THE BELLS OF ST. MARY THE VIRGIN, EWELL


The Bells of St Mary the Virgin, Ewell when taken down for repair
The Bells of St Mary the Virgin, Ewell when taken down for repair
Image courtesy of Bourne Hall Museum

History

Ewell has had a ring of bells since the sixteenth century, as shown in an inventory of the furnishings of the parish church made in 1548: "In primis iiij belles of one ring and a saunce [Sanctus] bell". These would not have been rung in the way we are familiar with today, as change-ringing and the whole wheel that makes the art possible were not known at that time. There were five bells in the tower until 1767 when they were taken to Lester and Pack's foundry in London where they were re-cast into a ring of six weighing 51 cwt. 2 qr. 15 lb. Two of the new bells, the Tenor and the Treble, were ''Maidens" - bells that do not need tuning- and the other four were tuned by chipping pieces off the lip. The diameter at the lip the tenor was 3 ft. 7 ins. and of the treble 2 ft. 5 1/4 ins. Three of these bells remain in the current ring. Lester and Pack cast many bells hung in Surrey and those at Ewell are the 1ast to still be in place. The bells were re-hung in the manner of a modern ring, with a whole wheel and slider equipment. They cost £77.16s.5 1/2d. The bill was paid between 16 April and 2l August 1770. With the additional cost of the bell-frame, £69.15s.7d, and other expenses, the total cost was £160.2s.9 1/2d. (£16325 at 2006 prices).

By 1830 it had become necessary to re-cast the fourth bell; presumably because it was cracked. The work was performed by Thomas Mears, the successor of Lester & Pack, at the London foundry, now at Whitechapel. The weight of the bell, 8 cwt. 19 lbs, was unchanged.

One of the bells during repair. (Note the Peal Board on the left)
One of the bells during repair. (Note the Peal Board on the left)
Image courtesy of Bourne Hall Museum

In 1848 the six bells were transferred to the new church and re-hung in the frame from the old building. They were hung so that the ropes fell neither in a regular circle nor in order but descended in the order Treble-2-3-5-4-Tenor. Their original tower is all that now remains of the old Church, although one of the arguments for its demolition in 1847 had been that the tower was unsafe!

The bells were poorly maintained and by 1889 the old fittings were disintegrating and the fifth and the tenor bells had both cracked in the crown. The fifth also had three canons missing. On 18 November 1889 Mears & Stainbank, the latest successors to the Lester & Pack foundry, recommended that the fifth bell should be re-cast, and the other five quarter-turned. The fittings were almost unusable - the ironwork was eaten through by rust, the headstocks were pieced in many places, and the bearings were very worn causing the bells to ring unsteadily, placing excessive strain on the frame. The wheels were as old as the bells, and were split and too weak to repair. The cost of restoring the bells came to £ll4 and included re-casting the fifth bell, six sets of new fittings of elm headstocks with steel gudgeons and gun-metal bearings, wheels, braces, stays and sliders, rollers, and five reversed staples for the clappers of the quarter-turned bells; also included was the cost of removing, renovating and re-tuning the bells. A new frame of best seasoned English Oak to hold eight bells, in anticipation of completing the octave, would cost an additional £73. The Founders also provided an estimate for two extra treble bells at £83, thus bringing the total cost of the work to £270.10s.3d.

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The Bells of St Mary the Virgin, Ewell when taken down for repair
Image courtesy of Bourne Hall Museum

By December 1889 the tenor bell had also cracked and needed recasting at a cost of £35.11s.9d and something had to be done. The Churchwardens appealed for funds. The work which included the re-casting of the fifth and tenor bells, providing a new oak frame and fittings for the six bells; and adding two new treble bells to complete the octave was carried out in 1890 and the account dated 23 June totalled £301.14s.4d. (£22821 at 2006 prices).

In 1925 the whole ring was re-hung on ball bearings in the same frame by Gillett and Johnson of Croydon, the only time since 1767 that the bells have been overhauled by a bell-founder other than the Whitechapel foundry of Lester & Pack, and successors.

Some of the bells have interesting inscriptions, for example:
  • No. 3 At proper times my voice I will raise and sound to my benefactor's praise;
  • No. 5 Our voices shall with joyful sound make hills and valleys echo round.
  • No. 7 To honour both of God and King our voices shall in consort ring, recast 1890
In 1969 the Whitechapel Bell Foundry Ltd, as it had then become, once again had to restore the bells to full working order, at an estimated cost of £2500. The main work was to replace the old oak bell frame by a new iron one to rest on new steel girders firmly grouted into the tower walls. The bells were finally re-hung by Christmas 1970.

The Bells of St Mary the Virgin, Ewell when taken down for repair
The Bells of St Mary the Virgin, Ewell when taken down for repair
Image courtesy of Bourne Hall Museum

The weights, notes and diameters of the bells after the 1970 re-hanging are
Bell Number Weight (Imperial) Weight (metric) Note Date Maker Diameter (imperial) Diameter (metric)
Tenor 12 cwt. 2 qr. 2 lb. 636 kg F# 1890 Mears & Stainbank 3' 7" 1.092 m
7 9 cwt. 1 qr. 19 lb. 479 kg G# 1890 Mears & Stainbank 3' 2" 0.965 m
6 7 cwt. 0 qr. 11 lb. 361 kg A# 1830 Thomas Mears 2' 10 5/8" 0.879 m
5 6 cwt. 2 qr. 3 lb. 332 kg B 1767 Lester & Pack 2' 9" 0.838 m
4 5 cwt. 3 qr. 27 lb. 304 kg C# 1767 Lester & Pack 2' 7" 0.787 m
3 5 cwt. 1 qr. 10 lb. 271 kg D# 1767 Lester & Pack 2' 4" 0.711 m
2 4 cwt. 1 qr. 15 lb. 223 kg E# 1890 Mears & Stainbank 2' 3 ½" 0.699 m
Treble 4 cwt. 0 qr. 1 lb. 204 kg F# 1890 Mears & Stainbank 2' 2 ¼" 0.667 m

The bells had a narrow escape when fire damaged the north aisle of the church on 25 November 1973, and ringing was suspended for a few weeks.

Accounts

The various accounts of the Churchwardens and the Vestry Minute Books have some interesting entries relating to the bells e.g
13 Sep 1770 By Do. to one pt of Aile [Oil?] for the bells -. -. 9d.
16 Jly 1771 By Do. to Mr. Allingham for Bell ropes £1. 16.0d.
12 Feb 1784 Materials and labour for repairing sound hole in steple. -.2.4d.
1795 Beer for the Bell Hangers. -.5. 0d.

Between 16 April 1770 and 7 April 1813, nine new sets of bell ropes and 7 pints of oil are recorded. . It is interesting to note that until 1790 a set of ropes cost £1.16.0d., but a set bought in 1797 cost £2.2.0d. This may be a reflection of inflation following the outbreak of war with France in 1793 (the equivalent 2006 prices being £161 and £167, respectively ). A single bell-rope of the length necessary at Ewell cost about £4 in 1964 (£56 at 2006 prices ), and £86 in 2007. Similarly a pint of oil cost one shilling till 1810, but one shilling and two pence after this.

A further series of payments shows regular charges for bell ringers. Bells were not just used for religious purposes, but were often rung for any reason at all, or for none. Ringing for special events such as Royal Birthdays and 5 November, and tolling for funerals, was well paid and common across the county. Examples from Ewell are:
Between 13 Sept and 5 Nov 1770.
By Do. to Pickering for the Ringers on the Kings Birthday 6. 0d
5 Nov 1770.
By Do. to Mr. Cook for the Ringers on the 5th of Nov. 6. 0d
12 Oct 1778
By Cash to six ringing days. £1.16. 0d

Traditions

The bells were also rung to observe ancient customs, such as the Matins bell at eight o'clock on Sunday morning and on Christmas day, but this ceased in 1877. The Sanctus is still rung during the Communion Service when the sixth bell is rung three times at the consecration of the bread and again at the consecration of the wine. This custom was revived in 1944.

Another tradition is "Ringing-In the New Year". This includes "diminishing rounds", where the lightest bell is stopped, then the next lightest, and so on until just the tenor is left to ring the twelve blows of midnight. Other ringing customs such as the Curfew and the Death Knell or Soul Bell presumably took place in Ewell, but there is no record of them.

Besides the usual peal boards in the ringing chamber, a notice painted on a long board proclaims:
"We to the Church the living call And to the Grave do summon all."

The Bells of St Mary the Virgin, Ewell when taken down for repair
The Bells of St Mary the Virgin, Ewell when taken down for repair
Image courtesy of Bourne Hall Museum

Rules of the Belfry

Modern day rules. Click image to enlarge
Modern day rules of the Belfry. Click to enlarge.
Copyright photo courtesy of Clive Gilbert 2007

Ewell belfry, as with belfries elsewhere, had a set of "Rules to be observed by the Company of Ringers". These were compiled in August 1857 to curb the general unruliness of the ringers. For instance, under Rule 3 the Vicar and Wardens had to approve filling a vacancy, and under Rule 10 they would decide any dispute between two ringers. Under Rules 6 and 7 drinking and smoking were forbidden in the belfry with a penalty of sixpence, and swearing and bad language bore a fine of twopence. A late arrival for ringing was punished with a fine of one penny under Rule 8, and total absence cost the offender twopence. The fines were put into the Ewell Savings Bank and then divided amongst the ringers who had rung on special occasions at Christmas.

Two curious items included in the code are Rules 4 and 15. Rule 4 provided that any absent member of the Company could with the approval of the other ringers, send a substitute of his own choosing. Rule 15 forbade disconnecting the chiming hammers of the clock within three minutes of it striking, and also that any damage caused by incorrect disconnection had to be paid for by the ringers. This last rule was added to the code in 1872, possibly because some damage had been caused in this way already.

The Ringers

Some of the ringers
Some more ringers
Ringers during a Tuesday evening practice session in May 2007
Copyright photos courtesy of Clive Gilbert 2007

A history of the bells would not be complete without a mention of the Beams family. Besides being tower leader for a record period, John Edwin Beams was a founder member of the Guildford Diocesan Guild of Church Bell Ringers. His grandfather Jesse (1836-1910), who was the village postman, his father John (1871-1940) and two uncles, including Harry George (born 1863), were also ringers. John and Harry George's names can be seen on peal boards across the district.

Other prominent ringers include Jack and Peter Munday. Jack came to Ewell in 1948. He was Secretary of Guild from 1965 to 1975, then Master till 1977, then Bell Restoration Fund Administrator 1984 -5 (38). His son Peter became Assistant Leader at Ewell in 1972, and was Master of the Leatherhead district of the Guild. Sidney Philbrick, MBE (1916-2000) rang at Ewell from 1962 and contributed much to the maintenance of the bells and the ringing chamber, in particular using his carpentry skills.

Tower Leaders:
1903 - Mar 1943 Charles Read
Mar 1943 - Jan 1998 John E Beams (1905-2003)
Jan 1998 - Jan 2002 Malcolm Pitstow
Jan 2002 - Dec 2006 Graham Cannings
Dec 2006 - Jeff Cousins

Practice night has been on Tuesday from 7:30 pm to 9:30 pm since at least 1918. Two hours is unusually long: most towers ring for an hour and a half, or less.

Since c. 1950 there has been an annual outing in September or early October to other towers in the south of England. At its peak, two coaches were needed to convey all the ringers, their friends and relations, and members of the congregation.

Terminology

A "change" is a sequence of each bell being pulled once, and a "peal" is 5000 or more "changes" without any of the sequences being repeated. A particular series of changes is known as a "method". The set of bells in a tower is a "ring". The person in charge of ringing a peal is known as the "conductor". Ewell uses the term "Tower Leader" rather than the more usual Tower Captain for the person who runs the service, wedding and practice ringing. The group of ringers at a particular tower is known as the "local band".

Peals

One of the bells during repair. (Note the Peal Board on the left)
One of the bells during repair. (Note the Peal Board on the left)
Image courtesy of Bourne Hall Museum

Peals are recorded in a Peal Book kept in the tower, and the most notable are commemorated on painted peal boards hung on the walls of the ringing chamber. The first peal on the octave was rung on Monday, 26 December 1892, for the Surrey Association of Change-ringers and took two hours and fifty two minutes.

Peal Board 1Peal Board 3Peal Board 2Peal Board 4Peal Board 5Peal Board 6
Peal Boards
Copyright photos courtesy of Clive Gilbert 2007

The 200th peal was rung on Boxing Day 1992, exactly a century later, and included several of the ringers who had taken part in the 100th peal in 1956. The 1st, 100th and 200th peals were all to the same "method", Holt's Ten Part Peal of Grandsire Triples. On 29 July 1972, a peal was rung to a new method. It took two hours and fifty-three minutes and was given the name of Nonsuch Surprise Major.

The first peal at Ewell that included a lady ringer was rung in 1924.

Martin Morris 1973, with additions by Jeff Cousins.
Abridged for the Epsom and Ewell History Explorer web-site by Liz Manterfield 2007.
Further details can be found in Occasional paper No. 6 of the Nonsuch Antiquarian Society.

Sources:
1. Sy. A.C. IV 171. "Surrey Church Notes Temp. Edw. VI" JR Daniel-Tyssen,FSA (1869) 171;Sy.A.C.XXIV 6 and Sy.A.C. XXI 53.
2. A short History of Ewell and Nonsuch, CS Willis (1948), 16.
3. Surrey Bells and London Bellfounders, JCI Stahlschmidt (1884),
4. Churches and Chapels of Ease in the County of Surrey (1823-8) under "Ewell". CT Cracklow
5. Mears & Stainbank, Whitechape1. Estimates Book 1886-1890. Page 539 verso. Guildford 10/181/(2). Ewell Library.
6. Ewell Vestry Minutes Book. Guildford Muniment Room. No. 27/3/11.
7. Glyn Family Documents. No.559a.
8. Peal Board, Accounts, and papers kept in the Ewell ringing chamber.
9. Information from Mr J Beams.
10. Ewell Churchwardens Account Books. Guildford 27/3/8-9
11. Ewel1 Vestry Minutes, Guildford 27/3/11
12. Ringing World LIX No. 2742 (8 Nov. 1963) p.749.
13. A Short History of Surrey Bells and Ringing Customs, Trevor S Jennings, March 1974, Kingston upon Thames (copy kept in the Ewell ringing chamber).
14. Annual Reports of the Guildford Diocesan Guild of Church Bell Ringers.
15. Bulletin of the Nonsuch Antiquarian Society dated August, 1964.