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Tuesday, 25 December 2012

Willingale: Bells Ring Out For Christmas

Happy Christmas!

Twenty-twelve has been an historic year for the people of Willingale with the completion and dedication of six bells at St Christopher’s Church, Willingale.  The church, which is one of two in a single churchyard, unique to Essex, serves the ancient parishes of Willingale Doe, Willingale Spain and Shellow Bowells.  (St Andrew’s Church Willingale Spain is in the care of the Churches Conservation Trust, supported by a Friends Group; whilst Shellow Bowells was deconsecrated in the mid twentieth century and converted to a house.)

St Christopher's Church, Willingale [Doe] in foreground.
St Andrew's Church, Willingale [Spain] in background

Proud bellringers sent a text message to a national radio breakfast show: “We are all ringing the church bells at Willingale for the first time this Christmas since World War II as we have just finished the restitution”, Chris Evans announced on the BBC Radio 2 last Friday (21 December 2012, 7.29am). 

The ambitious project supported by the National Lottery Fund, donations and sheer dedication from locals was the first to an Essex bell tower for over fifty years. 

The year-long project (though it had been in the planning for a long while) constructed a new mezzanine ringing floor, a new bell frame at a lower level in the tower, and increased the number of bells from four to six.  A new bell was cast at Whitechapel Bell Foundry dated 2011, the other five – four from Willingale and a fifth from Prittlewell – were retuned.

"Second bell" from Prittlewell awaiting transportation
to the Bell Foundry from Willingale Church porch
(25 June 2011)

The early stages were reported in the Winter 2011 Edition of the Essex Society for Archaeology and History News.

The old bells rang out for the last time on 25 June 2011. Visitors were given access to ascend the bell tower by ladders to see the bells in the frame which would become redundant.

The four bells date from 1610 to 1797.  According to ‘Church Bells of Essex’ by Revd. Cecil Deedes (1909), a classic book on the topic, the bells in Willingale Doe are dated and inscribed as follows:
1.        Thomas Mears of London Felict 1797  [29 in.]
2.       Joh. French Henrie Pavit: Churchwarden IC Made Me 1634  [30½ in.]
3.       Thomas Bartlett mead this bell 1631 [33½ in.]
4.       Wilhelmus Carter me Fecit 1610 [35½ in.]

Oldest bell in old bell frame (25 June 2011)

The oldest bell, made at the Whitechapel Foundry, dates from 1610 and comes from the brief career of William Carter (1609 -1616).  This makes this example particularly rare, although locally there were two others in neighbouring the neighbouring churches of High Ongar (1610) and Stapleford Tawney (1611).

Thomas Bartlett’s (founder, 1616 – 1631) bell of 1631 is one of only 18 examples, making it also a rare bell.

John Clifton (founder 1632 -40) made the bell bearing the churchwarden’s name.

To make up a new peal of six the village has acquired a “2nd bell” from Prittlewell cast in the early twentieth century.

The five bells (four from the tower plus the Prittlewell bell) left the village for Whitechapel Bell Foundry for retuning in early July 2011. 

Bells in old bell frame (25 June 2011)

A final bell from the bell tower was removed, and reinstalled later in the new bell frame.  It is used for chiming only, and came from neighbouring Shellow Bowells.

Work to construct a new bell frame then proceeded.  This was erected lower in the tower in order to place less strain on the structure and create a better sound out of the louvre windows.  The Victorian bell frame (1853) would remain in situ unused.  Ringing is now performed from a new mezzanine floor placed in front of the west window and in full view of the congregation.

The Dedication Service was on 27 May 2012 – Pentecost - a week before the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee celebrations. 

At the end of October 2012 ‘Windows on Willingale’ held a special evening at the church for the premiere of a 45-minute film showing the work involved in construction, casting the bell, making bell-wheels and lifting all in position.  It takes the viewer to the Bell Foundry to see the bell cast and to a specialist workshop to see the new bell-wheels made of timber.  If there are any doubts that Britain does not make anything anymore, watch this video.  ‘Willingale Bells: Made In Britain’.

The short film above was made on Sunday 23 December 2012 about 3.30pm, as bells rang out ahead of a Nine Lessons and Carols Service. 


1.       To hear another film go to and to hear the bells rung for the last time in June 2011 prior to the work commencing visit

2.       For more information on the project go to

3.       Deedes’ book is subtitled “Their founders, inscriptions, traditions and uses”.  In 1909 the following notes were made about these bells: “Death Knell 24 hours after death; tolling for one hour.  On Sundays bells chimed followed by tolling for last five minutes.  Ringing at 5am on Christmas Day and midnight on New Year’s Eve.  Gleaning Bell at 8am until about ten years ago”.

4.       Rev Cecil Deedes was a member of the Society, and wrote about his own project on Church Bells in the Essex Archaeological Society’s ‘Transactions, ‘new series’, Volume 4, Part 1’

Bonus film - recorded on the new mezzanine floor - 25 June 2011.

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