A TREBLE FOR ASHFORD

Photo DRL

Rev'd David L. Cawley, 2001

The story really begins in 1885, when work was done on the bells and clock of St Mary the Virgin, Ashford. The new clock, by Gillett & Co. of Croydon came complete with a tune-ringing barrel and two extra bells, a semitone between the second and third of the ring and an "extra treble" to complete the tune playing range. Like most products of the Croydon bell foundry at that time, the bells were nothing special. J. C. L.Stahlschmidt writing in 1887 ("The Church Bells of Kent") states that the selection of tunes was not very happy either.

The clock and tune player continued to give good service over the years and were completely rebuilt in 1965 when the ring of eight was restored and rehung by Mears & Stainbank. I'll not easily forget the dedication service in the autumn of 1965. Most readers will know that the seating capacity at Ashford is remarkable; and most seats were taken. The actual Act of Dedication was performed with the hatches in the floor of the ringing chamber open to the church, so that the ringing immediately afterwards was seen by all.

Outside the church the congregation might not have been too surprised to see a bell. They might have been surprised to learn that it was one of the bells which was supposed to be in the tower. What had happened was that Harry Parkes, Mears' Principal Bellhanger and a loyal member of the Ashford District, had noted a small crack in the crown of this bell when preparing to hoist it. It had started where the cast in staple originated and ran out to the newly-drilled bolt holes which arrested it; but it was there.

Ashford had a remarkable Vicar, Canon N. M. Granville Sharpe, who shared the ringers' enthusiasm for eventually completing the ring of ten. A quick decision was made to replace the offending bell with a new one which would better complement the fine ring of eight. Carrying its predecessor's inscription and even 'Recast' the new bell was hung "dead" - in some ways a pity or Ashford might for a short while have shared with Basingstoke the distinction of being a nine-bell tower.

For quite a period the Gillett bell stood outside the church, with a slot inviting the donations of passers-by. No serious attempts were made to steal the money within or indeed the bell itself. I don't think we could do it to-day. Eventually it was returned to Whitechapel for scrapping as it represented a part of the bill for the work done.

By 1968 plans were well afoot for celebrating the 500th anniversary of the completion of the tower. The rejoicing was to take place in 1970. With Canon Sharpe's backing, the ringers decided to make their part of the celebration the completion of the ring of ten. The frame was there; so were eight of the bells hung for ringing, and a ninth, the second in ten, required ringing fittings (the flat 2nd of 1885 was and is in the tower, but did not form part of the equation).

During 1969, various personalities came into the picture, notably from Ashford Desmond Rundle, the Tower Captain (and expert horologist); Fred Huckstepp, John Clarke, Nick Davies, all members of the local band and Margaret Jones, its Secretary. I became involved, having only recently become Adviser on Bells in the Diocese, when inspecting the clock bell at Leeds Castle. I thought Desmond might like to see the equally historic clock, and during the journey he told me of their hopes - one of which was to get 5-cwt of metal which would be sufficient for casting the bell. He had got a turret bell by Gillett & Johnston to start things off and Canon Sharpe had offered the bell from the Ashford National Schools. John Clarke, who had a way with ladders (and the lack of them) got it down, the first of many.

Back home in Whitstable I located a bell in my old Primary School; another one in a neighbouring Infants' School; and one in the Church School next door to St Alphege, whose light six had just gone in. I'd not forgiven the Local Education Office for refusing us this bell to use in the new ring, and determined to get my hands on it. It turned out to be the Governors' property and they generously gave it to the project - the date was cut out and is mounted on the east wall of St Alphege ringing room. The Divisional Education Officer was a customer of my parents, on first name terms. With some nerve, I composed a letter, "Dear Nick........" The reply was "Dear Mr Cawley", but the ploy worked - the Primary and Infants bells were to go to Ashford.

Back in the Ashford District, Wilf Ring had been lurking around the village school at Bethersden to good effect. The disused bell would be ideal for Ashford's requirements, and John Clarke was despatched to get it out. Meanwhile, along the road, Fred Huckstepp had noted an exactly similar bell on the former school at Challock Lees. This had for some years been a place of worship, but the old church being back in use, no longer needed the bell. Fred used to tell a story of how he came down the ladder with the bell on his head!

Two other arrivals at around this time were a cracked bell from the long-disused church at Westmarsh, near Ash, which was stored at the farm which now owned the building, and a very small bell from the Mission Church at Egerton.

The first Whitstable school bell had already been taken to Ashford when the day appointed for the recovery of the others arrived. It was one of those really bitter days, and we started early. The Infants school was no problem. The Primary School most certainly was and we had to leave it and press on to the former school at Swalecliffe. The odd-shaped bell turned out to be of iron! Pressing on to Faversham we arrived at the "tin" church of St Saviour, a mission church. Canon Sharpe had been talking to Canon Phillips, of Faversham: and he had just the thing. The thing turned out to be in a very small birdcage belfry high up on a steeply sloping roof. Perseverance paid off and the Warner bell was more than compensation for other disappointments. The abandoned Whitstable bell was got down in the week by builders, at no charge.

Redundant churches were rare on the ground in those days, one of the first victims being the vast Holy Trinity, Maidstone. This classical building of 1826, by John Wichcord, is still a landmark, having found alternative use. The Diocese was anxious to remove fittings and requested me to look at the bell. What I saw was like an answer to prayer: here was a bell which would go a long way on its own to meeting our requirements. Accordingly I suggested that Ashford should ask for it. The Bishop of Dover agreed - at a price. I went to see the Bishop (whose attitude was understandable) but I was still at the "My Lord" rather than the "Dear Tony" stage there. A few days later, he rang to tell me in characteristic tones that he's been rung by Canon Sharpe, and yes - Ashford could have the bell, and not to leave a mess.

Getting the Maidstone bell proved the turning-point as it was clear that the bell could be ordered, even if not hung. Even the phrase "prices have continued to rise" did not deter the Ashford ringers, the estimate being

Photo DLC 1970

Some of the collected bells. They came from:
left: Endowed School, Whitstable
centre: Westmarsh, Holy Trinity
behind: Egerton Mission Church

A Treble for Ashford .. .. .. .. .. .. .. ..310
Fittings for Treble & 2nd.. .. .. .. .. . 150
Delivery & Installation.. .. .. .. .. .. .. 159

Against this, Whitechapel would offer 32 per cwt for bell metal delivered there. Bill Hughes generously "threw in" a small school bell from his home parish of West Wickham -not the work of the Whitechapel Foundry! Harry Parkes offered to supervise the bellhanging "provided you all do as you're told". With all the clock hammers and so forth, it was not to be an easy job.

A graceful spin-off was that the G&J turret bell in Desmond's possession was of excellent tone. Rather than send it to the pot it was decided to offer it to St Francis Church, South Ashford, where it was hung to replace an inferior bell by Warner ; the latter became part of our stock and a second Warner bell from the church was purchased by Desmond in connection with his own turret clock.

The Maidstone bell was going to be a problem; there was no "lift" in the tower -only a very rusty ring set in the masonry below the spire. In the event it was decided to break the bell up in the tower. The principal mourners at this grisly rite made short work of the bell whose ringing fittings and frame perhaps still adorn Holy Trinity belfry. The pieces were carted off and a cavalcade of cars conveyed a veritable ring of twelve off to Whitechapel.

The bells were as follows:

Source Weight Diameter Cast Founder
Maidstone, Holy Trinity 3-2-10 25" 1826 Thomas Mears II
Westmarsh, Holy Trinity 0-2-7 14" 1841 Thomas Mears II
Faversham, St Saviour 0-2-18 14" 1884 John Warner & Sons
Egerton Mission Church 0-0-12 9" 19th Cent Unknown
Ashford National School 0-1-10 12" 1841 Thomas Mears II
Bethersden School 0-1-2 10" 19th Cent Unknown
Challock School 0-1-3 10" 19th Cent Unknown
Whitstable Primary School 0-3-11 16" c.1875 Unknown
Whitstable Endowed School 0-3-12 16" 1844 Charles & George Mears
Whitstable Infants School 0-2-7 13" 1905 John Warner & Sons

Plus also 1 small Warner bell each from South Ashford St Francis and West Wickham. The total weighed in was just 8.1/2-cwt. This, together with the reduction offered to the bellhanging charges and the proceeds from many, many hours of devoted work by other members of the band in fund-raising and social activities, was to make the whole project pay for itself.

The first week of July saw every hour taken up with the hanging of the new bell and the equally difficult job of getting the second down from above into its ringing pit. The work was done by the Friday and the try-out was an event in itself (try-outs presided over by Harry Parkes, and there were several around that time, usually were). It was even suggested that the tower moved less with all ten being rung than with just eight. The new bells - not least the newest of all, cast from this motley collection of bells from all over Kent - were felt to be an excellent match with the historic eight. On 22nd August, we gathered again, for the service of Jubilation and the hallowing of all that had gone into providing a treble for Ashford. Photo DLC 1970

The new treble and the fittings for the two trebles.