The New Bells and Frame for St Helen's

Progress Report on the Project

Work started in January 2006 to remove the existing bells from St Helen's, prior to their replacement by a new ring. This is a major project – the budget is about £160,000 – so why are we doing it?

The bells had become extremely hard to ring, and in a few years if nothing were done would become dangerous. This is caused by deterioration in the wooden frame due to its age - it originates from 1764, so this no surprise! Shrinkage has opened up the joints, so the frame is no longer rigid enough to withstand the forces of a total of over four tons of metal in rapid motion. In addition, the frame was now in two tiers, the upper having been added in 1885 when the number of bells was increased from 8 to 10. The two-tier frame further compromised rigidity, and was far from ideal for sound quality.

The new ring is in the key of F, each bell ranging from one fifth to four fifths of a ton in weight. The ten bells will be hung in a new cast iron frame. They will be a little lighter than the previously existing bells – reducing the strain on the tower, and allowing them to fit all on one level.

  All the new bells were successfully cast in batches at the end of 2005 during October, November and December at the Whitechapel Bell Foundry. This is Britain’s oldest manufacturing company, tracing its origins back to 1420. It has a long association with St Helen's, having cast all the existing bells. In the photograph you see the molten bell metal (23% tin, 77% copper) being poured into the mould to make the new number nine bell on 14th October 2005. This process has changed little in nearly 600 years, and is the same as that used to cast Big Ben on the same site.

 One thing that has changed is tuning. In mediaeval times, it meant chipping a bit off here and there and hoping for the best, with often indifferent results. Modern tuning is done on a lathe with a computer monitoring not only the main note, but four harmonics of it as well. Our new bells will sound glorious!

After tuning the ten new bells at the Whitechapel Bell Foundry, they were delivered to the bellhangers, Whites of Appleton, in early February 2006. The Abingdon bell ringers visited Whites to inspect them, and try out their sound by tapping with small hammers: they did indeed promise to sound as splendid as we planned.

Meanwhile, we rang the old bells for the last time on New Year’s Day. On 2nd January, we emptied the ringing chamber – much of which is now stored in the Tower Captain’s garage, apart from the considerable amount of rubbish we threw away. Later that week the ringers started work on the belfry, removing ropes, clappers and wheels to save the bellhangers time – and us money!

In January, the first professional task was to remove the clock mechanism for a thorough overhaul by a specialist and to prevent damage to it during the rest of the work. Then the builders installed new lifting beams over the belfry.

In early February the bell hangers came on site to remove the bells and the bell frame, helped by seven Abingdon bell ringers as volunteer labourers. The old bells were displayed in the church, and the building opened over the weekend. This generated a lot of interest from both congregation members and general passers-by.

Before the frame was removed, a detailed archaeological record was made by a national expert. One side portion of the old frame has been preserved and is displayed in the clock room.

Our bells have served us well, but this is not the end of their life. The old bells were initially taken to Appleton for storage. The six smallest bells were then collected by the other English bell founders, Taylors Eayre & Smith Ltd. of Loughborough. They have the contract to prepare and hang the bells in their new home at St Cyrians Cathedral, Kimberley, South Africa.

The old number seven bell was collected by another bell hanger from Dorset.  It will be retuned at Whitechapel and then rehung at a church in Falmouth. We are delighted, too, that an opportunity has arisen to sell the number eight bell to another church, Long Crendon in Buckinghamshire, where it will complete a ring of bells from the 1760s. This means all of our surviving original bells have found new homes, and only the heaviest two bells, which date from 1885, are to be sold to the Whitechapel Bell Foundry at scrap value - around £2,000 per bell!

Following final detailed measurements in the empty bell chamber, work started in February on building the new frame in the workshop of Whites of Appleton. When this is nearing completion, expected in late April or early May, we will hold an open viewing when anyone from the congregation may come and see the new bells – easier to visit Appleton than to climb the tower’s spiral staircase after installation!

Meanwhile, the builders carried on getting new foundation beams and sound control installed. The builders will also be carrying out repair work to the tie beams on the tower, which is easier to do while the bells are out.

By April or May, the new frame will be ready for installation in the tower, followed by the bells. When final building work is completed, the clock maker will reinstate the clock mechanism and install new electric winding equipment.

As you will appreciate, all this takes lots of money! The bells have all been sponsored but we will not know for sure how much the building work will cost until scaffolding is in place around the tower and the tie beams can be removed and inspected. We need approximately a further £10,000 to complete the work totalling around £160,000. Donations for the bell appeal please to the Trust for the Development of St Helen’s Church.

When the building work is complete and the frame is constructed, the bell hangers will then install the new bells and frame, ready for the Bishop of Reading to conduct the dedication service. This is now fixed for Tuesday 25th July at 7.00 pm. The St Helen's congregation, donors and local ringers are warmly invited. Then the new bells will be ready to proclaim the presence of God’s Church in Abingdon once more!

Martin Crick, Tower Captain

March 2006