History of the Christ Church bells

The first ring of six bells installed into the new tower in 1869 were made of steel instead of the conventional bell-metal (bronze). They were presented to the church, with a Turret clock, by Lady Morrison who lived at the Hermitage in Snaresbrook. She had already contributed £1000 towards the extension of the church in 1867 and a further £1350 towards the erection of the tower and spire in 1868. The new bells were to be named ‘The Morrison Peal.’ The bells were manufactured by Messrs. Naylor Vickers & Co., of Sheffield. The firm had obtained Riepe’s German patent for casting steel in 1854. Cast steel bells were being widely promoted and advertised at this time although the reality was that steel bells are subject to rust and are inferior in tone.

John Eyre
John Eyre

Bells cast in bell-metal can last for centuries, however after only sixty years in use a report on their inspection of the steel bells on March 13th 1933 must have come as something of a shock to the church council. Report extracts state:- “The ringing order of the peal is in poor condition, due, in the main, to the worn state of the gudgeons and bearings. The cast steel bells are now very corroded and rusty and their musical effect is harsh and discordant. Moreover, your bells were cast at a time when very little was known concerning the scientific designing and tuning of bells such as we employ to-day; consequently the harmonics or overtones of the bells are wild and chaotic in the extreme. It would be a tremendous improvement to replace the existing steel bells by a ring of six bells cast of the finest quality bell-metal”.

The Christ Church Bell Fund was launched and with typical donations ranging from five shillings to three guineas the money was raised and the work completed. The steel bells were sold as scrap for the grand sum of thirty-five shillings. Wanstead’s peal was replaced by a ring of six bells cast in bell-metal by Messrs Taylor of Loughborough in 1934. The cost of the six bells was £327 and the Rector, Canon Birchenough, entertained the subscribers to an evening party in the church grounds after the dedication. The first full length peal on the new bells and rung by a local band was rung in two hours twenty minutes on Thursday May 12th 1937 to commemorate the coronation of their Majesties King George VI and Queen Elizabeth.

The new bells were accommodated in the original frame in three levels. Three bells at the lower level with two above in a complete oak cage. The heaviest bell, the 8cwt tenor, was hung higher up the tower on its own massive timbers set against the tower wall. To allow for the different sizes and swing of the new bells each bell pit had to be modified thereby seriously weakening the structure. Apart from the war years the bells continued to tell us the time, call us to services and ring out for weddings and days of national rejoicing. During this time the strain on the wooden frame caused the oak timbers to work loose and the movement was endangering the masonry of the tower itself. It became clear in 1972 that major works would be required or the bells would be silenced.

The church was heavily committed financially and had it not been for a very generous bequest by the late Ronald Charles Henham Barrow the plans for the bells would have been shelved. Miss Henham Barrow decided on behalf of the family that her brother would have liked the money to go to providing a new frame for the bells and to adding two additional lighter bells to make a ring of eight.

The two new bells were cast by the Whitechapel Bell Foundry in 1972. The Foundry has made bells for well over 400 years. It is the oldest manufacturing company operating in London and still uses traditional methods of production, the only concession to modern technology being the installation of an electric arc furnace and electronic bell tuning.

Quite a large party from Wanstead were present in 1972 to witness the exciting spectacle of molten metal being poured into the moulds for the two new bells. They were delivered to the church at the end of September and were blessed at Evensong on October 1st. The larger bell was named Ronald and bears the inscription RONALDUS + QUEMADMODUM GALLINA CONGREGAT while the other was given the name of Charles and is inscribed CAROLUS + EXULTABIT LINGUA MEA. The peal of eight bells was hung in a brand new steel frame also supplied by the Whitechapel Foundry in 1972. The opportunity was taken to fit all eight bells into the new frame in two tiers rather than three. The Tenor bell (No 8) was brought down from its high position in the tower and now rings with bells 1,2,4, and 6 in the lower tier. Bells 3, 5 and 7 are in the upper tier. The first peal was rung with the eight bells on the morning of 18th November 1972 to mark the Silver Jubilee of the Queen’s wedding to Prince Philip. More recently the new Millennium was marked by the ringing of a peal of ‘Redbridge Millennium Delight Major’, specially commissioned by the Borough and rung for the first time at Christ Church on 1st January 2000.

The Wanstead Surprise Peal

It was the 17th century ringers who discovered that the special features of ringing a bell by rope and wheel through a full circle could be employed to ‘change’ or weave the notes of the bells not into tunes but into continuously changing mathematical permutations. A simple example shows that six changes are possible on three bells:-

1 2 3
2 1 3
2 3 1
3 2 1
3 1 2
1 3 2
and again 1 2 3

The numbers of permutations or ‘extents’ possible increases dramatically when more bells are involved; on five bells (doubles) 120 changes are possible; on six bells (minor) 720; on seven bells (triples) 5,040; on eight bells (major) 40,320 and it would take nearly 38 years to ring all the 479,001,600 changes possible on 12 bells (maximus)!

The permutations can be arranged in infinitely variable patterns that are composed into ‘methods’ and given such names as Plain Bob, Reverse Canterbury Pleasure Bob, London Surprise, Cambridge Surprise, Stedman, Grandsire, Kent Treble Bob, etc. The ringing of over 5,040 changes in one or more methods qualifies as a ‘full peal’ below this level are rung ‘quarter peals’ and ‘touches’. An average peal will take around three hours to ring and if successful will be recorded on a special board in the tower and published in the ringer’s own newspaper, The Ringing World.

The Church Bells
The Church Bells

Despite the endless number of possible permutations at no time do rows of numbers have to be learnt. In the same way as a walk through a wood does not involve remembering every tree but rather the characteristics of the track so a ringer studies the ‘path of work’ in a method and can tell he or she is right by how he or she ‘meets’, ‘passes’ and ‘dodges’ with other bells. The Conductor of a touch can call out special codes, known as ‘Bobs’ and ‘Singles’ which instantly re-programmes some or all of the ringers on to a new path in a different part of the wood and extends the ringing to the required duration until once more the bells fall into rounds.

On Wednesday 1st January 1986, a group of eager bell ringers assembled to attempt to ring a full length peal on Wanstead’s bells. The bells had already been thoroughly checked to ensure there could be no mechanical fault. The key to the ringing chamber was handed to the Conductor and the band locked themselves in so that nothing could disturb the intense concentration that would be required. The bells were pulled up from the safe, ‘down’ position (Fig.1) to the ‘raised’, ringing position (Fig. 2) and then rung through a full circle in ’rounds’, that is from 1 to 8 in order. A short pause followed to make final adjustments. The Conductor eyed his band carefully and happy that they were ready for the marathon ahead gave the command ‘Go – Wanstead Surprise Major’ and the changes began.

The bell in the down position.
The bell in the down position.
The bell now 'raised' into the position where it stands until ringing begins.
The bell now ‘raised’ into the position where it stands until ringing begins.

The Wanstead peal, after two hours and thirty-five minutes ringing reached the required number of changes. The ringing ceased and birdsong could once again be heard across Christ Church Green. The Conductor declared the changes to have been sound and true and Wanstead Surprise could now be registered as a new method with The Central Council of Church Bell Ringers. Never before had such a permutation of changes existed or been officially recognised. Never in the future could this composition be anything other than Wanstead Surprise.

It is hoped that sometime our own band of ringers may be able to learn Wanstead Surprise, which incidentally can be practiced in its ‘Plain Course’ form lasting about 10 minutes. The ability to continually aim for achievable targets that is the beauty of bell ringing. Wanstead is traditionally a training environment with the focus on maintaining regular ringing for services and weddings. The local band is able to progress, at its own pace, towards a point where maximum enjoyment and satisfaction is achieved by ringing as a team. Individuals from all walks of life can find, in ringing, a challenge worthy of their skills.