The article reproduced below was one of the texts prepared of the Alresford Historical and Literary Society Publication “Alresford Articles”, written by Nicholas Denbow, one of the editors, from information supplied by Elizabeth Johnson, explaining the history of the bells of St John’s Church in Alresford. Elizabeth Johnson, of Haig Road in Alresford, is the Tower Secretary at St John’s. The article was eventually published in Alresford Articles, Volume 2, in 2013. See http://www.alresfordhistandlit.co.uk. Most of the photos in this article were provided by Godfrey Andrews from his collection at http://www.alresfordheritage.co.uk, and are his copyright.
The problem found in 2011
Early in 2011 it was discovered in a routine inspection that the frame and fittings for the eight bells in the tower of St John’s Church in New Alresford needed structural repairs. Constant ringing for over 75 years had caused wear and tear to the gudgeon pins and bearings on which the bells swing. The estimated cost was £12000, a significant amount, but because these bells are one of the best sounding rings of eight in Hampshire, an appeal was launched to coincide with the 200th anniversary of these bells being rung for the first time, in 1811. As a result of the successful local appeal and various fund-raising events – significantly a major concert in the Church – the money required was raised, and the work was commenced.
At the end of January 2012 the major part of the renovation work started, to make the bells safe. Whites of Appleton, a firm of Church bell hangers, arrived on 30th January to dismantle bells 1, 3, 4 and 5 from the frame. These bells had gudgeons in their headstocks that needed replacing. The bells were rested on timbers in the tower bell chamber. Then the four heavy headstocks were taken away to their workshops in Oxfordshire, where two new steel gudgeon pins for each headstock were machined and hot riveted in place. Gudgeons, or gudgeon pins are the shafts on which the bells swing, in bearings within the frame. (See Ref 1, and the drawing below, taken from the website www.bellringing.org)
Returning to Alresford, the bells were re-installed, and the ball-race bearings (supplied in 1936, but still all in good condition) of all the bells were cleaned, re-packed with grease and fitted with new seals. The bolts securing the bells were replaced with new galvanised bolts, but the bells were not turned: this had been done in 1896. Local bell-ringers assisted the Whites staff in this work, providing the man-power and saving further cost.
This vital repair work was only made possible by the fantastic fundraising of so many people, and by generous donations from individuals and from various organisations in the town. Major donations were made by Barclays Bank, Alresford Pigs Association, Alresford Rotary Club and Alresford Town Council.
In addition, a sell-out concert held in the Church on 10th December 2011, hosted by TV presenter Debbie Thrower, raised over £8000: guest performances were by classical pianist Di Xiao, and West End musical star Gina Beck, with the Hampshire Youth Choir led by their director of music, Keith Clark. Thanks are due to all the audience, who paid to attend, and to all the sponsors: the meticulous musical organization by Keith Clark meant that all enjoyed a truly special musical feast.
Concert organiser Graham Smith persuaded many of the local businesses to sponsor the costs of staging the event. He commented: “I’m delighted that Alresford was able to host such a high-quality concert, featuring some of music’s finest talent. I’d really like to thank the hard work and support of the fantastic performers and the local community for really getting behind the concert to raise essential funds to ensure the town’s historic bells can be restored, so that they can continue to ring in all their glory, some 200 years after they were first rung.”
Bells ring out again
Elizabeth Johnson, the Tower Secretary at St John’s, commented on the completion of the work: “The whole installation was thoroughly checked over, and now is in tip-top condition. The bells can now ring out safely for many years to come.” Maybe until another Jubilee, in 2111 or later.
While the headstocks were being repaired, local firms had carried out associated work. Steve Ogden cleaned and repainted the whole bell frame and supporting girders. Butler and King renewed the electrical wiring and installed emergency safety lighting in the tower. Alterations and improvements were made in the tower to make access to the bells and roof safer.
Eight new bell ropes, which were paid for separately as a result of a generous donation from a parishioner, and by the St John’s bell ringers, were also installed. The bells, silent for a few days, were brought back into operation for services on 12th February 2012, and were able to ring out for Queen Elizabeth’s Diamond Jubilee celebrations later in the year. It is planned that a plaque will shortly be placed on the tower to commemorate the fund raising by the community and the work done to restore the bells for this Jubilee.
History of St John’s
The Liberty of Alresford, comprising the parishes of Old Alresford, New Alresford and Medstead, was probably granted by Cynegils (King of the West Saxons from 611 to 643 AD) to the Bishop of Winchester, upon his baptism. Here the Mother Church was in the major settlement of Old Alresford, which had a chapelry at St John’s in New Alresford, to serve the community on the south side of the Alresford Marsh (pre-dating the Great Weir and the pond).
St John’s was built on the high knoll almost due south of the mother church, on the opposite bank of the marsh. When Godfrey de Lucy built the Great Weir in 1289 he re-planned New Alresford village with some 120 families and dwellings north of the Church, which he probably modernized/rebuilt. It would have had a timber roof covered with local reed thatching, and also had a tower.
Four serious fires occurred in the 17th Century: the worst in May 1689, when fire broke out in the Soke and was fanned by a northeast wind. It destroyed the whole village and the Church. This was rebuilt in the basic plan that we see today, with the western tower, walls and galleries. The small northern door on the north side of the Church tower was blocked up when the larger west door was made, in 1765, to accommodate the town’s fire engine: this was housed in the tower until 1857.
In 1851, George Sumner was the incumbent at Old Alresford: he separated the two parishes and William Brodie was inducted as the first Rector of New Alresford. (George Sumner went on to become Bishop of Guildford, and his wife Mary Sumner established what was to become the Mother’s Union). In 1895, the Church was in need of a further rebuild, and this took place under the direction of Sir Arthur Blomfield, the Diocesan architect to Winchester Cathedral.
The Church Bells
At St John’s, the western tower and main entrance to the Church has probably housed bells since at least the 1689 rebuild.
The history of the bells before 1811 is unclear. We do know from Churchwarden’s accounts that in 1803, the bells were rung the whole day, to celebrate that King George III passed through the town – and also earlier, in 1789 to celebrate his happy recovery from an illness! It is often quoted that in 1811 the six existing bells were recast and augmented to eight. More likely the eight bells supplied by the Whitechapel foundry in 1811 were new bells: nothing in the invoice records suggests that these were recast from old material. Since 1811 the tower has housed a ring of eight bells, hung for full circle ringing and tuned to the key of E.
The Robert Boyes’ Survey of Tithes and Properties of 1574-1730 (Ref 1), fields called East Bell Field and West Bell Field are shown to the south of the Avenue, and East of New Farm Road in Alresford. Churchwarden’s accounts for the Church of St John’s in Winchester show that [bell casting] work was done for them by John Cole of Alresford (Ref 2). Rev Colchester of New Alresford, 1922-25, suggests that the letters A cast into the crown of the treble in St John’s Winchester, dated 1574, means that the bell was originally cast for Alresford (Ref 3). This bell still hangs, cracked, in St John’s, with four others. Also, in 1761, the Upham church accounts record that Thos Swain, of Alresford, cast bells for their church (Ref 4). So probably Alresford had locally cast bells until 1811, and possibly those bells, when discarded in 1811, were actually passed to, or recast for others, via a local foundry.
The current bells
In 1811, T Mears of Whitechapel Foundry was paid £255 for the eight new bells, and a Mr Dyer £61 for hanging them. While this was to have come from public subscription, a debt of £150 plus five years interest was still outstanding in 1820: this was resolved by repaying £50 per annum out of the rates levied on the parishioners. At that time, the bells were hung in a wooden frame. The Hampshire Chronicle reported that the new bells were first rung on 25 March 1811. Note that the clock on St John’s tower was paid for by the Bailiff and Burgesses of New Alresford in 1811, and the face is inscribed with the date of 1811: it was coincidentally in February that year that George, Prince of Wales, became Prince Regent, and then King George IV.
When St John’s Church was rebuilt by Sir Arthur Blomfield in 1895, the tower remained untouched: but the bells were rehung with new fittings, the frame strengthened, and the bells quarter turned. The cost was £142.10s, raised by public subscription, and the work carried out by Whitechapel Foundry. The opening peal, a Kent Treble Bob Major, was on 22 December 1897, rung in the tower, but with no Church attached: it had been demolished to walls just six feet high! The work on the bells is commemorated by a brass plaque in the Church porch, as a celebration of the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Victoria.
In 1936 the treble was found to have a crack, and it was recast by Taylors of Loughborough. At the same time the rest of the bells were ‘re-tuned’ [maybe just turned] and rehung in an iron frame, also made by Taylors. A plaque in the Church porch commemorates this as a Silver Jubilee celebration for King George V, so the bells have been linked to many royal jubilees and celebrations over the years, continuing up to 2012!
Inscriptions on the bells
Most of the current bells have an inscription and the makers name on them: the latter is “T.Mears of London Fecit 1811”. The inscriptions perhaps reflect the public mood at the time, 1811, fairly patriotic, after Trafalgar, and preparing for Waterloo. Details of these inscriptions and the weight of each bell are shown below (bell ringers prefer to have the weights quoted in hundredweights, quarters and pounds) ie the English way:
Treble – weight: 6cwt 18lbs (313kg)
In sweetest sound let each its note reveal,
Mine shall be the first to lead the dulcet peal.
J Taylor of Loughborough Recast 1936
2nd – weight: 5cwt 3qtr 20lbs (301kg)
The public raised us with a liberal hand,
We come with harmony to cheer the land.
3rd – weight: 6cwt 1qtr 19lbs (326kg)
When female virtue weds with manly worth,
We catch the rapture and we spread it forth.
4th – weight: 7cwt 4lbs (357kg)
Does battle rage, do sanguine foes contend.
We hail the victor if he’s Britain’s friend.
5th – weight: 7cwt 3qtr 23lbs (404kg)
May he who England’s matchless sceptre sways
Her sacred honour guard, her glory raise.
6th – weight: 8cwt 3qtr 23lbs (450kg)
May Britons still their ancient freedom boast,
And glittering commerce bless their happy coast.
7th – weight: 10cwt 1qtr 21lbs (530kg)
Tenor – weight: 15cwt 3qtr 18lbs (808kg)
May all who I shall summon to the grave
The blessing of a well spent life receive.
Wm Keene, James Redman, Church Wardens.
The bells are rung for approximately 45 minutes before the main morning and evening Sunday services, for other special occasions, and for weddings and funerals by request. Each Friday evening there is a practice session. The bells are rung by a band of ringers drawn from Alresford and the surrounding area. All are members of the Winchester and Portsmouth Diocesan Guild of Ringers (Ref 5), a society that promotes the education of ringers and cooperation between ringers to maintain and ring the bells of the Diocese.
(1) HRO 45 M83/PZI Survey and Account of Titles in New Alresford.
(2) Bell Founding in Alresford, Elizabeth Johnson, Alresford Displayed 21, 1996, Paper 98.
(3) Hampshire Church Bells, Their Founders and Inscriptions, W E Colchester 1920
(4) HRO 74 M78/PZI Transcript of Upham Parish Registers