Bells in Gilling Church

The bells in the church tower were examined in September 1996 by Mr John Arthur of Pickering. He was very thorough and inspected the bells themselves and the framework supporting them. It was fascinating to listen to such an expert as he explained the bells and bell-ringing.

The Tower
The tower is in three stages: the ground floor vestry some 40' high, the clock chamber above, and the bell chamber itself at the top. Access to the middle and upper floors is by a narrow stone spiral staircase which is normally kept locked for safety. In the vestry Mr Arthur notes that the bellropes “are evidently cut down ringing ropes but with no tail ends”, and that the height of this area would make it impractical to ring the bells full circle as the ropes would fly “in an uncontrolled manner”.

The clock chamber is about 15' high; the floor, including a trapdoor through into the vestry, has recently been replaced and is in good condition. The ceiling has a number of large, old beams which enter the stonework of the walls, plus some extra, smaller beams to support part of the clock mechanism. The clock was installed in 1908. It is a fine piece of engineering with separate weights for the clock and the strike mechanism, both of which are wound once a week.

The bell chamber is some 25' high, and the floor has been replaced relatively recently. “However, no hatchway was provided and this oversight means that there is extra work which has to be done in any restoration” [of the bells]. The floor obscures the bottom of the bell frame (supporting timbers) which makes it difficult to record the details of the frame itself. In passing Mr Arthur notes that the wooden louvres in the belfry windows are working loose and suggests they should be repaired. Several of the slats have fallen out of their grooves, and this seems to have got worse over the past year. The roof is in good condition. Mr Arthur was unsure whether the roof beams would be strong enough to support the weight of the bells should they need to be removed from the tower in the course of any restoration work.

The Bell Frame
Mr Arthur spent a considerable time exploring the wooden supports for the bells or “bell frame”, which is of massive timbers. The frame can be classified as:
Group 3 type B; King Post C type 8; Short Heads type 5;
Braces type 2; Transoms G type 1, fixing type 2
Layout 3.1 (A3,B2,C1) [Chris Pickford: “Bellframes – A Practical Guide to Inspection and Recording”]

He reports that “This frame can [be] simply described as a fine example of a King Post frame with curved braces. It is also evident that little alteration and damage has been caused to it over the years. ... The only obvious alterations, which could be easily reversed, are that the sliders and runner boards have been fitted when these bells were converted to full circle ringing. Wooden pulley boxes were also fitted.” There are records suggesting it dates from 1503, which would suggest it was built as an integral part of the tower itself, and it is listed by the Council for the Care of Churches as being ‘worthy of preservation’. There is no easy way of dating the frame directly, but it does have the initials TF 1767 carved into it. The bells are hung on the frame with traditional wooden headstocks, and the details of the construction “...lead me to believe that these bells were last re-hung sometime around the 1850’s”. [Mr Arthur’s report goes into considerable detail about the way the bells are hung.]

It seems that the bells were originally rung by swinging them over a small arc which was normal practice for small churches. At some later date, probably mid-19th century, they were converted to full-circle ringing, but this was not a success – perhaps the frame could not take the strain. Now the bells, especially the smaller ones, have seized up in their bearings, and are rung simply by “clocking” them, i.e. striking the clapper (which has the rope tied to it) directly against the side of the bell without swinging it at all. The bells have cast iron clappers held in place with a flat “U” which was originally lined with leather but this has long since rotted/worn away; the clappers only retain one of the two bolts they had. In any restoration these clappers should probably be removed along with the iron staples, but “ they are of some age they ought to be displayed at some suitable location”.

Mr Arthur noted that the bells have “traditional old piece wheels” fitted, dating from the time when they were swung full circle. These are in poor condition, and could not be used in any restoration scheme, but he did suggest that one of these wheels should be preserved if possible. That for the largest bell is the best preserved. The bells are also fitted with “stays, sliders and runner boards” from this period, but these too are “...not serviceable”.

bell and frame The photo shows the largest bell, mounted on a solid wooden headstock; the bell frame is a King Post frame with curved braces. The hammer for the clock strike can just be seen at the bottom left, emerging through the slot which has been cut for it right through the king post!

The Bells
The bells themselves are later than the frame on which they hang [but see note below], probably being re-casts of the originals. There are three bells. They are generally in a poor condition, with the two smaller ones being cracked (mainly because of the nature of their construction in which a wrought iron loop or staple is cast into the bell-metal itself; over the years differential expansion/contraction of the two different metals has caused a crack to develop at the top where the two metals meet, and this has subsequently spread down and round the body of the bells).

The smallest or Treble bell is by Samuel Smith of York, dated 1701: unfortunately it is unknown whether this refers to Samuel Smith (1639–1709) or his son of the same name (1672–1731). This bell has quite a large visible crack which affects its tone. It bears the inscription: HALLEELVIAH ANNO DOM 1701 SS EBOR

The middle bell was cast by Pack & Chapman in 1773. “My records show that the master founders at the time at Whitechapel were Lester, Pack and Chapman. Why was Lester not acknowledged on the bell?”. The inscription on this bell reads: S. RICHARDSON & SIMON hUTHINSON CH:WARDENS PACK & CHAPMAN OF LONDON FECIT 1773. Unfortunately this bell is also cracked and its tone affected.

The largest or Tenor bell is the oldest (1664) and best of the three. It is “extremely interesting ... although quite a rough casting in many respects”. There is no founder’s mark on the bell. It was given by Charles Fairfax, as recorded in its inscription (which is hard to decipher): GOD [ ]AVE [ ]IS CHVRCH CHARLES FAIRFEP[ ]AX WP 1664. Although this large bell also has iron staples, it does not seem to be cracked and is listed as worthy of preservation. This is the bell you hear in the village for services, also used by the clock. [Mr George Dawson later informed us that this bell was cast by Thomas Wood, bellfounder of Thirsk.]

All the bells have deep wear marks where they have been struck by the clappers, as they have been “clocked” or struck in the same place over many years without the bells being turned round to even out the wear.

Unfortunately at present Mr Arthur’s advice is that we should not ring the two smaller bells for fear of damaging them further. They could be repaired but only at great expense.

Mr Arthur’s conclusion is : “The history of this ring can be roughly summarised as a swing chime converted to full circle ringing when this was becoming popular. However the frame must have moved and I suspect that it was only a short time before chiming resumed. The bells became difficult to swing chime so a well meaning person tied the ropes to the clapper flights and chimed the bells by clocking them.

“Over the years a combination of the effects of ‘clocking’ and the corrosion of the wrought iron staples has caused the bells to become cracked....”

The bell frame should be conserved and ideally the bells should be restored to their original (swinging) condition, with the iron staples removed and new clappers fitted, and the bells themselves repaired (Mr Arthur felt they could be welded by an expert bell foundry). This of course requires removing the bells from the tower which is quite an engineering challenge!

We are fortunate to have a bell frame with at least one bell “worthy of preservation” in Gilling, and it is sad that we cannot currently ring more than one of our bells.

Visit of Bellringers on 25th October 1997

There was a visit to Gilling to see the bells, as part of an educational tour of local churches to see how bells and bell-ringing had developed over many years. Gilling was the earliest set-up to be examined.

Mr Colin Banton of John Taylor Bellfounder Co. (Loughborough) reckoned the frame was not 15/16 century (because the timbers were machine sawn, and not particularly ancient) – probably an 18th century copy of the original frame which would have just about worn out in the intervening 250 or so years. The 1767 is probably therefore right. This of course means that two of the bells pre-date the frame. Could it have been re-built when the 1773 bell was suggested?

The bells might well have been hung for full circle ringing at about this time as change ringing was invented late 17th century. The oldest wooden wheels might be of this vintage. They are locally made, probably by the village carpenter or wheelwright. The consensus was that the latest hanging was probably C19, and is now completely worn out.

It was agreed that the bells should be restored with the iron clappers removed and replaced with free-hanging ones. The hole cut in the top of the bell does not affect its sound at all, and allows for the bell metal to expand/contract safely.It was suggested the bells should be restored in a stationary form with special chiming clappers; the expense might not be too horrendous.

© Gill Smith 1998

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