Rob Walker’s CHCT lecture on Bells and Bellframes on May 18th 2021

A brief summary from Graham Pledger, (current Ely DAC Bells Adviser).

1)         Whilst living in Cambridgeshire, Rob Walker, a former Ely DAC Bells Adviser, published his study of Bellframes in Cambridgeshire (in 2001), and supplemented this by publishing Huntingdonshire Bellframes (in 2006).  Although he addressed some of the older bells in the county in his lecture, (the oldest being the sanctus bell at Great Staughton thought to be c1280), his talk largely concentrated on the timber bellframes that he had recorded.  Bellframes had been little studied until the 1990’s but from 1993 when Chris Pickford published “Bellframes – A practical guide to inspection and recording”, it becameeasier to describe the huge variety of frames and, based on their type, make an educated guess about their likely age.

2)         It is perhaps worth explaining at this stage that the evolution of bellframes followed the way the bells were rung.  In the early frames, the bells were swing chimed through a small arc and most of the forces were vertical.  By the early 17th century (from published change ringing), we know that the bells were already ringing “full circle” and therefore the frames were either adapted or rebuilt to carry the much greater horizontal forces as well as the much greater vertical ones as well.

3)         At the start of the lecture, there was a word of caution about dating a, bellframe by the current bells that are in them, but at Bartlow, a “short-headed” frame, (the oldest type), was thought most likely to be contemporary with the three William Chamberlain bells of c1440.  There was another short headed frames at Grantchester, but other once short headed frames at Longstowe, Parson’s Drove, Newton, Snailwell and Whaddon had all been adapted to carry the bells when swung higher and higher in their frames.

4)         There were other early frames in neighbouring Norfolk such as the “Queen-posted” frame at West Dereham and the high sided frame at Hockwold, but the “East Anglian scissor brace” was popular over a long period in both counties.  The one at Sutton with its extra height as well scissor braces suggested it could well have once carried the 4 bells in the 1552 survey, but it has been dendro dated to 1620.

5)         The 17th century started with king posted frames, usually built around a hollow square in plan, Harston for example, but by the mid-17th century saw a number of raking braced frames (without kingposts) and these often included jack braces or even double jack braces as at Cambridge St Bennett.  We know that this type of frame construction proved very successful well into the 18th century as at Burwell in 1784 where all of the accounts have survived.

6)         By the 19th century, hybrid metal and timber frames were starting to be used, for example Caxton in 1883, Sawston in 1891, Elm in 1914 and Trumpington in 1928.  By the late 20th century a cast iron frame supported off a double grillage of steel beams became the most popular choice and only lost some ground to all steel trusses where (short term) cost savings were the overriding factor.

7)         So what are the chances of survival of these early timber frames?  Like all good historic building maintenance, keeping the timbers dry and well ventilated are key.  Where the tower has a ring of three bells or less and there is no enthusiasm for augmentation, the chances of survival are high.  Where the old frame cannot be adapted for a greater number of bells, they are at risk.  Preservation insitu as at Harston or by raising the frame higher in the tower as at Little Paxton are solutions, as is archaeological recording and removal, but there are no hard and fast rules and the DAC has to decide each case on its own merits when an application is made.

8)         To find out more about the bells and belframes near you, the most up to date record can be found at Dove’s Guide for Church Bell Ringers (cccbr.org.uk) You will also find some information at Church Heritage Record at Churches – Online Faculty System (churchofengland.org) Once you have found your church, you need to click on “Interiors” and scroll down to find the bells inventory and, if your bellframe is of heritage merit, the bellframe as well.  There has been a recent agreement between the editors of Dove and Church Buildings Council that the CHR will be synchronised with Dove, but it is too early to know whether this will work well.

Graham Pledger

29th July 2021

Cambridgeshire Historic Churches Trust is a registered charity, number 287486.