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All About Ellacombe Chimes

First published in February 2015.

In the early part of the 19th century the relationship between bell ringers and the church was very different to how it is today. Tales of bells being rung at all hours of the day (and night!), beer kept in the Ringing Room to sustain the ringers, and even church officials being locked out of their own towers were common across the country. But perhaps the biggest difference is that bell ringing was forbidden on Sundays as it was considered to be a frivolous exercise – and so for the weekly church services, the bells were only swing-chimed.

Most often, one or two people would take a rope in each hand and chime their bells, usually with no regard for the musicality of the resulting noise. A clever chimer could operate three or even more bells alone, pulling a rope with each hand and looping others around elbows and feet. Hardly a glorious sound befitting of an act of worship!

The Ellacombe chiming manual at St John the Baptist, Keynsham - click for the full-size versionSo it was that in 1821, just across the River Avon at St Mary's in Bitton, the Reverend Henry Thomas Ellacombe and a friendly engineer set up a system of ropes, pulleys and hammers such that one person could sound all the bells in the tower, and hopefully produce a sound more pleasing to the ear in the process. The Ellacombe Chiming Apparatus was thus installed in hundreds of church towers around the world, including at St John's in Keynsham (pictured right).

The chiming manual that Ellacombe created is simpler than the clavier keyboard of a carillon in that it has no batons or pedals, just a set of ropes to pull. But the ingenious part is that by releasing the ropes from the manual, the hammers will drop down and allow the bells to be rung full-circle for change-ringing.

The Ellacombe chiming manual at St John's was installed in 1910 when the bells were rehung. However, a Victorian weekly paper for church folk entitled Church Bells which included a column on Bells and Bell-Ringing reported on 17th January 1880 that "A new chiming apparatus, designed by Mr. G. Kingman, of Lansdown Road, Bath, has just been completed, and erected by him in the tower of the parish church, Keynsham, near Bristol. By its means one person is enabled to chime the whole ring of eight bells; and on Sunday last several tunes and changes were very effectively played on the bells by the designer and Mr. F. Goodman, a Bath amateur." Evidence in the tower indicates that this Kingman keyboard was built into the floor-to-ceiling cupboard next to the later Ellacombe manual.

The Kingman chiming keyboard at Christ Church, Walcot in Bath - click for the full-size versionGeorge Kingman, a bell ringer at Christ Church, Walcot in Bath designed his keyboard-based chiming system in 1873, and his first keyboard was installed in the Ringing Room there on 24th June (pictured left). Unusually, Christ Church has a circular Ringing Room, so the keyboard was located in the centre of the room – quite an obstacle for the bell ringers! It was removed from there into storage in the summer of 2014 during the restoration of the tower. Similarly to Ellacombe's chiming manual, the ropes or wires attached to the Kingman keyboard could be disconnected to allow the hammers to drop clear of the bells, as illustrated in the photograph. When in use, the batons are horizontal and struck with an open fist.

Times change, and by the end of the 19th century the "Belfry Reform" movement – led by the same Revd H T Ellacombe along with Canon Woolmore Wigram – had put an end to the bell ringers' unruly ways and brought them under the control of the church. It was now expected that the ringers would perform on Sundays for the church services, and so the chiming apparatus fell out of favour; many became derelict, and some were removed altogether, but others found their chiming manuals repurposed as bookshelves, handbell cupboards, or – as in the case of All Saints, Wrington in Somerset – as a stand for a large flat-screen computer monitor for a bell ringing training simulator!

Ellacombe chiming hammer on bell no.6 at St John the Baptist, Keynsham - click for the full-size versionFortunately, however, many sets of Ellacombe Chimes are today in good working order – either through continued use over the years, through restoration (as happened at St John's in 2008 – see the restored hammer on our no.6 bell, pictured right), or because the bells are unable to be rung full-circle – and they are used to play hymn tunes, Christmas carols and many other forms of music on church bells throughout the world.

The tunes to be played must be carefully chosen or specially arranged to "fit" on the limited range of notes available – in the case of St John's, the eight notes of one diatonic major octave. However, this still allows for a quite reasonable repertoire of music which we are always seeking to extend. Perhaps you have a favourite melody that might be suitable?