The Bells of St Wilfrid's, Kibworth

The oldest bell in the tower of St Wilfrid's has been ringing out across Kibworth for over four hundred years. It was made in 1618 by George Oldfield, a famous bell-founder from Nottingham. Two of its companions are almost the same age, having been cast just three years later.

Until the turnpike acts of the eighteenth century which raised money to improve the surface of main routes by charging people to use them, church bells were usually cast where they were needed. The largest bell at St Wilfrid's weighs over half a ton, so it was easier for a bellfounder to travel with his equipment and tools than to move a heavy bell from a foundry to the church where it would be hung. This meant digging a hole in the churchyard or on a nearby plot of land to make the mould. We can say with some certainty that the oldest bells at St Wilfrid's were made in Kibworth.

St Wilfrid's Parish Church, Kibworth
St Wilfrid's Parish Church, Kibworth

The eight bells at St Wilfrid's are the work of four men who are regarded as the finest bell founders in the East Midlands. The Oldfields first cast bells in the time of Henry VIII, the skills and knowledge passed on from father to son. The two bells from 1621 at St Wilfrid's were cast by Hugh Watts who was Mayor of Leicester in 1634. While in office he received Charles I and his wife to the town. He died in 1642 and was buried in the churchyard of St Mary de Castro.

One hundred years later, Thomas Eayre of Kettering added a further two bells. Eayre was another fine craftsman. He used thin strips of wood to measure and record the shape and size of the bells he most admired, so he could recreate their sound. He was also a skilled clockmaker.

The fourth bell founder was John Taylor of the famous bell foundry in Loughborough. The company traces its business back to the work of Hugh Watts and Thomas Eayre and their families. In 1904 they recast the bell which had been damaged when the spire fell down and added two more bells in 1910 to make the peal of eight we hear today.

Bellfounding at the John Taylor foundry, Loughborough
Bellfounding at the John Taylor foundry, Loughborough

The collapse of the church spire was a dramatic episode in the history of St Wilfrid's. John Nichols in the Gartree volume of his History and Antiquities of the County of Leicestershire says the tower contained 'a musical peal of six bells founded in 1732.'  He describes the tower and slender spire as 'exceedingly well-built'. Unfortunately, he was wrong because at 9.00am on Saturday 23rd July 1825, it collapsed, bringing the bells crashing to the ground.

His friend Joseph Craddock at Gumley Hall told Nichols about the catastrophe. It seems the foundations gave way, but the spire had been undermined by work to build a new gallery and organ at the west end of the church:

'I immediately went to Church, entered at the Chancel door, advanced towards the West end where the mischief was gathering, heard the noises before mentioned, suddenly retired by the same door, proceeded round the East end towards the North gate of the Church yard and there found the different workmen with a few other persons intensely watching the steeple, and, as they told me, every moment expecting its fall. I took my station among them, and in less than a minute after several premonitory crashings, the whole fabric bowed from the summit over the base, paused for a few seconds, and then, as with one collective effort, came down in a thundering cataract of ruins. A thousand years could not efface the impression made upon soul and my senses by the grand, the astounding catastrophe.'

Surprisingly, the smallest bell was the only one damaged. The tower of St Wilfrid's was rebuilt, but without a new spire. The six bells were rehung, and on 5 November 1834, according to the records of the Leicester Bell Ringers:

'on Wednesday was rung at Kibworth Beauchamp at the re-opening of six bells, a complete peal of six Inn 720 changes.'

Most bells have inscriptions which tell us important facts about their origins such as who paid for them. The original inscription on the treble bell at St Wilfrid's read 'Tinnitus rapidos scintillans spargo per auras. T.Eayre. Pyrotechnus pro W.Fortrey 1732.' Translated, this means ' I, sparkling, scatter through the air the rapid sounds.' The rest of the inscription tells us that it was cast by Thomas Eayre and commissioned by William Fortey. Fortey lived in Gaulby or Kings Norton.

When it was recast, the bell was given a new inscription: 'Te deum Laudamus. Charles Hayes and Lucy Marriott married Oct 26, 1867. Oct 28.1910. In memoriam.' This commemorates the marriage of Dr Charles Hayes Marriott FRCS to Lucy.  In 1859, Marriott became house surgeon at the Leicester Royal Infirmary. He was recognised as the foremost surgeon of the district. In 1882, he operated on Joseph Merrick, the so-called 'Elephant Man'.  He was also Kibworth's local GP, captain of Kibworth Cricket Club and the first chairman of Harcourt Parish Council. Marriott Drive is named after him. His wife Lucy also left her mark.  She was born in 1844 in Hertfordshire. In her will she left money to be used for 'the sick and the poor'. This trust still operates today in Kibworth.

Dr Charles Hayes Marriott FRCS
Dr Charles Hayes Marriott FRCS

In the nineteenth century, Thomas North, who wrote a detailed survey of Leicestershire church bells, recorded that in Kibworth 'the 'Pancake-bell' is rung on Shrove Tuesday, and a bell is rung at 8.00am on Sundays'. Shrove Tuesday is the feast day before the start of Lent. The bell called people to church to be 'shrived' or absolved of their sins at a special service of confession. It was rung at just before 11.00am. It also reminded people who didn't attend church to start making their pancakes.

Canon Edward Fletcher became rector in 1902 and during his time the full peal of bells we hear today was completed. In 1904, a new iron frame was installed to hold eight bells at a cost of about £180, and on 21st November 1908 a first full peal of the existing six bells was rung. Ernest Morris from St Margaret's Church in Leicester conducted the inaugural ring. He was nineteen years old, and in a long career became a leading authority on the church bells of Leicestershire and Rutland. When the last two bells were cast at the John Taylor Bell Foundry in Loughborough, he returned to conduct a full peel on 12th November 1910.

Just a few weeks before the peel was performed, there was another special occasion. On 8th October 1910, Frederick Staniforth, one of the bell ringers, then aged twenty-one years, was married to Mary Elizabeth Hancock. It seems the bell ringers marked the occasion and the local professional photographer Walter Bale recorded the bell ringers' celebration of the event. Bale worked from his home and studio at 49 High Street, next door to what is presently the Gems Emporium.

The re-hanging of he bells in 1908
The re-hanging of he bells in 1908

In 1959, during the incumbency of Canon Dennis Ireland, a written record inscribed by Ernest Morris, of over fifty peals, was presented to St Wilfrid's. Mrs Briggs provided a case to contain the book, in memory of her husband. The book and the case were dedicated at Matins on 11th October 1959.

Church bells are tuned to each other to create a major scale, and the tenor bell, being the lowest in pitch, is used as the reference for all the others. When a new bell is cast, it is tuned by removing material from the inside, which raises the pitch. In the past, bell founders used handbells as a reference, and today software on a laptop enables bells to be tuned precisely. There have been conflicting thoughts as to whether St Wilfrid's bells are in the key of F or G. In preparation for this article, Graham Redman and Terry Iliffe undertook a sound test and confirmed that they are indeed in the key of F.

The bells of St Wilfrid's have been part of the social fabric of Kibworth for so many years. Next Sunday morning or Wednesday evening, open your windows and listen!

Ernest Morris's handwritten notes on the bells of St Wilfrid's
Ernest Morris's handwritten notes on the bells of St Wilfrid's

REFERENCES

Terry Iliffe and Graham Redman (St Wilfrid's bellringers).

Kibworth Parish Magazine, November 1959.

Glyn Hatfield in Kibworth Chronicle Issue 315.

Ernest H Morris, The Church Bells of Leicester (Diocese and County), unpublished manuscript in the library of the Leicestershire Archaeological and Historical Society, c.1940.

George Dawson, archivist, John Taylor Bell Foundry quoted in Dove's Guide online.

Kibworth History Society

John Nichols, The History and Antiquities of the County of Leicester, Vol 2 Part 2, 1795.

J M Lee and R A McKinley, 'Kibworth', in A History of the County of Leicestershire: Volume 5, Gartree Hundred (London, 1964), pp. 167-187.

Thomas North, The Church Bells of Leicestershire, Samuel Clarke, Leicester, 1876, pp194-195.

Louisa M.Middleton, 'Thomas Eayre',in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, 188-1900, Vol 60.