12:00pm Friday 17th December 2010
By Julie Webb
Brian White sat back and considered the completion of his firm’s most recent task — re-hanging the turret bells at St Margaret’s Church at Binsey, on the outskirts of Oxford.
“One of the things I have always liked about this craft is that, when you have finished your work, you can look up and say ‘that’s going to be there for 200 or 300 years’, ” he said.
His family firm, Whites of Appleton, is nearly 200 years-old itself and is the oldest continually trading bell-hanging firm in Britain.
Whites was founded by Brian’s great-great grandfather Alfred, an innkeeper at The Greyhound, Besselsleigh. Alfred became interested in bell-ringing when three bells at Appleton Church were augmented to a ring of six in 1818.
It has passed through the hands of Alfred’s son Frederick, his son Richard, and his son Francis. Brian’s uncle Frank, now 91, still keeps in touch with the business over a cup of tea every Friday at the factory.
Bell-hanging involves every aspect of installation except the casting and tuning, or retuning, of the bells themselves, so Brian’s present staff of six includes carpenters who see to the construction, repair or restoration of bell-frames and bell-wheels as well as engineers who make and fit new metalwork, and repair wrought-iron clappers.
“We try to keep it interesting by getting them to help each other out when there is a lot of work on,” he said — a strategy which also has the benefit of encouraging greater understanding of the job as a whole.
Every job, of course, is different, and another satisfying aspect of Brian’s work is the opportunity to find out more about the history of the bells he is asked to re-hang. Since they may have been undisturbed for centuries there are often surprises, as there were at St Margaret’s at Binsey — Lewis Carroll’s ‘treacle well’ church.
“The larger bell there was extremely interesting,” said Brian. “It was made by Henry Keene and dated 1652.
“There was a family of bell-founders called Keene in Woodstock at that time — James and his son Richard — but no-one knew there was a Henry. They wouldn’t believe me until I took photos of the inscription on the bell — ‘Henry Keene made me’. That bell was probably re-hung when the smaller bell was recast. It has a date on it of 1875 and was made by Mears and Stainbank of Whitechapel — the oldest bell foundry in the country,” Brian said.
“We were called in because everything the bells hung from had become unsafe because of rust and timber decay, so they had to be taken down.
“We put them up again in April this year, with new fittings.” These bells, which chime rather than ring, swing only a few degrees rather than fully upside down, being fixed in an arched turret,” Brian explained.
They are sounded by a rope dropped between the church nave and chancel.
“Both bells were in their original positions before we moved them, so the clappers had worn a big indent. We turned them through ninety degrees so the clapper would strike an unworn surface and go on for another couple of centuries.” mf They were finished off with a good wire-brushing, to get rid of several generations of pigeons’ droppings, and coated with the sort of blacking used on cast iron kitchen ranges.
As is frequently the case, St Margaret’s couldn’t afford to have them re-hung immediately – they had to raise the money. “Bells are often given in memory of someone” Brian told me. “At St Helen’s Church, Abingdon, where we hung a brand new ring of ten bells — a rare event - one was paid for in memory of somebody’s parents, one to commemorate a marriage, and one was given by the bell-ringers.”
Bells can be recycled nowadays via the KELTEK Trust, which buys surplus or redundant bells and re-houses them. Some of these, such as one recently installed at Fulbrook Church, come from superseded warning buoys.
“They are harmonically tuned so that the sound carries better over the water,” said Brian. “The sound is not just a ‘clonk’ — what we in the trade call ‘a sound like hitting a cow’s backside with a shovel’. It is a nice hum.”
From the beginning, Whites have worked throughout the UK as well as locally.
Great-great grandfather Alfred’s competence must have been recognised pretty quickly, as he was commissioned to hang bells at several cathedrals — there is one at Hereford with his name on.
“Now we look after the bells at Windsor Castle, Romsey Abbey, Portsmouth Cathedral, Canterbury Cathedral, Christ Church and all the colleges with bells in Oxford, and at St.Paul’s.
For the 100th birthday of the Queen Mother, who was Patron of the Cathedral’s Friends, we re-hung a tree-ton tenor bell in the north-west tower.”
“The oldest bell we’ve ever hung was at West Challow. It was made by ‘Paul the Potter’ and dated to 1280.” Brian and his wife Diana, a fellow director of Whites along with their colleague Graham Clifton, attend the dedication, or re-dedication, services of bells Whites have worked on whenever they can — sometimes to the consternation of the officiating minister: “We did a lot of work on bells in our own area over the Millennium, when the lottery money for them became available,” he said.
“The former Bishop of Dorchester, Bishop Anthony, did the rededication of the ones in Oxfordshire, and it became quite a joke between us that I had heard the same sermon about 14 times!
“When he moved and became Bishop of Ely he was asked to do the rededication of some bells at Great Shelford, so he gets up in the pulpit and he said: ‘When I was Bishop of Dorchester I preached this sermon 14 times, but I am pretty confident no-one here will have heard it.’ Then he caught sight of me at the back of the church!”
Whites also hung a bell given by the Queen and members of her family in memory of her jockey Gordon Richards to his local church at Kintbury, in Berkshire, where, at the same time, they re-installed six bells originally put in by great-great grandfather Alfred.
He would doubtless be proud of the reputation his descendents have earned, and pleased that the future of Whites, now a Limited Company, is ensured. Brian himself is winding down, very slowly, towards retirement, but his team of highly skilled craftsmen, led by Graham Clifton, are all set to carry on the firm’s work into its third century.
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