A Bell Tower in Southwest England Could Use Your Help

Historic bells in the Parish Church of St. John the Baptist in the small market town of Hatherleigh, Devon, are at risk of falling silent. Resounding over Hatherleigh for generations, the bells ring in celebration and sorrow, in moments of national unity and of parish importance. They have tolled to mark the deaths of monarchs and royalty. In 1918, the bells rang out in jubilant peal to celebrate the armistice, and throughout World War II they hung ready to warn of imminent invasion.

Now, almost a century and a half of use have weighed heavily on the old oak timber bell frame, installed in 1883 to support eight beautifully-toned bronze bells. Last removed for recasting and rehanging in 1929 by the Whitechapel Foundry (now closed), the bell tower is certainly due for a renovation. Without intervention, the structure will become unfit for safe service within the next five years – leaving an eerily silent pall over the town.

The history and future of bells in Hatherleigh

Records suggest a tower has stood over Hatherleigh since as early as the fourteenth century. In 1552, three bells are archived as having rung in the town. Additional bells were hung in the tower in 1775, 1796, and in 1883, when the last two bells and the current oak bell frame were installed.

Over the years, these bells have become more difficult for bell ringers to control, due in part to the instability of the frame, which flexes in use. The ropes are also extraordinarily long and unwieldy, handled by bell ringers stationed on the ground floor.

Bells in Hatherleigh Bell Tower Exposed to the Elements after Storm Damage

Image: On January 29, 1990, a powerful storm left significant destruction in Hatherleigh. The wooden church steeple was eviscerated in the wind, exposing the bells within the stone tower to the elements. While the steeple and roof were restored, the bells were not immediately addressed. Courtesy: Hatherleigh History Society.

To continue ringing, the eight bells must be removed from the tower for refurbishment, a job Higby & Co. of Radstock, Somerset, has been entrusted to undertake. A new metal frame and new fittings for the bells will complete the project. Over several months, the ringing floor will be raised a level within the tower and the bells will be rehung. The entire project is expected to cost around £75,000 ($100,000) – funds that are being raised by the dedicated team of 16 bell ringers.

Want to help? The bell ringers have set up a GoFundMe fundraiser, where contributions of any amount can be accepted. Consider a donation today to help keep bell ringing alive and well in southwest England!

Cover image: Members of the Parish Church of St. John the Baptist in Hatherleigh, Devon, including (left to right): S. Palmer, Churchwarden; Reverend J.C. Rossiter, Vicar; F.W. Down, Churchwarden; Unnamed representative and workman from Whitechapel Bell Foundry; Charles Short, Caretaker and Stonemason; Emanuel Palmer, Captain of Bells; and an unidentified boy (believed to be the son of the representative from Whitechapel) stand behind bells removed from the bell tower in 1929 for recasting. Courtesy: Hatherleigh History Society.