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OF BELLS AND RINGERS by AJO

St. Nicholas Church

On 6th September, 1552 an Inventory of the Church Goods was taken in the presence of William Day, Edmond Grymston, gent., Thomas Barteram, Robert Matthew(?) and Osbert Denton (parishioners) of the "paryssche of Saynt Nycholas in ffeltwell"

The Inventory includes:-

Item:- Thre belles in ye steple wayeng by estimacion xviij C whereof one wayeth iiijor hundred ye second xj C and ye thred viij C and every hundred valued at xvs.

Summa xiijli xs

Item:- Thre Bell Clappers wayeng by estimacion lx lb valued at vs.

Five bells which later hung in the tower of this church bore the following inscriptions

(No. 1) "Michael Darbie made me 1661".
(N o. 2) "John Draper made me 1621".
(N o. 3) "Virginis Egregie Vocor Campona Marie". This inscription is found on a number of bells and means "I am called the bell of the excellent Virgin Mary".
(N o. 4) "Etheldreda Bona Tibi Dantur Plurima Dona", meaning "Many goods are given thee by the good Etheldreda". Saint Etheldreda, also known as St. Audrey, was an East Anglian princess, who having married twice, gave up married life to take religious vows. She founded the Monastery of Ely and she died in A.D. 679.
(No. 5) "John Draper made me 1614".

Michael Darbie was a travelling bell founder who cast bells from 1651 to 1674 and it has been said that the former pond in Fair Close (opposite Hall Farm, Bell Street) was the result of Michael Darbie having dug a pit there in which to cast his bell. If this were so then this event gave the name to Bell Street and the former Bell Inn.

John Draper was the son of Thomas Draper, a Thetford bell-founder. Thomas cast many bells in this area between 1577 and 1595. Two more of John's bells hang but two miles away in the tower of St. Peter's Church at Hockwold. We must assume that John died without male issue as the Thetford foundry was closed at his death in 1644.

Following the collapse of St. Nicholas Tower (25/10/1898) when three of the five bells were broken, the two remaining bells and the shattered remains of the others were stored behind the organ in St. Nicholas Church. I believe that for a short time they were kept in Mr. Storey's barn (opposite).

In 1967/68, Bell No. 4 (The Etheldreda Bell) was presented to Ely Cathedral, where it stands in a place of honour. The big tenor bell was sold at the same time to a new church near Cardiff and the three broken bells were sold for scrap. The proceeds of sale helped to pay for the new framework in the belfry of St. Mary's Church. Fabian Stedman, who published his book "Tintinnalogia or the Art of Ringing" in 1688 and who is said to have been the father of change-ringing had some connection with Feltwell. He was born about 1630 and may have been baptised in St. Nicholas Church but there is no record of this event as the registers for that period were destroyed by fire in 1664.

St. Mary's Church

On the same day as that on which the Inventory was made at St. Nicholas Church, another was made in St. Mary's in the presence of the following gentlemen, parishioners of Feltwell St. Mary:- John Parsley, Adam Parsley, William Sutton, William Ward and Thomas Watson.

The Inventory includes

Item:- Thre steple belles weyeng by estimacion xx C whereof ye first wayeth v C ye second vij C the thred viij C and every hundred valued at xvs.

Summa xvli

Item:- Thre bell clappers wayeng iiijxxli valued at iijs iiijd.

These may well have been new bells following the damage done to the tower and bells in the fire around 1494. At this point, many readers will pause and say to themselves "Oh! no, that fire was at St. Nicholas Church, not St. Mary's ".

When, in the eighteenth century, the notes for Francis Blomefield's "History of Norfolk" were collected, an error was made. Anyone writing such a book as this automatically refers to Blomefield, to old county directories such as Kelly's and White's and to many other works of reference. It therefore follows that all publications concerning Feltwell which have appeared since Blomefield, have repeated his error.

Blomefield said, when referring to St. Nicholas Church:- "This Church was repaired, and in a good measure re-edified in 1494; on 6th May in that year an indulgence was granted – (by the Pope) - for that purpose, which (part of the Church) with the bells in the tower, was lately destroyed by a sudden fire" (Author's italics)

During a meeting of the Feltwell (Historical & Archaeological) Society in October 1967, a speaker from the Norfolk and Norwich Record Office mentioned the fire in connection with St. Mary's Church and was taken up on the point.

The speaker then produced a book which was a transcript of one of the Registers of the Bishop of Ely and this clearly stated that the fire was at St. Mary's. We were still not convinced and asked if the speaker could verify this information with the original Register, as we felt that the person taking the copy could have made a mistake.

Ten days later, I received a letter from the Norfolk and Norwich Record Office stating that the speaker had been in touch with the Ely Diocesan Archivist and that the original Register showed that the fire was at St. Mary’s.

From Terriers (Inventories) of the 19th Century and from Le Strange's "Church Bells of Norfolk" we find that the bells mentioned above (1552) were replaced for the inscriptions on the present bells read :

(No. 1) "Thomas Newman made me 1711".
(No. 2) "John Draper made me 1621".
(No. 3) "Thomas Thickpenny and Peter Drak C. W. 1711"

Thomas Newman was a Norwich bell-founder who cast bells between 1701 and 1744. Without doubt, the letters "C.W." on No. 3 bell indicate that Thomas Thickpenny and Peter Drake were Churchwardens. No. 2 bell weighs just over half a ton and the two cast in 1711 weigh 8 cwt. and 6 cwt.

Incidentally, the bell frame was made to take four bells but has never borne more than three. My great-uncle, William Beamis, who died 25th February, 1933, spent 32 years as a bellringer, both at St. Nicholas' and St. Mary's Churches before giving up this art in 1927. On his retirement, a newspaper reported that he "clashed the bells on the accessions of King Edward VII and King George V" and that "his ringing of the bells of St. Mary's heralded the important victories of Kimberley, Ladysmith and Mafeking, the proclamation of peace at the end of the Boer War and at the conclusion of the Great War".

On 11th November, 1896 he was not in his usual place in the belfry for he was attending the wedding in St. Mary's Church of my grandparents (Mr. and Mrs. A. G. Symonds) where he gave away the bride, his sister. The newspaper report of the wedding stated that "there was a merry peal of bells with volleys, from St. Nicholas' Church".

In 1966, the belfry of St. Mary's Church was considered to be in need of attention and the three bells were taken down in the following year so that the structure could be repaired. The bells were re-hung by John Taylor and Co. of Loughborough during the week commencing 22nd April, 1968.

A Thanksgiving Service was held on 22 May of the same year, when the bells were rung for the first time for two years.

Taylor & Co's. workmen suggested that the bells had never been moved from their framework since they were first hung.

I cannot trace the origin of the following ditty but, to my knowledge, it has been passed down at least four generations - maybe it goes back several hundred years - and it is sung to the tune of St. Mary's bells.

    Come to Church,
    Don't be late,
    Put a penny,
    On the plate".

Walter Beamis, learned the art of bell-ringing from his father, William, and once told me the following:-

When the eight bells of Swaffham church rang they were supposed to say:-

"We are the best bells in the Town"
To which the five bells of St. Nicholas, Feltwell, replied
"Who can beat we five?"
The two bells of Weeting would boast
"We two, we two."
To which the three bells of St. Mary's, Feltwell retorted
"That's a lie, that's a lie."

In the 1890's the five ringers at St. Nicholas, William Beamis, James Shearing, James Arnold, Jack Nichols and Salisbury King Lambert, out of their meagre earnings paid for a set of twelve hand-bells to be re-cast and tuned. I understand that it was common practice for ringers to purchase handbells so that they could practice in the warmth of a pub in winter rather than in an ice-cold belfry. No doubt there was another reason because I am also told that in the summer months it was the custom to collect a gallon of beer from the Chequers and take it to the belfry of St. Nicholas. In 1969 I managed to find these bells and they are now in the care of the Feltwell (Historical & Archaeological) Society who, under my grossly inexpert direction, played on them carols, etc. at the December meeting in 1969. Mr. Walter Beamis attended this Meeting and said that the last time those bells had been played was about 1904 when his father and the other ringers toured the streets playing Christmas Carols. I understand that it will cost about 60 to restore these bells but, who knows, one day we may yet have another team or two of hand bell ringers in Feltwell!

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