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Bristol Rural Branch
Frenchay (St John the Baptist)

St John the Baptist, Frenchay

Name or Dedication: St John the Baptist

Location: Frenchay, Gloucestershire

Grid Reference: ST639774

The church was built in 1834 as a chapel-of-ease to St Michael the Archangel, Winterbourne, becoming the Parish Church of the new Parish of Frenchay in 1841. The architect Henry Rumley provided a tower suitable for bells, possibly having seen the towers of Holy Trinity, Kingswood and St Mary, Fishponds, although Frenchay has the smallest of the three. In 1923 the spire was struck by lightning, hurling huge chunks of stone incredible distances across Frenchay Common. The spire had to be almost completely rebuilt, and in 1981 the top 15 feet was again rebuilt and stabilised.

The tower originally held just one Service Bell that was hung for ringing in the fourth pit of an unusual, ill-fitting, octagonal oak six-bell frame. Although undated, it was almost certainly cast in 1834 when the church was built. It was tuned to E and presumably intended as the fourth of a ring of six in C, however it was never used as such and remained alone in its frame. Latterly it was only swing-chimed, though its fittings were overhauled for their intended purpose in 1987.

The Ringing Room at this time was shared by the clock in the second floor of the tower. This clock was given to the church by Francis Fox Tuckett and is a posted-frame movement built by Wasbrough Hale & Co. of Bristol in 1837. It is weight-driven, and continues to be wound by hand once a week. The weights themselves only drop to the clock chamber floor and are therefore four times heavier than they would normally be for such a clock. Its dial is on the west wall of the tower, overlooking Frenchay Common.

The hours were originally struck on the Service Bell, but in 1913 an hemispherical Hour Bell was hung dead on the west parapet of the tower for this purpose. It is probably the only such bell in the Bristol Diocese, and research by Revd David L. Cawley suggests it may have come originally from the church of Ss Philip & Jacob, Bristol.

In the late 1980s, more than 150 years after the first bell was hung in the tower, it was finally decided to complete the intended ring of six. The ill-fitting octagonal bellframe would be replaced with a new steel six-bell frame set lower in the tower, and a new Ringing Room would be created in the gallery below. Many redundant small bells soon became available for the project, either as they were or for recasting. The first of these were four Quarter Bells from the clock tower at Almondsbury Hosptial (ST607840). They were cast along with an Hour Bell by John Taylor & Co. in 1892, the building being opened as the Almondsbury Institute by Janetta, Duchess of Rutland on 16th November of that year. An inspection in 1988 found the Quarter Bells to be in a dangerous state of disrepair, and not having been used since 1913, they were subsequently made available to Frenchay. The Hour Bell, upon which the clock still strikes the hours, remains alone in the tower.

The number of redundant bells collected quickly reached double figures, one coming from as far away as Newcastle-upon-Tyne. Not all of the bells were used in the project, and the surplus bells were later reused elsewhere. All, that is, except a 15-inch diameter bell with tall canons cast by Thomas Hale & Sons of Bristol in 1853, that was hung for swing-chiming at the former church of St John the Evangelist, Hallen (ST550800). The only surviving bell cast by Thomas Hale, this was considered to be an interesting example of mid-19th Century Bristol bellfounding and is now on display at the John Taylor Bellfoundry Museum in Loughborough. For a short while Frenchay became "the only twelve-bell tower in the Bristol Rural Branch" with the inclusion of their own Service Bell and hemispherical Hour Bell. The Hour Bell was initially destined for recasting (no doubt before its significance was fully realised), but it was retained to keep the clock independent of the ringing bells.

The initial plan was to create a ring of five in C, although lighter than was originally intended in 1834. Only one new bell would need to be cast, and the existing Service Bell would either be retuned from E to D, or recast if this wasn't possible. They would be hung in a new six-bell frame to allow for future augmentation, but it quickly looked like the future was upon them when two bells hung for swing-chiming became available from the former church of Our Saviour, Woolcott Park, Redland (ST580745), by then under the ownership of The Mount of Olives Pentecostal Church and converted into flats in 2003. The larger of these two bells was recorded as being tuned to A, and could therefore become the extra treble to make six. Unfortunately, when the bell's strike note was confirmed it was actually found to be Ab. On top of this, the parish were reluctant to have their beloved Service Bell recast, so an alternative solution was sought.

Taylors were also cautious about retuning the Service Bell, deeming it "tonally poor, and we do not envisage a dramatic improvement", so they advised an even smaller ring of six with the Service Bell as the tenor, this time only retuned by a semitone to Eb. Two new trebles would need to be cast, and the larger of the Redland bells could finally take its place in the ring. This plan was accepted and work began apace to complete the job. One of the first tasks was to remove the old bellframe, although the two beams upon which it had been supported were so firmly built into the tower walls that was easier to leave them in place. All the sections of the frame were removed to a warehouse in Yate where they were reassembled – and it all fitted! It seems the shape of the frame hadn't exactly matched the shape of the tower, the result of which being the frame not fitting together as it should. Once the frame had been measured, inspected and carefully recorded, it was cut up and the oak sold to raise money for the project.

Meanwhile, downstairs in the gallery, heads were being scratched about how to create the new Ringing Room. Due to structural considerations the new bellframe was to be installed below the old one in the intended Ringing Room and Clock Chamber, so the idea was to extend the back of the terraced seating area below to form a level platform that would be accessed by an open stairway at the front. However, on further investigation it turned out that because of the way it had been built, the terraced area could instead be lowered to the level at the front. This not only made access easier but also resulted in a more adequate draught of rope. One drawback, however, is that a short ladder is now needed to reach the door to the belfry staircase that was originally at the back of the terraced area, as it is now four feet above the floor!

Of the ring of six, the treble and second were cast from two bells that were originally hung for swing-chiming at the Seamen's Church, built in 1880 over the Seamen's Institute at Prince's Hall, Prince Street, Bristol (ST587625), along with the second and fourth Quarter Bells from Almondsbury Hospital. The two smaller Quarter Bells had been cast to chiming weight and were therefore undersized for use in the ring, however the treble (1-1-03, 18½ inches in Ab) was given to the church of Christ The King, Bradley Stoke (ST620813) where it is hung dead for chiming above the main entrance porch.

The third was the larger of the two Redland bells. These bells were originally cast as the second and fourth of a chime of thirteen destined for All Saints, Ponsonby, in Auckland, New Zealand, and each has "Made in England" inscribed on the crown. The smaller bell had its swing-chiming gear restored and a new steel frame provided by the Frenchay ringers and friends, then it was donated to St Luke, Barton Hill, Bristol (ST609729) as a Service Bell to replace one they had recently had stolen. Measuring 15 inches in diameter, it has been retuned from its original C to C#, and now weighs 0-2-20 (48 lbs).

The fourth bell was rescued from the Roman Catholic church of St Lawrence, Byker in Northumberland (NZ274647) by Revd Peter Newing and was supplied to Frenchay church by him. The fifth bell was the third Quarter Bell from Almondsbury Hospital, and Frenchay's own Service Bell was employed as the tenor of the ring. The four reused bells were tuned with two new trebles by John Taylor Bellfounders Ltd, the canons being removed from the two tenors (the others having been cast without), and all six bells returned to Frenchay in June 1991. They were hung by parishioners and friends in a new steel Taylor frame, thus completing the first new ring in the Bristol Diocese for 40 years, the previous one being the ring of eight at Holy Nativity, Knowle in 1931.

The one bell that was not used but still kept can be found in the Ringing Room. Upturned on a wooden plinth and complete with its clapper is a rather rusty steel bell cast by Naylor Vickers & Co. of Sheffield in 1860. Measuring 20¼ inches in diameter, what's left of its strike note is G. It was acquired in the 1980s for the Unitarian Chapel (ST639776) across the road from St John the Baptist, but it was deemed unsuitable. This chapel was built by the Presbytarians (as the Unitarians were originally known) in 1691, the tower being added later in 1720. It contained a single chiming bell, cast by William Evans in 1750, but by the 1960s the chapel had become derelict and the bell stolen. The chapel was restored to its former glory in the 1980s.

A suitable footnote to this page would be to record the first peal rung on the bells. This peal, being 5040 changes of Plain Bob Minor and comprising seven different extents, took place on Sunday, 15th November 1992 to celebrate the centenary of Almondsbury Hospital. However, one week earlier the National Health Service (NHS) had announced that the hospital was to close on 15th January 1993. It is ironic that three of the hospital's own Quarter Bells – one still in its original form – were used not only to celebrate 100 years of service, but also to mark its closure.

Bells hung for full-circle ringing

The bells of St John the Baptist, Frenchay
BellWeightDiameterNoteFounder Date
11-2-10 18½ inC John Taylor Bellfounders Ltd 1991
21-2-22 20½ inBb John Taylor Bellfounders Ltd 1991
31-2-18 20 inAb John Taylor & Co. 1957
42-0-23 22 inG John Taylor & Co. 1908
53-0-00 24 inF John Taylor & Co. 1892
64-1-03 28 inEb William Jefferies c.1834

Additional bells

Additional bells at St John the Baptist, Frenchay
BellWeightDiameterNoteFounder Date
Hour2 cwt 27¾ inAb Charles & George Mears 1854

Source: Bell data and information on the ring of six from documents in Frenchay Ringing Room prepared by John Taylor & Co. Inspected personally and diameters measured 27th March 2006. Other bells' details and further information from Nick Bowden, Revd David L. Cawley and Alan Freke. Some historical information from ChurchCrawler (Phil M. Draper).

Where the exact weight of a bell is known, it is given in the traditional way using the British imperial units of Hundredweight, Quarters and Pounds (cwt-qtr-lb) in which there are 28 pounds in a quarter, four quarters in a hundredweight, and 20 hundredweight in a ton (one hundredweight is equal to approximately 50.8 kilograms). However, if only an approximate or calculated weight is known, it is given to the nearest quarter of a hundredweight.

A bell's diameter is measured across its mouth (open end) at the widest point and is given in inches (to the nearest quarter of an inch), one inch being equal to approximately 2.54 centimetres.