Bells of Historic Significance Can Be Retuned, Says Diocese of Durham

The medieval, Grade II-listed All Saints’ Church, Stranton, in the port town of Hartlepool, England, boasts a ring of eight merry peal bells ranging in size from 450 lbs. to over 1,400 lbs. (bells hang in only two other churches in Hartlepool: St. Aidan’s and St. Oswald’s). A couple of the church’s bells date to the middle ages and one, in particular, has caused quite the commotion of late.

Ancient Bells, Modern Worries

At least one bell is known to have hung in the church’s bell tower since 1664 – bell number four in the ring of eight. It was cast by Samuel Smith of York. Bell number six, however, is thought to have been cast in or before 1599 by an unknown founder. While no exact date of founding is recorded, the bell is certainly ancestral.

Such is its age and historic prominence that the Church Buildings Council, a standing committee of the Church of England, deemed the bell worthy of preservation in as near its original state as possible. The Council advises churches and dioceses on the care, conservation, and development of church buildings, including church furnishings like bells and bell towers. So far, so good. 

Little maintenance has been carried out on the bells at All Saints’ since 1907, when founders Mears and Stainbank of the Whitechapel Bell Foundry were tasked with casting an additional six bells to complete the current ring. Throughout the ensuing century, the muck of salt, sand, pollution, and bird droppings has accumulated upon the bells’ surface and fittings, resulting in an assemblage that’s woefully difficult to ring and discordantly out of tune.

Historic Bell Hangs at All Saints' Church

Image: The sixth bell, believed to have been cast in 1599, hangs in the bell tower at All Saints’ Church, Stranton. Courtesy: Richard Raynor

The church, intending to restore and retune the complete set of bells to the glory of God and the delight of parishioners, invited two bell foundries to inspect the bells and propose improvements. Work on most of the bells would be uncontroversial, but all the bells? Not so fast, said the Church Buildings Council.

Pros and Cons of Retuning a Historic Bell

The argument for preserving the 16th-century bell in its current state is certainly a valid one. To retune the bell in line with the other seven would require shaving the interior of the bell’s dome until it reverberates at the desired tone. The Council’s Code of Practice for conserving bells and bell frames recommends that, for historic bells, the presumption should be to leave them as found. No alteration. No retuning.

As the Council further explained, the bells were “some of the country’s oldest sounding musical instruments… a rare link back to sounds experienced by our communities over centuries,” and “part of the aural history of the place, experienced by generations in Stranton.” The very character of the bell and its connection to the community were at stake.

The congregation and the bell foundry of John Taylor & Co., who would be carrying out the restoration work, disagreed. Only a small amount of bronze would be removed from inside the bell, leaving the exterior unchanged. While it would sound different after retuning, the bell would fit better acoustically with the full assemblage. The additional work of sandblasting, cleaning, and refitting new headstocks and wheels would also better equip the bell to continue ringing for centuries to come, rather than falling into disuse as a mute relic.

Furthermore, the sixth bell had already been retuned once in 1907, nullifying the auditory connection to the middle ages. The argument won. The Consistory Court of the Diocese of Durham granted permission for the restoration and retuning of all eight bells to proceed.

Better-Sounding Bells Will Soon Resound in Hartlepool

When the work of restoring and retuning the All Saints’ bells is completed, the enthusiastic team of bell ringers, ranging in age from 10 years to over 80, will reconvene in the bell tower to take their ropes in hand once again – ringing to summon the faithful to worship and to commemorate events of note. The sixth bell bears the Latin inscription: Ora Pro Nobis / Sancta Maria (“Pray for us, Saint Mary”). That supplication will now sound just a bit sweeter.

Cover image: The bell tower rises over All Saints’ Church, Stranton, in the port town of Hartlepool, England. Courtesy: The Church of England in Hartlepool.