THE SQUIRE'S TOY
Richard C. Offen, 1983, revised 2004
|Just south of Birchington, in the Isle of Thanet, lies Quex Park, one of the last country estates of Thanet which is still farmed and privately owned. The park gets its name from the Quekes family who owned it during the early part of the 15th century. The family continued in occupation for most of the following century, until the house came into the hands of the Crispe family by the marriage of Agnes Quekes to John Crispe. Their son, Sir Henry Crispe, became a man of|
|high authority, being High Sheriff
and an officer under the Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports, with responsibility for coastal
defence. It was in this office that he became known as 'Regulus Insulae'.
In the middle of the 18th century Quex Park became part of the Thanet estates of the Holland family. These estates were inherited by Lord Holland's second son, Charles James Fox, from whom they were purchased by John Powell, who was Chief Cashier in the Pay Office. Powell also assisted Lord Holland with his private business and was one of the executors of Lord Hollands will. The estate consisted of land in various locations and in 1774 had a total area of over 1300 acres, to which a further farm was added at the turn of the 19th century.
John Powell Powell was responsible for building the present Regency-style house in Quex Park, which was started in 1805, but not completed until 1813 , progress being very slow because of the shortage of labour during the Napoleonic Wars. Further enlargements have since been made to the house in 1883 and 1904. Like most country houses of the period Quex was designed to be virtually self-contained and self-sufficient, having a bakehouse, brewhouse, laundry, larders, workshops, stables and a coach house.
Powell Powell was also responsible for the construction of two less usual features for a country house, namely two towers within the grounds. One, the Sea Tower, was built in 1814 as a signalling tower to enable the Squire to contact his friends at sea - Powell was a keen yachtsman. The other tower was to enable him to continue his other passion - bell ringing. The Waterloo Tower was built in 1818, not so much to commemorate the battle of that name, but to house a ring of bells to be used entirely for the Squire's own pleasure. The fine Gothic brick built structure was originally capped by a timber spire which, in 1821, was replaced by the graceful iron 'pylon' which now surmounts the tower and is a familiar Thanet landmark.
It is not known exactly when or how Powell's interest in ringing came about, but he had a house in Fulham and seems to have been taught to ring at All Saints, Fulham. We know very little of his ringing ability, but he did publish a short dissertation on change ringing in 1828 which was "Dedicated, with permission, to the College and Cumberland Youths, and the Different Companies of Change Ringers throughout England, and Elsewhere."
At the turn of the 19th century All Saints Church, Birchington had but six bells, which offered Powell Powell very little scope to practice his change ringing, so he offered to augment the ring to twelve (obviously to enable him to practice more complicated ringing without having to go to London). The tower was far too small for such a ring and the offer was declined, so Powell set to and built his own tower in which to house a ring of twelve bells.
By the beginning of 1818 the tower was well on the way to completion and a letter was sent to Thomas Mears of Whitechapel, requesting estimates for casting the new ring. These estimates are still existent and it is interesting to note that Mears quoted a price of £750 for a ring of twelve bells with a largest weighing one ton (at modern prices such a ring would cost in the region of £60,000!). A ring of twelve with a tenor (largest) weighing 15 cwt was ordered and arrived from London in March 1819. With them was despatched Mr Charles Oliver, the bell hanger, who commenced the work of installing the bells into the tower, which continued through most of April. The Invoice for the work, dated 9th July 1819, shows the cost to have been £824, which included all fittings, bell ropes, hanging etc.
For many years, it had been thought that the first ringing on the bells was at the official opening in August 1819, but a perusal of the 'Kentish Gazette' for that year shows otherwise. On 15th July the following report appears:
This was not the only ringing on the bells before the opening, as the 'Gazette' of August 3rd shows:
The official opening of the tower and bells must have been a very grand occasion as this extract from the 'Kentish Gazette', dated August 10th shows:
It is interesting to note that both Cumberland and College Youths were invited to this opening, for these two London ringing societies were arch enemies at this time and members would not even deign to speak to members of the rival society, let alone mix with them. This possibly accounts for the two different venues mentioned in the report for the evening entertainment.
After the opening a local band was formed under the patronage of John Powell Powell and called 'The Quex Institution of Change Ringing'. In order to teach the band Powell employed one of the leading exponents of the art at that time, William Shipway. Shipway, a London member of the Cumberland Youths, was employed as a carpenter on the estate and also as ringing tutor. Under his tutorship the band flourished, ringing its first peal in the tower on Friday, 26th May 1820. This was a 5040 of Plain Bob Triples, conducted by William Shipway, with John Powell Powell ringing the tenor bell. As well as ringing a number of peals at Quex, the band also visited other churches in the area including Canterbury Cathedral, where they joined with the Cathedral Company to ring the first ten bell peal on the bells which had been augmented in 1801. After the death of Powell Powell little more is heard of the Quex lnstitution until it was reformed in the 1880s by the All Saints Birchington band and so it continues to thrive to this day incorporating ringers from all over East Kent.
In the years after the Second World War it became clear that, after nearly 150 years service, the ring was in need of attention, So, in 1951, the bells were rehung with new bearings and other frictional parts. It is said that the second and third bells had almost the same note, so the opportunity was taken to four smallest bells. This work was carried out by Mears and Stainbank of Whitechapel. The cost being met by the Powell-Cotton family (the present owners of Quex).
By 1980 however, it was becoming obvious that a major restoration of the ring was needed; many of the fittings still dated from 1819 and the two-tier bell frame was in need of attention. The acoustics in the ground floor ringing chamber had never been good, the smallest bells were almost inaudible and the rest indistinct. In 1981 the canons and cast-in crown staples of the back eight bells were removed and the entire the ring rehung with new fittings. At the same time, the four smallest bells were taken from the top tier of the frame and hung in a new iron frame in the chamber below the other eight. With various other adjustments the ring has been transformed into one which is easy to ring and a delight to listen to outside.
In June 1989 disaster struck and an unfortunate accident whilst ringing left the ninth bell broken beyond repair. The bell was removed by crane via one of the belfry windows and recast by the Whitechapel Bell Foundry where it had been cast almost 200 years before.
Although by no means the finest ring of twelve in the country, there is something very special about ringing on one of the most unusual ring of twelve in Great Britain. The tenor states, "This peal of bells was cast for John Powell Powell of Quex House, Isle of Thanet, by Thos. Mears of Whitechapel, London, for the amusement of himself and his friends", the 'Squire's Toy' has certainly given endless hours of amusement to many hundreds of ringers since its installation long may it continue to do so!