Bell Ringing History
The church of St Denys Rotherfield is this year celebrating 100 years of the ring of 8 bells.
However, the story of our bells actually covers a few hundred years before 1908, when the church had a ring of 5 bells, the details of which are as follows;
Treble (our current 4th bell). This was originally cast between 1459 and 1465 by a woman bell founder, Johanna Sturdy. Johanna had established quite an empire in the bell foundry world, being married twice, and then widowed twice to two bell founders, carrying on each of her husbands businesses after their deaths. This bell was one of the three the Whitechapel Bell Foundry recast (melted down) in 1908, but some of Johanna’s inscriptions and her initials were copied into the new casting.
2nd (our current 5th bell) was cast in 1603 by a Lewes bell founder, Edmund Giles, and remains as it was originally made.
3rd (our current 6th bell). This was cast between 1522 and 1536 by a Frenchman, John Tonne, working in Sussex. When Whitechapel recast this bell in 1908, they again copied some of the original inscriptions including a medal of Henry VIII.
4th (our current 7th bell) was another bell by Edmund Giles of Lewes and was cast in 1614. It was the last and heaviest bell he made for a Sussex church before his death. Again, part of the original inscriptions were preserved on the bell when it was recast at Whitechapel in 1908.
5th (our current Tenor bell). One of the great bell founders of London, John Hodson, cast this bell in 1670 and was the largest bell the foundry made for a local church, weighing just over 23cwt and with a diameter of 4’ 3¼”. The Whitechapel foundry had no reason to recast this bell so it remains as original. Part of the inscription contains the initials ‘C.H.’ which is believed to be John’s son, Christopher Hodson, who actually made the bell.
Between January and April 1908, one of the last surviving English bell founders, Mears & Stainbank (now known as Whitechapel), not only recast 3 of the original bells, but through the very kind donation of a local family, the Burts, were able to cast 3 new smaller bells, so bringing them up to the magnificent ring of 8 bells that we are celebrating today.
As to the ringers of Rotherfield over the last 100 years, fortunes have changed with each new decade. In the early years there was a waiting list of new recruits wishing to join the established band, only being invited to become a full member on achieving a certain standard in ringing and when there was a vacancy.
In fact one vacancy occurred as early as September 1908 when a member of the band was asked to ‘discontinue being a ringer’ due to regular nonattendance! Obviously both World Wars played a major part in the fortunes of the band; a ringer killed in action in WW1, Owen Holmwood from a local family, is still remembered today on Remembrance Sunday by the present band of ringers.
Originally the bells were rung from the ground floor, where the vestry is now. In the 1960’s the current floor was built above the vestry and the large glass partition between the ringing chamber and the church was installed. Actually, in many churches the opposite took place, when ringers behaviour was so bad that ringing chamber floors were removed so the ringers rang from the ground floor, in full view of the congregation! Obviously, the Rotherfield ringers must have been exceptionally well behaved!
One major occurrence that temporarily disrupted ringing activities was the Great Storm of 1987, when the spire quite literally fell victim to the gales. A large portion of the old spire timbers fell onto the bells, although with great good fortune very little damage was done to the bells and fittings. Armed with chainsaws and lifting tackle, the ringers themselves removed much of the fallen spire and within a few short months the bells were back in action under the temporary roof, which remained in place until the new steel spire was erected with the aid of a helicopter.
Looking back at notable events taking place during the history of our bells, in 1603, the date of our oldest and original bell, Queen Elizabeth I died and James I of England came to the throne. At the same time, 30,000 Londoners died of bubonic plague! 100 years ago when Whitechapel were busy with our bells, Asquith was the Prime Minister and Edward VII was King. Ford motor car company produced their first Model T and in the April FA Cup Final, Wolverhampton Wanderers beat Newcastle United 3-1!