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The Culworth Bells

2012, besides being the date of the Diamond Jubilee, is also the 400th anniversary of the oldest bell in the tower of St Mary’s Culworth, cast in 1612 by Newcombe of Leicester.

The five bells in the tower were all cast between 1612 and 1805.  Two of them, the treble (the lightest) and the tenor (the heaviest) were both cast locally by the Bagley family in Chacombe who had a foundry there between 1605 and 1785.  The treble dates from 1713 and the tenor, 1636.  The Bagleys were known for the rich decoration of their bells and include inscriptions like this amusing one from a bell at Grandborough in Warwickshire; ‘I ring to sermon with a lusty tone that all may come and none may stay at home.’  Our tenor has the inscription ‘By my voice the People may know to come to hear the word of God.  Henry Bagley made mee 1636.’

Our oldest bell, the 4th, was cast by the foundry of Robert Newcombe in Leicester in 1612 and has the inscription ‘Be knowne to all that doth me see that Newcombe of Leicester made Mee 1612.’ The number 2 bell was cast by Edward Hemins from Bicester in 1747. He had gained experience at the Bagley foundry in Chacombe.  He was a watchmaker, a manufacturer of lantern and turret clocks, a bell founder and gunsmith!  He died in 1744 (our bell is dated 1747!) and the furnaces of the Bicester bellfoundry were used for the last time in 1743.  Before the nineteenth century bellfounders tended to be itinerant, travelling from church to church to cast bells on site so it is possible that this bell and maybe others were actually cast in Culworth.

Bell number 3 was cast by John Briant of Hertford.  He was also a clockmaker and one of England’s finest bellfounders  producing over 420 bells the finest being a 31cwt tenor bell at Coventry Cathedral.

The priest bell or sanctus bell, not part of the ring, is dated 1700 and innamed.

Today there are only two bellfounders in the whole of Britain, John Taylor from Loughborough and the Whitechapel  bellfoundry , dating back to 1570 and the oldest commercial company in Britain.  It also produced the eight bells in the floating bell tower at the head of the Jubilee river pagent , which eventually will be placed in the tower of the church of St James Garlickhythe.

Unfortunately there is in the parish record an account of a certain Edward Elsden being killed by a bell ‘upon Tuesday in Easter week being 10th April 1694’.  In 1863 another accident occurred  ‘when one of the bells fell and nearly killed the clerk.’

Other facts discovered from ‘The church bells of Northamptonshire’ written in 1878,  include that in 1712, before the treble was cast, the upper part of the tower was rebuilt .” The Pancake-bell (4th) is rung occasionally on Shrove-Tuesday but the custom is dying out. The Gleaning-bell is rung during harvest at 8 a.m. At the Death-knell three tolls are given for a male, two for a female.  On Sunday the 1st and 2nd bells are rung at 7 a.m. in the summer, at 8 a.m. in the winter. A bell called "The Sermon-bell" is rung at 10 a.m. and at 2 p.m. For Divine Service the bells are chimed, after which the Priest's bell is sounded for ten minutes. The 3rd bell is sounded after a celebration of the Holy Communion as the Communicants are leaving the church. The bells are always rung for an hour on the four Monday mornings in Advent commencing at 5 a.m.

I think there may be some objections in the village if some of these customs were reintroduced!

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