Tunstead Church Bells

A potted history

Back in the summer of 2017, a group of peripatetic bell ringers visited the church of St Mary, Tunstead, near Norwich. The aim of this group was to spend their summer visiting as many churches as possible, in order to ring the bells. Whilst it is not a race, the ringers like to “tick off” as many churches as possible on their list.

I went to listen to the ringing, and wanted to find out more about the bells in Tunstead’s church, so I spoke with Aubrey Forster who is a member of the Norwich Diocesan Association of Ringers. The following is a summary of information that Mr Forster gave to me. Therefore, I gratefully acknowledge him and his colleagues as the authors of this information, albeit rewritten in my own words.

Mr Forster (pictured below) was called in to oversee the restoration of the bells in the 1990s after an inspection to determine if it was possible to restore St Mary’s derelict bells to full working condition after years of silence.

St. Mary’s has a “ring” of eight bells, that had not been rung as a “full-circle”, that is all eight bells rung together in a sequence, since the 1920s. Church bells are very heavy, and the momentum of swinging the bells in order to make them sound is considerable. It is possible on some churches with more frail bell towers than St Mary’s, to see the towers sway with the effort being used to make the bells sound. So, it was felt prudent to have the bells, the bell frame, and the tower inspected in order to determine if it was feasible and financially viable to restore the bells to a full-circle ring.

St Mary’s church has eight bells, though that was not always the case. The earliest records show that in 1552 Tunstead church had three bells weighing 7 cwt*, 10 cwt, 13 cwt. By 1703, documents show that there were five bells in the tower. However, by that time the bells were in poor condition and were melted down and recast.  Four bells were recast by Thomas Newman between 1703 and 1704, in Blakeney and Horstead. In 1874 a new bell frame, the structure that holds the bells, was built. This frame was designed for six bells. A sixth bell was promised by the vicar, the Reverend George Hemington Harris, if the local ringers practiced and became familiar with a particularly difficult sequence called the Stedman Doubles. It appears, from the documents that Mr Forster supplied, that the ringers were not necessarily part of the local church community. The ringers could be quite indifferent to anything else that was happening in the church. So, the clergy were keen to assert some control over the ringers, and the incentive of offering a new bell was one way to achieve this. The conflict between ringers and clergy was not just a local issue. As records show, Revd. B.  J. Armstrong of Dereham fell out with his ringers on a number of occasions.

On 29th July 1878, ringers from around the Diocese of Norwich gathered at Tunstead for the opening of the newly built “Octave”; that is eight bells. The bells of Tunstead are tuned to complete the full musical scale of eight notes, the scale being “G”. From that time the full ring of bells was in regular use. In 1896, A. and B. E. Gower became the first female ringers in the association. However, by the first world war full-circle ringing at Tunstead had all but ceased; and the bells remained unrung for at least 60 years.

In December 1991 members of the Belfry Repairs Advisory Committee of the Norwich Diocesan Association of Ringers inspected the bells. This was at the request of Mrs M. Bol of Worstead Manor. The purpose of the inspection was to propose an outline scheme for the restoration of the bells to full-circle ringing. The inspection revealed the following. The bells were in good condition and of reasonable tone, though the years of ringing had worn the inside where the clappers strike. An alternative method of ringing two of the bells had been devised in the interim. This was done by attaching ropes to the clappers through pullies. It was felt that this manner of ringing could damage the bells, and needed to be removed. The bell frame was light in stature from a modern perspective, and in need of strengthening. The first floor, just below the bells was in very poor condition and would need to be replaced before being used for the repairs to the bells and bell frame. The ringing chamber, is on the ground floor. It is from here that the bells are rung using long ropes. There is a sally towards the end of the rope. A Sally is the fluffy thickened area that marks the pulling point for the ringers, and is an aid to comfort when ringing. Overall, the bell ringing system was not to modern standards, well decayed or corroded. Repair or replacement of many items was needed. However, Mr Aubrey Forster was able to call upon many volunteers, so that the overall cost of the project was kept down to less than £2000. This project was completed in time for an eight-bell ring on Sunday 8th December 1997 for the carol service.

Bell Diameter Weight Bell Founder Inscription
Treble 26” 4¾ cwt Cast by John Warner, London 1878 CAST BY JOHN WARNER & SONS, LONDON 1878
No 2 26 ½” 4¾ cwt Cast by John Warner, London 1878 CAST BY JOHN WARNER & SONS, LONDON 1878 ME ATQUE SOROREM DONAVIT G.H. HARRIS, VICAR
No 3 26 ¾” 3¾ cwt Recast by John Warner, London 1874 RECAST BY JOHN WARNER & SONS, LONDON 1878 GLORIA IN EXCELSIS
No 4 28” 5 cwt Cast by Thomas Newman, Blakeney 1703 THOMAS NEWMAN MADE ME 1703
No 5 30 ¼” 5¾ cwt Cast by Thomas Newman, Horstead 1704 THOMAS NEWMAN MADE ME 1704
No 6 33 ¼” 6¼ cwt Recast John Warner, London 1875 RECAST JOHN WARNER & SONS, LONDON 1875
Tenor 39” 10¾ cwt Cast by John Warner, London 1876 CAST BY JOHN WARNER & SONS, LONDON 1876 DUM VOCO AUDITE DEO ME DONAVIT G.H. HARRIS, VICAR

Since that restoration, the ring of eight has been used on a number of occasions, most recently for a wedding in July, then again for the October Harvest Service. For those purposes, the ringers of Swanton Abbott came to St Mary’s to ring the bells. So, it appears that ringing practices of old, that is, having the bells rung by people other than the parishioners of the church has gone full-circle, if you forgive the pun. I suggest you keep an eye and ear out for information on when the bells might be rung again, and come down to Church Corner to hear them. You will be hearing bells which date back to the 1700s. A historic church with a historic ring of bells.

This is a link to the Norwich Diocesan Association of Bell Ringers.

*1 cwt – a hundred weight (112-pound, weight) approx. 50kg

reviewed 22/12/17