Appeal lets bells ring out again after half a century

Andrew Ogden at work on the refit in the bell tower.
Andrew Ogden at work on the refit in the bell tower.
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THE bells of a Georgian church in a West Yorkshire village have been silent for 50 years – but tomorrow the residents of Tong village in Bradford, will be able to hear the bells of St James’s for the first time since the 1960s following their careful restoration.

The peal will be tested before returning to regular use before services.

Louise Connacher, who co-ordinated the restoration project and will be among those involved in the test, is intrigued to find out how they sound.

“I’m delighted that the completion of the refurbishment of the bells is now in sight,” she said.

“They have not been rung regularly since the 1960s so it’s about 50 years of them being silent. I do not think that I have ever rung bells as old as these.”

Five of the six bells at the grade I listed church date from 1730, with the sixth added in 1841.

Mrs Connacher, 42, who lives nearby, said: “I am assuming there was no interest in the village to carry on bell ringing and they ceased up and fell into disrepair.

“The bells were very dirty and they were covered in pigeon muck and stuff like that so I think it’s a combination of a lack of use and being left with no maintenance.”

The bells were removed from the church last September and taken to John Taylor’s Bell Foundry at Loughborough for repair. Since then, they have been cleaned and tuned by the expert founders.

The craftsmen have also fabricated huge new wheels from which they swing, pulleys and other fittings.

They came back to the church at the end of January – and went on display for Tong residents before being hoisted into the tower.

As well as the restoration, those involved with the project have learned about their history and the lives of those who rang them.

St James’s Church was built in 1727 by Sir George Tempest of Tong Hall – and its “ring” of five bells date back to 1730.

They were cast in York and research suggests reach was transported from there to their new home by river, although no one knows how the final part of the journey to Tong was completed.

Records have also revealed that the world of bell-ringing was not always sweetness and light.

Skulduggery has been uncovered – especially when prize money was at stake.

Mrs Connacher said that records showed that ringers from St James’ would walk all over West Yorkshire to compete and documents show they even went as far as Saddleworth.

One story suggested the ringers feared had been given damp mattresses by their hosts to try to scupper their chances.

They were also involved in some marathon ringing sessions.

“There is one story from the early 19th century where some bell ringers had rung an extra long peal and the ringers were not going to be outdone so they rang 10,440 changes and it took them over six hours. We are not going to do that,” said Mrs Connacher .

A new local group of ringers has been formed in Tong – but more recruits are needed to complete the team. Training will start in the spring after being advertised locally.

Mrs Connacher has been a bell ringer since she was 16.

She hopes the restoration and the sound of the test ringing will attract new people to the pastime.

Change ringing has been described as particularly English and is thought to have originated here in the 16th century although groups of enthusiasts do exist in the United States.

The mathematical formulae for altering the order with which bells are run have names that include beautiful curiosities such as Grandshire triples and bobs.

Technology has caught up too, with many websites dedicated to the skill and its origins – and offering animated lessons to those wanting to learn.

Bellringing also has a place in detective fiction – with Dorothy L Sayers chosing the pastime as an integral part of the plot facing her character of Lord Peter Wimsey in The Nine Tailors, published in the 1930s

Mrs Connacher said: “I am now looking forward to building a new team to ring and maintain these lovely bells,” she said.

She adds that learning is not hard and urges anyone interested to get involved. She said: “You need co-ordination and a bit of rhythm really and people of all ages learn really.”

During practice, silencers can be put on the bells, so the local community is not disturbed.

A nearby school also plans to include the story of the bells in a local history project of its own.

An open day will be held in the summer, when visitors can learn about the church’s history, the bells and the 18th and 19th century ringers, as well as watching demonstrations.

The £63,000 restoration project received a grant of £45,900 from the Heritage Lottery Fund.

In addition to this, more than £11,000 been raised locally, much of it through bequests, coffee mornings and similar events.

One lady who worshipped at the church for many years even asked that donations be made to celebrate her 90th birthday.

Grants also came from the Yorkshire Association of Change Ringers and the Central Council of Church Bell Ringers.

And, as the bells ring out once more those involved know it has been a real community effort to restore a piece of local history.

Industrial heritage on church sites

Historically, installing or making a bell was a major community occasion – and everyone would get involved.

Across the country, evidence of furnaces has been discovered in church grounds, possible evidence of bells being cast on such sites or even within the church buildings.

Some bell founders travelled from place to place for work, while others settled to establish factories in diocesan centres such as London, Salisbury and Gloucester.

While also associated with ancient religions, modern bell founding had its origins in monasticism in the 6th century, casting bells for places of worship, but later for use in public buildings and clocks.

Bell ringers usually stand in circles, each with their own ropes and bells.

The mathematical patterns known as change ringing are practised all over the world and still remain popular in England – with marathons being organised for major public occasions. Single bells may be tolled as signals, such as the outbreak of war.

Most churches have six or eight bells but some bigger towers may have as many as 16.