Overview for PCCs and Clergy
In the Church of England, the maintenance of a church tower and its contents is the responsibility of the Parochial Church Council (PCC). Besides major work to bell installations, there may be a need to obtain a Faculty or an Archdeacon's formal permission for some larger maintenance tasks. Information on this aspect was updated in 2020 and guidance is available here. Please note that the PCC can claim the amount of VAT paid on many bell items through the Listed Places of Worship Grant Scheme.
The information in these leaflets (CCCBR and PDG) may be of interest to Incumbents and Churchwardens who are not familiar with bell installations. This leaflet highlights important considerations relating to bells and ringing spaces when alterations to the church are being considered.
The tower and the whole church building has to be inspected by a suitably experienced and qualified professional inspector, usually an architect, appointed by the PCC after consultation with the Diocesan Advisory Committee (DAC) and a report made to the PCC every five years (“the quinquennial inspection”). This report should include a review of the electrical installation. Please make sure that there is bright enough emergency lighting in the ringing chamber to enable safe setting of the bells in case of unexpected sudden darkness when power fails or someone accidentally or purposefully turns the lights off. Few architects have much knowledge of the bell installation itself and may need specialist advice if there are matters needing attention. In the next round of inspections, the Guild is keen to ensure that access for those maintaining the bells is considered.
Each tower will ideally have a tower captain appointed by the PCC and either directly or by delegating to a steeple keeper can keep the PCC and architect advised of any difficulties. A suggested job description is available here. The PCC should have a risk assessment for the use of the tower by ringers, inspectors and especially if open to guided tours for which advice is available from Ecclesiastical Insurance here with a sample tower and bellringers form here. The tower captain should also be involved with the fire risk assessment especially with regard to evacuation of ringers in case of fire and indeed of sudden illness. See CCCBR guidance notes here.
It is wise for the Branch Steward to make sure that the PCC of any tower without ringers is aware of the expertise that can be provided to prevent inappropriate work being carried out. Such work might include: obstruction of the swinging of bells and the ringing of them by heating, toilet, organ apparatus; installation of radio telecommunications equipment (see pages 7 and 8 of this CCCBR note) or even the installation of well intentioned but inappropriate 'health and safety' measures! The Diocesan Advisory Committee ('DAC') also has a Bells Advisor who as a ringer and engineer can advise a PCC about major projects.
DAC, Archdeacon's Certificates & Faculties
The DAC view on bell installations are available here and further information from the Church Buildings Council here. The project could include major repairs to the bell frame; replacing the bell frame; specialist welding or recasting of cracked bells; tuning old bells and the provision of new bells or secondhand bells or simply installing apparatus for a computerised ringing simulator. Please see the note here about the need to obtain a Faculty or the Archdeacon's written approval for certain works in the tower and this later information regarding simulators.
Professional advice on bell installations is available, in most cases free, from specialist bell-hangers:
Blyth & Co Ltd (formerly TLB)
or Exaudite for advice and project management
Casting of new bells and recasting of old bells with tuning is undertaken by John Taylor & Co , Matthew Higby (smaller sizes) and Westleys. From mid 2017, Whites and Nicholson Engineering can tune bells and arrange casting of bells to traditional profiles by bell foundries.
For detailed information about the tuning and sound of bells, please read this paper given by Bill Hibbert to the CCCBR in 2019.
In the case of concerns about the structural strength and movement of towers, this video produced by Gordon Breeze for the St Martin's Guild will give a detailed look into the latest research that has been carried out on this subject.
Sound and Noise
If you receive complaints about the volume of noise outside, or indeed inside the tower, specialist advice is worthwhile - see the useful Guidance Notes published by the Central Council of Church Bell Ringers. It has also produced some technical notes with useful diagrams available here.
When teaching new recruits to ring a bell, the continuous donging of one bell in a random fashion is designed to irritate neighbours. So it is best to have the clapper silenced or muffled.
Help for Steeple Keepers
Work safely! - assess the risks - Does someone know you are amongst the bells?
Replacement of broken stays, (plain or the more difficult Hastings design - see this interesting piece about ash for stays); repair of broken ropes (short splice or long splice); adjusting natural fibre ropes on the wheel to account for wear at the garter hole or over the pulley and for length changes with prevailing weather conditions; replacing fallen or broken clappers after professional repair.
Typical tasks are:
- Oil plain bearings
- grease clapper pins fitted with greasers
- check that stays are properly bolted and sliders are in place
- check that all clock or Ellacombe chime hammers rest clear of the bell and adjacent bells and any of their parts when turning full circle
- check that the central bolt holding the crown staple (the fork that holds the clapper hinge pin and is usually integral with the crown staple bolt) is tight and the clapper hits the bell straight across
- check the bell and gudgeon bolts on headstocks and frames - best tightened on timber headstocks and frames after a long dry period
- check that the pulley wheels spin freely (do not oil!)
- clean the bell chamber and stairs
- check clappers for excessive wear - seek advice if the clapper can be moved up and down by more than 1/8 inch against its hinge pin and sways more than 1 inch sideways where it hits the bell - it may need to have replacement bush fitted. A small number of cases have come to light where the hinge pin for the clapper in crown staples fitted by Eayre and Smith have worked out due to failure of the roll-pin that holds it in. This can allow the clapper to fall out. Use a light or torch to have a good look.
Many bells suffer from odd-struckness which makes them more difficult to ring accurately. The problem is outlined here. A series of investigations and phased corrections at Worcester Cathedral were explained by Bernard Taylor in detail in The Ringing World in 2020: bell swing times (pp388 - 391 April 17); clappering (pp582 -585 June 12); odd-struckness (pp652 - 653 July 3). There was also an article about David Bagley's Odd-Struckness Meter (p540 May 29). Further information can be seen here: basic adjustments (with thanks to Malcolm Taylor); and twiddle pins (article by Whitechapel).
You should routinely check ropes for undue wear. In natural fibres, this is most likely to occur at the "garter hole" in the wheel rim and the rope that runs over the pulley under the bell wheel. In polyester tops, look carefully at the natural fibres end of the splice with the polyester rope just above the sally. You may need to pull the rope up into the chamber above to look at it in detail.
Natural fibre ropes will last about 15-20 years depending on use. During this time it will probably be necessary to repair the tail end and top end by a splicing repair or splicing in a piece of new rope. (see Running Repairs above). Pre-stretched polyester top ends are likely to outlast the life of the sally and tail rope.
Although pre-stretched polyester ropes (machine spliced to the natural fibres above the sally and tail) cost more than a complete rope made of natural fibres, besides the advantage of a longer life already mentioned, they are far less likely to change their length with changes in humidity. With a long draught of rope this overcomes the problem of ropes being too short when it is damp and too long in a dry spell.
In recent years the supply of hemp that was traditionally used for natural fibre ropes has been difficult and flax or sisal was substituted. These seem to have a rougher handling quality at first and are much more prone to becoming very stiff in humid conditions, so much so that many towers have added a rope warmer to their kit.
Click here for details of this version. With a 7-day time clock set for four hours before ringing time, the tails are dry and supple, ready for use. The supply of hemp has recently become more available and some suppliers offer hemp as an extra-cost option.
When the rope is becoming well worn, please be aware that the delivery times for new ropes went up to a year, but with more suppliers has now reduced to about two months – ask about delivery times before placing a firm order!
Be careful when specifying a new rope. You will need to provide the details listed below. (For towers in the Daventry Branch click here)
specify the length of the untucked tail end
specify the overall length end-to-end with the tail end untucked
specify the length and three colours for the sally
specify the weight of the bell
- to give a guide to the maker as to the appropriate strand and rope diameters.
An annual sweep or vacuuming of tower floors and stairs helps to make working conditions a bit kinder and clearing debris allows wooden floors to dry out sooner.
If there are increasing hazards getting to the bells for maintenance, (like worn steps, rickety ladders, rotting floor boards, poor lighting) these should be brought to the attention of the PCC and they should have the more serious items included in the quinquennial inspection report. The CCCBR Towers and Belfries Committee issued this very helpful document about stairs and ladders in April 2017.
Check that netting is still in place and no birds can get into the bell chamber. Jackdaws are very good at poking twigs through netting in spires. The resulting mess usually needs an annual clearing up session. Take any opportunity that offers itself to have such openings netted on the outside. Pigeons create a great deal of mess if allowed to enter. Please take precautions before removing their mess.
Constant ingress of rain can cause early deterioration of timber frames and flooring. Leaks through the roof of the tower should be reported to the PCC for attention. Excessive rain through the bell opening louvres can occur in exposed positions where the openings are large. A successful way of dealing with this is to install Galebreaker on the inside of louvres. This strong plastic mesh material, besides keeping birds out, has a low permeability to rain and snow but allows air and sound to pass through.
Look out for any movement of the frame within the walls. Report any looseness into the masonry to the PCC. Towers are seriously damaged when the bell frame becomes loose and is able to move within the walls. Do not be tempted to wedge the top of timber frames to the wall to stop it moving. It will batter the tower to pieces. Remember a bell exerts twice its weight as a fore and aft force when ringing and four times its weight downwards. Wooden frames can often be strengthened with new tie rods to prevent too much movement and your Branch Steward can advise.
Corrosion of ringing fittings, frame members and foundation beams. Descale, remove loose rust and repaint with corrosion resisting paint.
While clocks are not usually the prerogative of the steeple keeper, they can, by default, end up that way. Details on clock mechanisms are available here and are covered by a Code of Practice. Other specialised contacts here.
The steeple keeper will more likely have to check that the chime hammers for clocks are resting in a safe location and that the pull-off mechanisms to prevent chime hammers operating when bells are rung full-circle are in a sound, unfrayed condition and do not then put the hammer at risk of damage from the adjacent bell. Do please make sure that the pull-off mechanism is marked in a way that a non-ringer can properly understand without doubt - samples here!
For useful ways of silencing or muffling a bell for initial bell handling click here.
When bells are rung half-muffled, it is usual to muffle the backstroke. When the bell is down, fix the muffle firmly, so that it cannot turn, on the side of the clapper ball away from the rope pulley. Then check all the bells again to make sure that all the muffles are fitted on the same side! Note that if a bell goes up "wrong" way it will have to be corrected before you start ringing!
The traditional form of muffle has: a buckle on the strap that goes below the ball and around the neck of the flight; and a leather lace to wrap around the shaft of the clapper above the ball. Do-up the buckle as tight as the punched holes allow. The lace should be wrapped as many times as feasible and pulled as tight as possible so that it grips to prevent the muffle turning at a critical point in the ringing. If the lace snaps, get a new long one (Timpsons usually have them in stock). Some find that disposable electric cable plastic ties work adequately. There is a range of muffles of different designs of which Big Wilf's is one.
Some ringers think that if they are to ring a quarter peal or peal in an even bell method, it is better to muffle the handstrokes (when the bell is down, fit the muffles on the same side of the clapper as the rope pulley) so that the backstrokes, which often contain the more musical changes, ring out loud and clear. Try it sometime!
There are some towers in which the length of unguided rope above the sally until the rope passes through the first rope boss, usually in the ceiling, is so long that it causes difficulty in controlling a bell safely. This is particularly prevalent where the bells are not very heavy and the weight of the rope itself becomes a predominant influence. Bell-hangers usually recommend that the first rope support should be about 15 to 16 feet above the ringing room floor. Provision of such a rope guide in several towers, for example at Kilsby and Litchborough, has made a dramatic improvement in the bell handling and hence the safety and ease for teaching young and old recruits. To counter any complaints of the view of the west window being obstructed, it may be possible to make use of the information available here.
The links made on this page take you to far greater founts of knowledge, which we acknowledge:
Diagrams by John Gough of Napton-on-the-Hill
Articles from The Ringing World