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Ring in the new: The replacement of the 235-year-old, three-quarter-tonne ninth bell at St Andrew’s Church, Hornchurch

18:00 10 January 2014

One of the bells in St Andrew

One of the bells in St Andrew's Church is cracked and needs replacing. The bellringers practice every Tuesday at 6.30pm.

Archant

It has sat proudly beside its five siblings for more than two centuries, watched over thousands of weddings and announced 235 Christmas Days – but now one of Hornchurch’s loudest, oldest and heaviest residents is preparing to leave the borough for good. Ring a bell?

St Andrew's Church, HornchurchSt Andrew's Church, Hornchurch

At the end of the month, the three-quarter-tonne ninth bell in St Andrew’s Church – which has developed a 14-inch hairline crack – will be taken down and replaced by a newly cast replica.

It’s the result of eight months of fundraising, topped up with a charity grant.

The church’s bell ringers first noticed something amiss in April.

“It sounded out of tune,” said ringing master Clive Stephenson, “and the ring had gone.

Bell ringing at St Andrew’s Church, Hornchurch

n It is believed there have been bells at St Andrew’s Church, Hornchurch, since it was built in 1476. Originally there were five, with a replacement set of six – of which the ninth is one – cast in 1779. Four were added in 2001

n A company called the Hornchurch Youths rang the bells from 1779. Their “rules”, hung in the ringing chamber in the 19th century, were:

If you ring in spur or hat,

Three pints of beer you pay for that,

If you swear or give the lye,

1 pot you pay immediately,

If a bell you overthrow,

A pint you pay before you go

n The heaviest bell, the tenor, weighs about a ton

n The bells are tuned to the key of E flat

n St Andrew’s Church’s bell-ringers meet on a Tuesday night

n The cracked bell is tuned to a low F

n The bell ringers are always looking for new recruits. If you are interested in learning to ring, visit www.hornchurchbells.co.uk or call Clive Stephenson on 07896 342 010

“It must have been getting worse, but suddenly it was obvious.”

A visit from the Whitechapel Bell Foundry – the Elizabethan workshop where Big Ben was cast – confirmed Clive’s fears: the bell was damaged.

“My first thought was it would be a lot of work,” admitted Clive, “and it was going to upset the bell ringing with the wedding season approaching.”

Faced with a choice between welding the crack closed and buying a replacement, the church council opted to ring out the old and cast a brand new bell – provided they could cough up £14,000.

“The bell has historical value,” said Clive, “but its tone was never that great. Fixing the crack would put it back in tune, but you can’t improve the tone.”

Luckily the cause resonated with the church’s congregation and the group of ringers, and £6,000 was collected in donations by the time the year was up. The Whitechapel foundry was given the go-ahead and a new bell was cast as Christmas approached.

But it isn’t a strict replica of the original 1779 bell: a very special dedication has been added.

Beneath the 18th century inscription – “In wedlock bands all ye who join with hands & hearts unite, so shall our tuneful tongues combine to laugh the nuptial rite” – two ringing masters are commemorated.

Thanks to the bell, Frank Gant – whose tenure lasted from 1947 until 1976 – and Colin Wright – who took over the mantle until 1982 – will now be remembered for centuries to come.

“Frank taught me to ring when I was 15,” said Clive. “He was an ex-headmaster and he was always jolly – very keen on bell-ringing.

“He turned it into a strong band – after the war they had lost a few ringers and the bells were out of action. It needed an influx of interest.”

Colin, meanwhile, spent all his life ringing at Hornchurch, having learnt there as a youngster. A doctor, he lived in South Ockendon but sadly died in 2008, having suffered from Parkinson’s disease.

They clearly made their mark – much of the fundraising for the bell was done in their names.

He added the bell ringers wanted to thank Rev Barry Hobson and the two parish wardens for their support.

In the meantime, the group has made do with an incomplete set – persevering on the lightest eight bells during Sunday services and weddings.

So what will happen to the cracked original once the replacement is hung?So what will happen to the cracked original once the replacement is hung?

The ninth bell will complete a circuit it began 235 years ago – back to Whitechapel, where it was cast, to be used as scrap.

All being well, the new bell will be ready for action in time to ring in the New Year... a month late.

But if it racks up as many years’ unfaltering service as its predecessor, we can hardly begrudge it the travelling time.

Visit www.romfordrecorder.co.uk to see a video of the new bell being cast.

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