Celebrating the Bicentenary of the Ellacombe Chiming Apparatus

This June 26 marks the 200th anniversary of Rev. Henry Thomas Ellacombe’s invention of a mechanism that allowed a single person to ring a set of tower bells. Two centuries ago, the good reverend sat in his study and lamented the unruly, disobedient, and downright drunkard behavior of the local troupe of change ringers. He had a mind to do something about it.

When he first arrived in the English parish of Bitton as curate a few years prior, Rev. Ellacombe immediately took a dim view of the bell ringers. He bemoaned that the ringers had the only key to the bell tower’s ringing chamber, and he was aghast that they should flout decent society and only enter the church after the service concluded, so that they might strike up a merry peal. Indeed, the bell ringers would ring whenever they wanted – for any reason and for any sum of money. The bells, according to Rev. Ellacombe, shouldn’t be “so prostituted for the benefits of a publican's pocket.” 

As a great authority on bells (having authored such works as Practical Remarks on Belfries and Ringers, The Church Bells of Devon and The Church Bells of Somerset), Rev. Ellacombe began to contemplate eliminating change ringers entirely. If bells could be rung in another manner, he could once again reclaim the bells for the dignified and proper use of the church.

Change ringing, however, requires very specialized and rare expertise: a precise memory, mathematical understanding, and methodical execution. How could one person replace a team of eight or ten? With practical knowledge in mechanical engineering (Rev. Ellacombe had invented a printing press and constructed his own pocket watch), he set pen to paper and soon had developed what would become known as the Ellacombe Chiming Apparatus.

The Ellacombe Chiming Apparatus

First installed in 1821 at St. Mary’s Church, Bitton, the Ellacombe Chiming Apparatus enabled a person to pluck a rope that terminated in a hammer, which would then strike a stationary bell. A row of these ropes mounted side-by-side allowed one person to do the job of many. Success at last, he mused. Rev. Ellacombe would finally gain control of the bell ringers – and the keys to the bell tower.

Unlike the traditional method of change ringing, where a single person is assigned to each bell and the bells swing to connect the clapper with bronze, Ellacombe chimes are “hung dead” (remain static) and the hammer moves to strike the fixed bell. Taut ropes are then pulled in the same permutations of change ringing, but without the change ringers. Watch the Ellacombe Chiming Apparatus in action.

Throughout much of the nineteenth and early twentieth century, the Ellacombe Chiming Apparatus was in wide and popular use in churches around the world. It could be used to play simple hymns or Christmas carols, be retrofitted to an existing bell set when the tower could no longer accommodate swinging bells safely, or be employed when an insufficient number of change ringers were available. Over the years, however, the mechanism fell out of fashion, failing to recreate the rich, resounding tones of swinging bells. 

Around 400 of these mechanisms are still installed in English bell towers, with another three or four dozen sprinkled in countries as widely spread as Canada and Australia. Due to the restrictions of the COVID-19 pandemic, the mechanisms regained a brief surge of popularity. When change ringers couldn’t gather together to practice their art, only one isolated person was needed to ring an Ellacombe Chiming Apparatus.

A worldwide celebration

Beginning at noon in New Zealand on June 26, The Sacred Heart Basilica or Timaru Basilica will kick-off a global ringing event to celebrate Rev. Ellacombe’s contribution to bell ringing heritage. Churches and bell towers across the globe will then ring their Ellacombe Chiming Apparatus at noon local time in each of the major time zones. The event is being co-presented by St. Mary’s Church and the Bitton Parish History Group.

Special performances and live-streamed concerts from at least 100 churches and towers will span 11 time zones over 17 hours as part of the “chime around the world” event. Does your bell tower have an Ellacombe Chiming Apparatus? Join in the pealing! It’s a wonderful occasion to remember a campanologist and the enduring allure of bells.

Cover image: An Ellacombe chiming apparatus at St. Mary’s Church in Bitton, England. Courtesy: Bell ringer Rachael Rutter.