Bell Ringing in Leigh

Notes from talk given by Stella Wooldridge to Leigh Historical Society, October 2005

Stella Wooldridge has been captain of the Tower at Leigh for the last 18 years. She learnt bellringing at Hadlow 25 years ago. Then twenty years ago she moved to Charcott and joined Leigh bellringers as the youngest in the band – she was the youngest when she was made Captain. She used to be one of the two workers at Penshurst Vineyard: now she is an Operating Theatre Assistant at Pembury Hospital .

The original reason for churches to have a bell or bells – at a time when there were no clocks, let alone watches – was primarily to summon the local people to church. Bells were also sounded for special national celebrations, to announce a local death or for a funeral. Traditionally the sound of bells was meant to keep away evil spirits. Before medieval times, churches would have had only one bell – often separated from the church itself.

English bellringing has always been different to European and other bellringing. We wanted the bells to be louder. If you let a clapper hit a stationary bell the sound was deadened and went downwards: but if you tried to swing the bell by means of a lever attached to the top of the bell it would take 10-20 men. So in England they first introduced a half circle swing of the bell by means of a rope: then later as the mechanism and structure became stronger a three quarter circle: and finally a complete circle. Then ‘sliders and stays’ were introduced which prevented the bellringer from pulling the bell right over.

In medieval times, there were generally more bells than now: in Henry VIII’s time – with the dissolution of the monasteries and the split from Rome – the number was much reduced: the Puritans, perhaps surprisingly, did not stop bellringing but it was the period after them, from 1660-1750, which was the hey-day for casting – often by experts who set up their own foundries locally.

The earliest mention of bells in Leigh is from 1636 (although there was almost certainly at least one or two bells before). There were two bells, one of 4 cwt, measuring 29½” in diameter and one of 5 cwt, measuring 30½” and they were cast by John Wilner (who died in 1640). They cost £17/15/0 and were inscribed “John Wilner 1636. J.W. made me and H.W.” The third bell was cast a few years later, 1640, by Henry Wilner of Bordon Foundry, near Maidstone . There seems to have been a connection between the Wilner family and Ightham and some or all these bells may have been cast there. The fourth and fifth bells were cast by Samuel Knight in 1731 (he died in 1739) and were thought to have excellent tone. These were both treble bells, the first weighing a little over 3 cwt and measuring 26½”; and the second weighing 3½ cwt and measuring 25”. They were inscribed with “The gift of Abraham Harrison”.

Abraham Harrison was a past owner of Hall Place , and had left monies and instructions in his Will for the addition of two new bells. He stipulated in his Will that “these must be smaller than the other three as the steeple is weak”. Abraham Harrison died in 1717, so it took over a decade for his wishes to be fulfilled, and probably reflects a period of general increased interest in more advanced change ringing throughout the country around the 1730s. Many churches added to the number of their bells at this time, with a certain amount of rivalry between them.

The restoration of the church in 1861 resulted in a much stronger stone tower to replace the old wooden one. In 1871 the original 5 bells were recast with added metal by Mears & Stainbank at the Whitechapel Bell Foundry, London at a cost to the vicar, the Reverend May, of £213.

It seems clear therefore that bellringing in Leigh was done with respectability and keenness which contrasts with a reputation in many Victorian parishes that bell towers were neglected and the bellringers were often thought of as drunken! (They were, of course, all men). These five 1871 bells are still in Leigh today, together with a sixth bell, a treble, which was added in 1931 (Papers relating to the 1871 recasting are in the LHS archive). At Bidborough church there are two remaining bells from a ring of 4 or 5. The missing ones are said to have gone to the neighbouring parish of Leigh, so perhaps this is the “added metal” referred to when the bells were recast.

Bell Ringers 31 October 1931, probably taken to celebrate the installation of the sixth (treble) bell. From left to right: Bernard Pankhurst, Charlie Ingram, Stan Denton, Miss Lillian Passingham, Wliiam Card, Bert Stubbings
Bell Ringers 31 October 1931, probably taken to celebrate the installation of the sixth (treble) bell. From left to right: Bernard Pankhurst, Charlie Ingram, Stan Denton, Miss Lillian Passingham, Wliiam Card, Bert Stubbings

In the 1930s, when Bernard Pankhurst was Captain of The Tower (he lived at Chestnuts on The Green), it was felt the bells should be examined – it was, after all, seventy years since they had been installed. It was found that they needed to be re-hung and they were duly quarter-turned and various parts of the housing including the gudgeons replaced.

Lil Passingham – who later became Mrs Bernard Pankhurst – was one of the first woman bellringers.

There was an inspection of the bells in 1954 which led to the bells being re-hung and quarter turned. In 1978 there was a further inspection when general maintenance was undertaken but it was decided not to replace the wooden headstocks with cast iron ones (See full correspondence in the Archive). All this happened when Joan Collins (Mrs J M Collins of 1 Engineers Cottage) was Captain of the Tower. (for more information ask Nick Butcher).

There are only two bell foundries left today – Taylors of Loughborough and The Whitechapel Foundry.

Currently there are up to 8 – 10 bellringers who ring regularly or occasionally in St Mary’s with 3-4 learning. The split is roughly 50:50 men and women.

In May 2005, Leigh won the Tonbridge District Striking Competition (which means the most regular bellringing) competing against 4 other teams.

Note: See also Chapter by Ben Fagg and Arthur Lewis plus other mentions of St Mary’s bellringing in “We Had Everything …”

Published in Leigh Parish Magazine: Jan/Feb 2009