to be recast in memory of her husband, who had died 3 years earlier. The complete refurbishment was to cost £157.
It took a year to raise the money and the bells were only then lifted out and taken to Taylor’s premises for the recasting and retuning. We now know that the bells were lifted out of the tower through the belfry west window, above the clock. The tenor bell weighs over half a ton, 10¾ hundredweight (556kg), and the enormous task of winching it through the window opening and down to the ground was accomplished mostly by one man and one youth using a long heavy beam lashed across the top of the tower as a jib from which to suspend each bell.
In March 1930 the reconditioned bells were returned to Clapham and hoisted back into the tower by Bert Godwin (Taylor’s) and Jim Armstrong (Bentham), using the same means as that used for removing them. The old wooden bellframe had been reinforced, and the Ellacombe apparatus was installed so that all three bells could be chimed from one position at ground level in the north-west corner of the tower. The Bishop of Bradford re-dedicated the bells on Sunday 30 March 1930.
Clapham residents with longer memories recall something of the bells in the years around the time of the Second World War. We are told that workers from the Ingleborough Estate rang the bells for Sunday services about 1935 and that two of them, a Mr Shaw and a Mr Swindlehurst, rang them full-circle as late as 1938-39. In 1940, during the Second World War, the British Government issued the Control of Noise (Defence) Order which forbade the ringing of church bells except ‘ ... to indicate that members of an enemy force are landing or attempting to land or have landed from the air.’ The bell-ropes were pulled up into the belfry and the bell-wheels were lashed in an immovable position. The ban was temporarily lifted in 1942 to allow celebration of victory in the battle of El Alamein in North Africa and was reimposed in March 1943. It was partially lifted only a month later by Winston Churchill in response to public pressure. In June 1943 the ban was removed entirely. For many years following that Clapham’s bells continued to be immovable and could only be chimed, using the Ellacombe apparatus. Various village children regularly chimed the bells in the years from the mid 1940s to the early 1980s.
In 1984 a new incumbent came to Clapham, Rev.John Dalby. He had a young assistant who was keen on having the bells rung properly. So the bell-wheels were untied, the ropes lowered out of the belfry, the bells checked and deemed safe to ring. An experienced ringer came from another tower and began teaching a small number of Clapham folk to ring full-circle. At least one went to neighbouring towers for additional tuition.
From here we can pick up the story in the Clapham Tower Diary for the period 1990-2008. This tells us that in 1990 Clapham bells were rung on 55 occasions. During the next year there were many practices. That year the bells were rung on 73 occasions and ringers advanced as far as ‘plain hunting’, which is the basis of all change-ringing. From 1991 the number of occasions on which the bells were rung gradually diminished until, in 2003, they were rung only five times. Sadly, on many occasions in these years there was only one ringer and the bell was swung to chime rather than rung full-circle.
In 2004 a new incumbent was appointed, Rev.Ian Greenhalgh, and he called for the bells to speak out again. A fresh team of volunteer ringers was assembled, experienced ringers were found to provide tuition and regular practices resumed in October 2004. In each year 2005-2008 the bells were rung on 80 to 100 occasions. The bells were back in business.
But Clapham still boasted only the old three bells which had been rung over the past 250 years or so. It was time to modernise the facilities in the old tower, including the bells. Enquiries had been made in 1990, 2004 and 2006 about augmenting the bells from three to six and estimates had been prepared but no further action was taken. In 2008 the nettle was finally grasped. A grand project was launched, to augment the number of bells from three to six, to hang these in a new steel frame, to provide a ringers’ floor at first floor level in place of the ground floor, to use the ground floor for much-needed toilet and kitchen areas, to renew the old, unsafe clock-chamber floor and to make provision for the tower clock to be electrically wound. The total cost was estimated to be £85,000.
On 18 August 2009 the tower clock was dismantled and taken away for refurbishment, clearing the way for removing the bells. On Sunday 23 August the old three bells were rung for the last time. The following day work began on removing the Ellacombe apparatus and dismantling the wooden bell-frame. By the end of the next day the bells were safely down on the ground floor of the tower, having been lowered down the inside of the building by means of a chain-block hanging from a beam high inside the belfry. The work was led by Hayward Mills Associates and the bells were taken to their Nottingham workshops before going on to United Bellfoundries Ltd., Loughborough, successors to John Taylor & Co., Bell-Founders.
On 4 November 2009 work began on installing the new 2½ tonne steel bell-frame and on 23 November the new ring of six bells arrived: and the three old Clapham bells, plus two old bells from other towers where they were redundant and one new bell cast in Holland in commemoration of Paddy Thorley, a Yorkshire ringer, and given by her daughters. The new ring of bells was first rung on Thursday 24 December 2009. It was rung again on a few occasions before the start of building work in the tower made further ringing impossible for a time.
The completion of work in the tower allows Clapham bells to resume their place in keeping alive the thousand-year-old tradition of ringing church bells, to ‘make a joyful noise unto the Lord’.
The clock mechanism
Bell no. 1