Celebration of Horsham bell-ringing today

Horsham Festival of Bells 250 is taking place today (Saturday April 9) to celebrate the anniversary of the original peal.

Saturday, 9th April 2016, 7:00 am
Updated Saturday, 9th April 2016, 1:42 pm
The Horsham bells at St Marys Church pictured in 1921
The Horsham bells at St Marys Church pictured in 1921

A mini-ring of bells will be erected in the bandstand and tune ringing and change ringing on handbells will take place around the town centre.

There will be a rope-making demonstration in the Carfax and public demonstration ringing at St Mary’s parish church.

Horsham Museum have a Henry Burstow exhibition and there will be a ringing exhibition in the church.

The sound of church bells is a very English sound and the way in which they are rung in a system of changes is a unique English art.

Historical records suggest that there were bells in the steeple of St Mary’s parish church in the Causeway as far back as the 16th century and perhaps even earlier.

In 1594 there is known to have been a bell foundry in the area known as Normandy at the East end of the church from where it is likely that some of the earliest bells were cast and repaired for both Horsham and surrounding towns and villages.

In August 1615 there was a great storm in Horsham: lightning struck the steeple, set it on fire and a poor girl, Elizabeth Stroode, standing by the belfry door was tragically killed. The damage necessitated the re-shingling of the spire and various repairs to the bells, including the re-casting of the ‘great bell’ the heaviest bell and the one that has the lowest note known as the tenor.

The bells were recast again in 1633 and in 1645 the tenor bell was again transported to Chertsey, re-cast and further increased to a new weight of 32 cwt. In 1652 the 3rd bell was also re-cast at Chertsey.

Further work was carried out on the bells in 1718 and again in 1751 when the great bell gave further trouble. It is not documented what happened but possibly the bell had cracked, a common problem in those days.

At a Vestry meeting held in June it was agreed “...that the Great Bell should be immediately taken down and sent to London to be new cast by Thomas Lester Bellfounder in White Chapple”. At this time there were six bells in the tower, being the heaviest set in Sussex, the tenor weighing 36 cwt. Clearly there must have been some delay in procedures because in March 1752 the Vestry took a momentous decision, namely “that the remaining five bells should be taken down and sent away with all convenient speed to Thomas Lester at his foundry in White Chapple, London, in order (with the Tenor which has been sent some time agoe) to be cast into eight bells”.

It is amazing to think that two of these 1752 bells cast over 260 years are still rung every week and form part of the current ring of ten bells.

On New Year’s Eve 1814, another storm felled two elm trees in the Causeway and lightning again struck the steeple causing the second and seventh bells to crack. The cost of repairing these bells by Thomas Mears of Whitechapel was £65. The last disaster occurred in 1838 when the tenor bell was being rung up for a funeral. Somehow the clapper went the wrong way and cracked the bell: the transport and re-casting of this bell cost a further £63. In 1921 a complete restoration cost £521 and then in 1973 the old oak frame was replaced by a steel frame, allowing space for two new bells to be added to form the present excellent ring of 10 bells. The Whitechapel bell foundry in London still exists today as one of just two such foundries in this country, the other being Taylors of Loughborough.

Today ringers only get paid to ring for weddings or funerals, but in previous centuries they were paid good money to ring each year for national occasions: e.g. the churchwardens accounts show payment of 15s was made for ringing on each of the following five dates in 1839/1840:

May 24th: Queen Victoria’s (20th) birthday

May 29th: Restoration of the monarchy (Charles II in 1660)

Jun 20th: Anniversary of Queen Victoria’s accession to the throne (in 1837)

Nov 5th: Anniversary of the Gunpowder Plot (in 1605)

Feb 10th: Queen Victoria’s wedding to Prince Albert

On 11th April 1766 the Horsham band rang the third ever peal in Sussex and the first rung by a local Sussex band, a remarkable feat in terms of both mental and physical effort. At that time the bells were rung from the ground floor.

This band went on to ring many more peals at Horsham and other nearby towers in Sussex, Surrey and London over the course of the next few decades. The Horsham peals are recorded in the Horsham peal book which was recently restored and is now on permanent display at Horsham Museum.

It is probably the oldest record of ringing in Sussex and one of the oldest in the British Isles.

The event was reported on Monday April 21 1766 in the Oxford Gazette, and Reading Mercury.

“Last Tuesday was rung at Horsham, in Sussex, the whole Peal of grandsire trebles in three hours and eight minutes: What is remarkable, not one of the set ever rung it before.” [Source: Order and Disorder in the 18C]

The great peal board in the Horsham ringing room recording this event was not erected until 1778 and has subsequently been repaired. On the 100th anniversary a peal attempt failed and it was not until 11th December 1876 that a successful peal, called by Henry Burstow, was rung. On 11th April 1966, the 200th anniversary, a successful peal was rung. Included in the band was a young George Francis who is still a very active ringer at Warnham. On Monday 11th April 2016 a peal attempt will be made by a local band using the original method composition taken from the Horsham peal book.

Although the term ‘a peal of bells’ is used to describe a ring of bells the term ‘peal’ has a very specific meaning to bell ringers.

In the English system of ringing the bells are rung in changes and no change is repeated until the ringing method is completed. If seven bells are rung in a method until every change has been completed, then 5040 unique changes will have been rung taking around three hours to complete. To be recognised as a true peal no change can be repeated and no breaks in the ringing are allowed.

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