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Wotton-under-Edge Branch
Horton (St James the Elder)

St James the Elder, Horton - click for a larger version

Name or Dedication: St James the Elder

Location: Horton, Gloucestershire

Grid Reference: ST766850

The current church was built in the 13th Century on the site of an earlier Norman building. It was greatly restored in the 15th and 16th Centuries. In the early 17th Century a new oak frame was provided for the four bells that hung in the tower, reusing some older timbers from the earlier frame and featuring an unusually tall north side, possibly to help stabilise it against the north-south swing of the three smaller bells. The frame was modified in 1649 when the smallest of the older bells was recast and a new treble added to form a ring of five in F, albeit with the tenor somewhat sharp compared to the other bells. Space was limited, and the new treble found itself hung almost entirely within the west louvre of the belfry.

A tragic and rather gruesome accident was reported in the St James's Evening Post on 9th April 1730:

"We hear from Horton in the County, the following melancholy account, that on Sunday the 29th March a Gentleman's servant near that place, being in the belfry among the Bells when the great Bell was standing, which he not observing, unfortunately stepped upon it, by which it gave way, and in the fall, cut the young man almost in two in the middle, so that he died immediately."

Fast-forward to November 1939 and the Parish Magazine describes the bells as being "in a shocking state of repair – impossible to ring or chime". This report may well coincide with the completion of some work inside the church that was being planned in April that year, including the removal of the font from the centre of the ground floor Ringing Room to the south aisle of the church. Sadly, despite various attempts to rehang the bells over the years, all of which failed due to lack of funds, the situation hadn't improved by the early years of the 21st Century. When I visited the church in January 2006 the belfry could best be described as derelict and the bells hadn't been swung for well over a hundred years.

At that time, however, the bells had clearly been heard in recent years. A rope attached to the treble's clapper still hung down into the Ringing Room, and there was evidence of the other three smaller bells having been similarly sounded previously. The four ropes would have hung almost in a straight line from west to east across the middle of the tower, that of the treble being slightly south of the others. The tenor bell wasn't so fortunate: there was no sign of its own rope hole, nor indeed of its clapper. A large crack extended from its lip half way up the waist of the bell, and some evidence of this crack having been sawn – perhaps as the first stage of an attempt to repair it, or simply to prevent it growing any longer – was apparent. In addition, the bell had been rehung with an oak deadstock, in its original position in the southern half of the frame, its original elm headstock laying on top of the frame nearby.

All five bells were hung by their canons, those on the two largest bells being cabled, and had cast-in crown staples. Although both the third and fourth bells are of similar date, the third was cast earlier than the fourth. The front four were hung with elm headstocks on plain bearings and had short sliders that were pivoted below their stays (rather than below their wheels, which is the modern arrangement). What remained of their wheels gave no indication of where their ropes would have fallen, but it is likely that the four chiming-rope holes were not the original ones used when the bells were rung full-circle. The belfry floor had clearly been replaced at some time in the past, possibly during the works in 1939, and if the tenor was also rehung dead at this time it would explain the lack of a fifth rope hole. The new chiming-rope holes must have been drilled in 1939 or later otherwise the font would have been in the way of the second and third ropes.

Below the bell frame in the belfry stood a derelict 17th Century hand-wound weight-driven birdcage clock movement. Its dial, upon which only the minute hand remains, is on the south wall of the tower, and it struck the hours on the tenor. The hour hammer was attached to a long iron lever that was pivoted on top of the bell's deadstock and was operated by a wire from the clock. (The hammer struck the opposite side of the bell to the crack.) The clock weights dropped from wooden rollers attached to the bell frame above the tenor's pit to the ground floor of the tower. This arrangement of both the weights and the hour hammer must have been installed after the tenor was rehung dead as any of it would have prevented the bell from being rung.

Plans for the restoration of the bells and augmentation to a ring of six have been in place since 2003 when the challenge of the final wish of Helen Pane – that the bells of Horton should ring when her granddaughters married – was taken up by her daughter, Tina Hildick-Smith. The project was taken on by the Parish Priest, Revd Dr Gordon H. Edwards, whose unyielding dedication and perseverance overcame every obstacle, including objections from a number of august bodies, right up until his death in 2008. Work finally started in 2009 with the removal of the bells on 16th February. The historic bellframe, the cause of many of the delays, was then carefully removed and reassembled in an outbuilding of the neighbouring Horton Farm for preservation. The cracked tenor was considered irrepairable and was in any case too small, too light, and so sharp that it most likely could not have been tuned down sufficiently to match the rest of the ring. The four smaller bells were retuned at the Whitechapel Bell Foundry and returned to the tower on 16th November 2010, complete with a new tenor to replace the cracked bell and an additional treble, all of which were were hung in a new cast-iron frame. By early December 2010 a new gallery Ringing Room had been constructed, accessed from a new doorway off the original stone spiral staircase and with a toilet and kitchenette in the old Ringing Room below.

The old tenor is now hung dead below the floor of the new frame for preservation, the original plan of having it on display in the church being rejected as too risky for such an historically important bell. Previously attributed to Robert Hendley, it has since been identified as the work of Robert Norton of Exeter. The clock movement was removed for safety during the building works but has now been replaced in the tower for storage. There are currently no plans to restore it and return it to its original position, but the possibility has certainly not been ruled out as a project for the future, and the dialwork remains in-situ for this purpose.

The new tenor was originally the tenor to a ring of eight at All Saints, Writtle in Essex (TL678062). In 2004 this ring was replaced by a new and much heavier ring of ten, with two additional trebles to form a light eight and provision for a future augmentation to twelve. Through the Keltek Trust the front six bells of the original ring were retuned and two trebles added to form a new ring of eight for a proposed new tower in Seattle, USA, and the Trust very kindly donated the old tenor (previously 18-2-14 in F) to the Horton project. The new treble was supplied by Matthew Higby & Company Ltd who carried out the restoration work, and was originally the treble to a ring of three bells at All Saints, Alton in Hampshire (SU714389) where a new light ring of six was installed in 2006.

Bells hung for full-circle ringing

The bells of St James the Elder, Horton
BellWeightDiameterNoteFounder Date
15-1-18 30½ inC# Mears & Stainbank 1885
26-1-12 32¾ inB William Purdue III & Richard Purdue II 1649
37-1-00 34¾ inA William Purdue III & Richard Purdue II 1649
48-3-15 36¾ inG# Bristol Foundry c.1420-80
513-0-23 42½ inF# Bristol Foundry c.1420-80
617-0-05 47 inE Mears & Stainbank 1916

Additional bells

Additional bells at St James the Elder, Horton
BellWeightDiameterNoteFounder Date
Disused16-1-11 44½ inF Robert Norton c.1420-60

Source: Bell data largely from Dove's Guide. Further information from "Church Bells of Gloucestershire" (Mary Bliss & Frederick Sharpe, 1986), the Keltek Trust, the Wotton Branch Website, Andrew Bull, Revd Dr Gordon H. Edwards, Rex Isaac and Alan Pidgeon. Inspected personally prior to restoration 25th January 2006; church revisited after completion (but belfry not seen) 8th January 2011 and 29th August 2011.

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.