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Church bell may be retuned, despite historical considerations

17 June 2022


All Saints’, Stranton

All Saints’, Stranton

THE Consistory Court of the diocese of Durham has granted a faculty for the restoration and retuning of the eight bells of All Saints’, Stranton, in Hartlepool, despite opposition from the Church Buildings Council (CBC) to the retuning of one of the bells, which was a historic listed bell and deemed worthy of preservation in as near its original state as possible.

All Saints’ is essentially medieval, with some fragments of 12th-century work surviving in the chancel, and is Grade II* listed. The PCC applied for a faculty for the restoration of and retuning of the bells. The CBC’s concerns related to the sixth bell, which was believed to have been cast in or before 1599 by an unknown founder.

The fourth bell was cast by Samuel Smith of York, in 1664, and the other six bells were cast by Mears & Stainbank, in 1907. Very little maintenance had been carried out on the bells since 1907. Industrial pollution and the effects of weather, coupled with the position of the church on the coast of the North Sea, had all affected the condition of the bells and their fittings.

Consequently, the bells were caked in salt, sand, and grime from industry. They were all tuned before modern methods were employed, and are all out of tune — some by more than a tone. The wooden bell-fittings all show significant wear, and the brackets and pins holding them in place are badly rusted, as is the rolled-steel and iron bell-frame.

Two bell-founders who were invited by the PCC to survey the bells concluded that, unless work was carried out soon, the bells would become increasingly difficult to ring, and would become unringable in a few years. The PCC proposed to ensure that they were suitable for the next 150 years.

To achieve that, the bells needed to be removed from the tower and taken to the workshop of John Taylor & Co., in Loughborough, where a significant amount of work, estimated to cost £75,000, would have to be done. That would include sandblasting to clean them, fitting new headstocks and wheels, de-rusting and painting the bell frame, and retuning the bells. On completion of the work and reinstallation, the bells and frame would then need no more than minor maintenance for the next 150 years.

There was a large and enthusiastic team of bell-ringers in Hartlepool who rang at All Saints’ every Sunday, and also for weddings, special church and civic services, and significant local and national events. Hartlepool Borough Council recognised the bells at All Saints’ as being of cultural significance in the town.

The church attracted visiting bell-ringers from around the UK and from overseas, on ringing tours and to ring peals or simply to join the team for Sunday-service ringing. Historically, the bells at the church had been used to teach new recruits, and the ringing band had five members qualified to teach bell-handling. Members ranged in age from ten years to over 80, and the bells were used for practice every Wednesday.

The PCC regarded the continued sound of bells as essential to the church’s outreach and ministry. It was known that a number of the congregation joined after hearing the bells ringing for Sunday worship. The PCC contended that the bells would become much easier to ring and, after retuning, would sound much better, while still having the character of the Stranton bells. There had been a fund-raising campaign that had the support of the congregation, and many others had also contributed to the cost of the proposed work.

That work was uncontroversial, except in relation to bell No. 6, the oldest bell. Tuning could be achieved only by shaving off some of the bell’s metal. Since bell No. 6 was believed to predate 1600, it appeared in the CBC’s list of bells that should be preserved because of their historical importance.

The CBC’s Conservation of Bells and Bellframes Code of Practice recommended that, for historic bells, the presumption should be to leave them as found. John Taylor & Co., who would be carrying out the proposed work, said that it was “very much a rare occasion when we recommend the tuning of listed bells, but in this case, we consider it to be very worthwhile”.

The CBC’s advice against retuning was based principally on maintaining the sound of the bell, so that there was an aural link to the past. Bells were, the CBC explained, “some of the country’s oldest sounding musical instruments . . . a rare link back to sounds experienced by our communities over centuries”, and “part of the aural history of the place, experienced by generations in Stranton”.

Retuning would lead to the removal of some metal from bell No. 6, but it would not look different because the metal would be taken from the inside of the bell. It would. however. sound different after retuning — if it did not, then retuning would be a pointless exercise.

Chancellor Adrian Iles said that any interference by retuning would result in harm to bell No. 6 as a bell of special historic interest, and, consequently, it would be likely to affect the character of the church as a building of special architectural or historic interest.

The Chancellor was satisfied, however, that the harm to bell No. 6 and the church would be slight. The bell had already been tuned and had metal shaved from it in 1907. The sound it made today was not the sound that was heard in 1600. That sound had already been lost, and could not be restored. Retuning the bells in 2022 would affect the sound of the bell only as it sounded in 1907.

When the retuning of historic bells had taken place relatively recently — near the turn of the 20th century, compared with the bell’s origins going back to the 16th century — the Chancellor said that the CBC’s arguments against retuning weakened.

If bell No. 6 was not retuned, a significant improvement could still be achieved from the whole ring of eight bells. But that was not the best outcome for this project, the Chancellor said. The justification put forward for retuning bell No. 6 was so that the optimum sound could be achieved from ringing all eight bells. According to the diocesan bell adviser, bell No. 6 was not only abysmally out of tune, but its individual tonal qualities were misaligned. Its deficiencies could not be completely remedied, but its sound could be improved by retuning, as could the sound of the whole ring.

“Bells proclaim the glory of God” and “are a joyful celebration of our Lord’s resurrection”, the Chancellor said. Bells also “announce to the local community that worship is about to begin, and they summon the faithful”. The local bell-ringing team was active despite the difficulties of ringing the eight bells in their present state. The PCC’s wish to improve the sound of the bells as much as possible was fully justified, the Chancellor ruled.

On the evidence before the court, the presumption against retuning bell No. 6 was rebutted. Any harm caused by retuning that bell was slight, and was outweighed by the benefits to the church and the community. A faculty was granted for the full scope of the proposed works, including the retuning of bell No. 6.

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