As I have often said 'Bell Ringing leads one to many different places' I was lucky enough to be invited to ring at Denbigh and on doing so discovered the unusual history of the bells. Thank you to Peter Furniss for supplying the text for our website.
BY PETER L FURNISS WITH ADDITIONAL RESEARCH BY BEVERLEY J FURNISS AND DAVID SMART.
The tower of the church of St.Mary`s Denbigh contains a ring of eight bells hung for full circle ringing. They were cast and supplied by the Whitechapel foundry of Mears in 1873; invoiced for the cost of £694.18.6 on the 22nd September 1873. The tenor weighs 14 cwt 2 quarters and 11 pounds and they are tuned to the key of F. Nothing very remarkable about that you may think.
There must be several hundred similar rings of bells supplied by any number of foundries during the last half of the 19 th century. What is remarkable is that the bells have hardly ever been rung full circle, as was evidently intended when they were hung. Even the most generous interpretation of the available evidence is that they have probably not been rung full circle for more than a total of three hours in their near 150 years existence. Surely this must make them one of the least rung rings of bells in the history of change ringing. The purpose of this article is to examine the available evidence to see if this can possibly be true and if so to offer some kind of explanation.
There is no known record of a peal or quarter peal being rung on the bells. It would have been quite common in those days for new rings of bells to be “opened” by ringers from neighbouring towers or by invitation to more accomplished companies of ringers from further afield. These would normally be extensively covered in the local press. No such record exists. The North Wales Association was only founded in 1903 but their records contain no mention of any ringing at Denbigh. However research in the contemporary local newspapers does give a fascinating insight into the early history of this church and its bells.
Beverley Furniss writes:-
Knowing that the ringing of bells for special occasions was often recorded in the local press I began a search of local newspapers from the 1870s (online) to see if this was the case for St Mary’s. In doing so I discovered an interesting backstory…
The Caernarvon and Denbigh and Herald North and South Wales Independent (yes really!) of the 4/5/1867 records a discussion at the Annual Vestry meeting when it was decided that building a new church would cost the same as repairing the existing church , St Hilary’s, which was “…so inconveniently situated for the requirements of the parish…”. A committee was formed to help with the collecting of subscriptions and the land was donated by Mr PH Chambres of Llysmeirchion . Miss Margaret Elizabeth Mesham of Pontruffydd Hall (1805-1873) was a major benefactor and it was at her wish, according to the Wrexham Guardian 11/12/1875, that the tower was built at a cost of £1650 for the tower, £800 for the bells and £200 for the clock. A day of celebrations took place when the corner stone was laid by Miss Mesham on Tuesday 6 th July 1871. The Wrexham Guardian (8/7/1871) also notes that Miss Mesham” provided tea for the children of the schools and also supper for the choirs” as well as donating £800 to the building fund and £300 for the new organ.
Miss Mesham apparently had a large part in the design and decoration of the new Church, including the design of the reredos. Sadly she did not live to see the church consecrated as she died in September 1873 aged 68. The consecration of the church was due to take place on 19th January 1874 but was cancelled two days earlier by the Bishop following a dispute about a panel in the aforementioned reredos being too papist. However there is mention of the bells being sounded during this time - once according to the Wrexham Advertiser in August 1874 for “The Visit of The Lord Chief Justice” and in the November of the same year to announce the birth of “a son and heir to Major W. Cornwallis West, the respected Lord-Lieutenant of Denbighshire”. It appears that the dispute continued through 1874 as there is a detailed report of a meeting held in Denbigh published in the Caernarvon and Denbigh Herald (5 th December 1874) that discusses the “idolatrous” reredos but eventually agreed “to make the necessary alterations in the reredos to enable the bishop to consecrate the church…” However the consecration did not take place until a year later, as reported in several newspapers at the time including the North Wales Chronicle. The report in December 1875 states that “it seemed as though it was not wished to be known” with announcements only made in the local churches and “instead of the fine peal of bells being brought into use to announce the opening of the church the usual single bell was tolled…”
From this point on it appears that the church was used for regular services and that the bells weren sounded. There is however no mention of a band of ringers but rather a single person was employed to chime the bells. At the Easter Vestry meeting in April 1876 The Wrexham Guardian notes that “Mr Thomas Jones had been promised £5 yearly for chiming the bells…”. Later the same year the paper reports on the marriage of the Rev. R B Jones, the senior curate of St Mary’s, and gives some detail about the ringing that took place, “ Accordingly the bells of St Mary’s, of which there are eight, rang out merry chimes during the morning. These bells are so arranged that changes and tunes can be played upon them by means of keys or pedals, and Mr Thomas Jones exercised his skill upon them by playing change ringing, Stedmans 75 changes….”
It also notes that other tunes were played. It is interesting to note that “change ringing” and “Stedman” are mentioned. Can we infer from this that Mr Jones was also a bellringer? He appears to have been well known for his musical ability as he was asked to chime at St Thomas, in Rhyl in August 1877 for a meeting of the Provincial Welsh Grand Lodge. The Caernarvon and Denbigh Herald notes that he was asked to ring “in order that it be well done”.
Occasional references to the bells being chimed for services are seen in the 1870s, including in celebration of the birth of “a daughter … to captain and Mrs Mesham. The late Miss Mesham… gave the bells..” in November 1877 (North Wales Chronicle). However after this time they are rarely mentioned although a payment of “a gratuity to the bellringer for extra services during the past year” (report on the Easter Vestry meeting at Denbigh, Denbighshire Free press 29 th April 1893) would suggest that the bells were actively used up to this point at least.
Despite the reporting in some detail of accounts from Easter vestry meetings across the turn of the century no payments are recorded for bellringing. In 1906 it is recorded that the tower “wanted repointing badly” but there is no mention of the work being carried out at the Vestry meeting the following year.
From the above it appears that in the first 40 years, whatever Miss Mesham’s vision was for the bells at St Mary’s, they were only ever chimed and a local band was never formed.
Other research by David Smart,a ringer at Ruthin, allows us to fill in some of the blanks. We can answer the question of whether the chimer, Mr.Jones, was also a ringer. No he wasn`t. The Denbighshire Free Press of the 12 th August 1882 and the 19th June 1886 both carry letters querying why the bells were only chimed and not rung. No replies have been found. The latter letter refers to a visit made by the well known London ringer, Francis E Dawe, to St.Marys which he subsequently wrote about in the Bell News of June 12th 1886. Francis Dawe was one of the leading ringers of his day, first secretary of the Central Council and a member of the College Youths. When it came to bells and change ringing he knew what he was talking about. He wrote:- “ We also visited the belfry of the principle church and having chimed with the apparatus (an indispensable appendage here), was astonished to find that, although the eight bells have been hung there for years, the ropes lie in a coil under each bell, and the mouse-holes are as yet not made in the ceiling, the authorities apparently having no idea of how bells are rung , or in any way anxious to find out what harmony could be produced by their being handled by skilful ringers, instead of being chimed, as they are now, by a railway guard who knows nothing of the science but positively asserts that he can ring Stedman-Grandsire with any man in England.”
From this account we can quite positively conclude that Mr.Jones was not a ringer in the accepted sense of the word.
We don`t know what inspired Miss.Mesham to fund the installation of a ring of eight. Nearby Bodelwyddan has an almost identical ring of eight, also supplied by Mears, and installed the previous year. Maybe she was aware of those bells and wanted something similar for Denbigh.
The bells are listed as a ring in the first edition of Dove in 1950 with no comment on their ringability. By the 1968 edition and through until 1988 the tower is listed as unsafe. By the 1994 edition the bells are listed as unringable and by 2000 both the tower is unsafe and the bells unringable!! By the latest two editions of Dove 2012 and 2018 the bells are merely unringable. The correct position is now recorded on the online Dove.
A major disincentive to ringing the bells throughout this period would have been the absence of what Mr.Dawe refers to as “mouse-holes” and the fact that there was no way of retracting the chiming hammers to allow the bells to swing. The only solution was to dismantle the chiming hammers before ringing and reinstate them afterwards. Bodelwyddan has a similar chiming apparatus but there the chiming hammers can be easily connected and disconnected from the ringing room. Why the difference, I wonder? Was the chiming apparatus installed in a way which obstructs the bells from swinging or has it been modified at some subsequent date? There are “mouse-holes” in the floor under the bells which was originally also the ringing room ceiling. By the time of Francis Dawe`s visit in 1886 we know that a partial false ceiling had been added to the ringing room. This appears to have been added to improve access to the chiming apparatus and some of the clock mechanism for maintenance purposes. This ceiling obstructed six of the rope holes rendering it quite impossible to ring the bells.
Not surprisingly a ring of bells with this history has always been regarded as a bit of a challenge to tower grabbers. The first time that it is known for certain that the bells were rung was in 1975. Neil Skelton has kindly provided information about this visit. Apparently it took place on a week long tour arranged by Stuart Hale. Others on the trip included Allan Keen, Chris Dalton, Geoff and Janet Armitage and Peter Rivet. Permission was sought and refused by letter with the reason for refusal cited as the tower being unsafe. The irrepressible Geoff Armitage visited Denbigh a day or two before the proposed visit and spotted that the tower had recently been repaired. In what seems to have been a classic “knock knock” he persuaded the Vicar that the bells could be rung. And indeed they were rung on August 21 st 1975. Neil recollects that Geoff Armitage cut the rope holes in the false ceiling the previous day. The fourth bell proved very reluctant to remain in its bearings as a result of a build up of rust on one gudgeon and so only seven bells were rung. No further ringing is known to have taken place until 2008.
In that year the church were considering selling the bells to raise money and were persuaded that they were more likely to be successful in that enterprise if a recording could be made of the bells ringing full circle. Now, of course there were “mouse-holes” but the chiming apparatus still had to be dismantled and reassembled. The bells were rung on two occasions four days apart. I believe the fourth bell was persuaded to stay in its bearings by the simple expedient of screwing the bearing cover down.
Neither of these visits succeeded in generating any long term interest in the bells in the parish but at least they decided not to sell them! What they did demonstrate is that with some time and trouble the bells could be rung and that considering their age and parentage they are not a bad ring of eight.
I was aware of some of the history and background of these bells when I became Ringing Master of the North Wales Association in 2015. From that date onwards every year I emailed the then Vicar, Pauline Walker, and offered her the assistance of the Association to restore the bells to a fully ringable condition. Every year I received a polite but negative reply saying that the tower and bells were not at the top of the parish`s priorities. The break through came when Geoffrey Spencer was appointed Priest in Charge in the neighbouring parish of Henllan. Denbigh and Henllan are both in the same Mission Area and so Geoffrey and Pauline worked closely together. Geoffrey is an enthusiastic ringer with a background in restoring rings of bells. Geoffrey won Pauline`s confidence and this lead to her agreeing to a try out of the bells organised by the Association. Another factor was almost certainly the restoration which was taking place just down the road at St.Peter`s Ruthin. Pauline visited the project saw the work which was being undertaken and met the people involved.
The try out took place in November 2019 and was attended by members of the bell hanging trade. It was only partially successful. The fourth continued its alarming habit of jumping out of its bearings and rolling along the frame before falling back into its bearings with a great crash. The Tenor headstock also decided that rot, caused by a historical leak in the tower roof, had rendered it no longer strong enough to support the bell. Ringing finished on just six bells but on this occasion it was sufficient to generate some local interest. The ringing had been advertised on a local Facebook group attracting many positive comments, one person even leaving her birthday party to come and listen to the bells. Shortly after this Geoffrey Spencer organised a band from Bodelwyddan to ring for a service. Five bells were rung and this was probably the first occasion on which the bells were rung for a service.
Subsequently the church agreed to pay for a modification to the chiming apparatus so that it can be quickly and easily connected and disconnected from the ringing room. Estimates were sought for repairs to the fourth and tenor bell the work being entrusted to Lancashire Clockmakers who also modified the chiming mechanism. A faculty was quickly applied for and granted. A new gudgeon has been fitted to the stay side of the fourth and a new wooden headstock fitted to the tenor, the work being completed in May 2021. The work has been paid for by a combination of donations from individuals, the church and a grant from the Association Bell Fund. Other minor repairs were carried out by members of the North Wales Association. Sadly as a result of Covid restrictions it has not yet been possible to organise a try out on all eight bells. All the bells have been rung individually. Although the bells are now ringable they are still likely to be challenging for the inexperienced or those who are only used to modern easy going bells! In addition there is no tradition of regular ringing in the tower and the tower is situated in a dip which means there are a number of houses on a level with the louvres. Initially at least, ringing will be carefully managed. However for the first time in their history it seems that the vision of their donor, Miss Mesham, has been realised and the church now possess a ring of bells which can be rung full circle and are available to enhance the ministry of the church.
The bells themselves and the fittings tell a story. The sound bows and clappers are in virtually pristine condition where they would have been worn by full circle ringing. There is considerably more wear where the chiming hammers have been hitting the bells. The wheel centres are as firm as the day they were fitted although some shrouding has needed replacing. While it would be generous to describe the pulleys as being in pristine condition they show no signs of grooving which might be expected in normal circumstances. The frame evidences very little movement. While of course not being conclusive it does add up to a ring of bells which have been very little used.
And so to answer the question posed at the beginning of this article. From the available evidence is it possible that the bells have only been rung for around three hours in their nearly 150 year existence?
It seems inconceivable that the person who hung them wouldn`t have rung them at least individually but no record has yet been found of a grand “opening”. We know for certain that shortly after their installation they were being chimed; that Thomas Jones was paid for his services as a chimer and would probably have guarded his position jealously. It is possible that from the very beginning the chiming apparatus obstructed the full circle ringing of the bells but it is equally possible that this was a modification which took place subsequently. We know that controversy surrounded the consecration of the church. Perhaps the death of the donor before the bells were installed and the subsequent hiatus surrounding the consecration caused any enthusiasm for recruiting and training a band to dissipate. Surely if there was going to be full circle ringing the consecration service would have been the perfect opportunity and yet it is recorded that only a single bell tolled. What we do know for certain is that when Francis Dawe visited in 1886 the false ceiling without “mouse-holes” was in place effectively rendering the bells unringable. We also know that “mouse-holes” were cut in the floor by Geoff Armitage in 1975. I think we can say with absolute certainty that the bells could not have been rung full circle between 1886 and 1975. I believe we know all the occasions the bells have been rung subsequently but it is always possible that other bands have visited without advertising the fact, although unlikely because of the need to dismantle and reassemble the chiming apparatus. In my opinion it is therefore more likely than not, from the available evidence, that this ring of bells have still been rung for less than three hours in total during their nearly 150 years existence.
I would like to acknowledge the contributions, either directly or indirectly, of the following in the preparation of this article. Geoffrey Spencer, Tim Jackson, Chris Pickford, Neil Skelton, Jason Hughes.