St Peter’s & its Bells

by Rev David Cawley 

The White Ensign flying from the summit of its 81-foot high tower shows how much this impressive building, adorning an equally impressive church, has meant over the centuries. To those who had to use landmarks to see them safely as they navigated the waters between the coast and the Goodwin sands, or who sought shelter in rough weather in Broadstairs “quaint old harbour” as Dickens called it, this great 15th-century tower, visible for miles, has been in every sense a Godsend. Long shown on Admiralty charts as a signalling station, it was in 1803 fitted up with a Telegraph during the Napoleonic scares; the remains of this were replaced by a flagpole in 1859. The White Ensign has flown ever since. The story goes that Canon Tom Pritchard (a good friend to ringers, Vicar 1954-68) received a letter from the Admiralty informing him “Having escaped so far, you may prefer to take the risk and continue what has become a tradition.” His successors have continued flying the flag. Spare a thought for the person who climbs the 99 steep steps each week to do so.

There appear to be scant records of the Bells as they were before the mid-18th century, when the Revd John Lewis in his History of the Isle of Thanet (1736) records St Peter’s as having “anciently five Bells: a few years ago these five were increased to six, the Great Bell being made two.” It is not unlikely that the old five were in weight similar to the present ring at the mother church at Minster. A similar situation prevailed at Margate (St John’s) until 1787. The resulting ring – whose founders remain unknown to us – may not have been altogether satisfactory as a decision was made in 1746 to recast the whole ring. The work was entrusted to Robert Catlin of Holborn, a prolific founder, well represented by about 50 bells in Kent including the original 5 at Lympne, Teynham (4 surviving out of 6), Faversham (4 out of 8) and St Stephen’s (4 out of the original 6-bell ring). With a tenor of 15-cwt, the St Peter’s ring was his only work in the Isle of Thanet. Catlin had inherited his foundry from Samuel Knight, and was previously his bell-hanger (Catlin’s frames include Herne and Wickhambreaux) and it is not unlikely that he provided a new frame as well as the fittings for St Peter’s new ring. Of that ring, only the 2nd (present 4th) survives to-day.

Clearly the Bells were used a great deal – whether “well used” would be appropriate is in some doubt as within thirty years two of them, the then treble (present 3rd) and 4th became cracked and in 1777 had to be recast. The founder at Holborn was now Thomas Swain, as sparsely represented in Kent as Robert Catlin was prolific, and of the four bells he cast for Kent churches, only the 3rd at St Peter’s survives. The Bells were paid for separately, the 4th in February (£22..4s..6d = £22..22½p) ) and the treble in May (£14..5s = £14.25p), so one can only guess at what happened. Sixteen years later “the third bell [present 5th] broke off in her cannons and fell down being afterwards strapped up with iron cannons” whilst the tenor, “having laid for some years useless,” was finally recast in 1800, travelling by boat to the Whitechapel Foundry of Thomas Mears, who charged for his work £32..15s..9d (£32..4p). Shortly afterwards a subscription list was opened to provide a clock, which was made by Vale in 1804.  Curiously, the Tenor was hung up above the others, so that its strike would be better heard. Then in 1822, Thomas Swain’s 4th was found to be cracked again and was recast at Whitechapel by Thomas Mears.

Ringing would seem to have lapsed by the 1880’s; Stahlschmidt in his Church Bells of Kent [1887] states “Bells generally in bad order and some cracked; consequently no ringing, only chiming for services”.  At this time, the tower was itself in a very bad condition, having last been restored when the Bells were recast in 1746. The tower had been affected by settlement of the chalk foundations and by the long-standing after-effects of a 5.5 Richter scale earthquake which caused major cracking on the west and south sides: the repair work is clearly visible to-day.

At the same time, the Whitechapel Foundry, now Mears & Stainbank, reported that two more of Catlin’s Bells – the 3rd and 5th as they then were, together with the Tenor (again) were cracked and the frame and fittings required complete renewal. To celebrate Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee in 1887, the three cracked Bells took the well-worn path to Whitechapel to be recast, whilst the remainder were rehung in new fittings and oak frame by Samuel Snelling of Sittingbourne, the well-known and last Kent bell-hanger. The recast Tenor weighed 14cwt 3qr 9lb. A new clock, by Gillett & Co of Croydon, replaced Vale’s mechanism. The work to the tower cost £1110, the Bells £260 and the clock £157. It cost rather more in 2015/16. The new frame was made for eight, and with an eye to the future a fine set of 8 handbells was purchased for the enormous sum of £3..18s..0d [£3.90p]. The two vacant pits did not go untenanted long. In 1892 the trebles were cast at Whitechapel and hung by Samuel Snelling, and it was not long before the first peal was rung in the tower. Apart from rehanging the tenor on ball bearings – one of the first in Kent – in 1922, the Bells were to go for over 80 years without any major work being done.

By 1970, the frame was “giving notice” of its age, as also were the fittings especially the main bearings and pulleys. A visit from Whitechapel stated that the frame was rather tall and slight in its constructional details; additionally it merely sat on the bell chamber floor without being physically fastened to it. The amount of movement when the Bells were rung was considerable, whilst the “go” of the ring was less than satisfactory. Despite all this, the ringers flourished and at one time, during the period that Mrs Nellie Bridges was Captain, it boasted the largest number of learners and the largest overall band in the District. To help matters, the pulleys were renewed in 1970 which no doubt improved the “go” of the Bells.

Matters came to a head in 1975, following a KCACR report and an up-dated one from Whitechapel. Not least of their criticisms (along with the aforementioned defects in the frame and fittings) was the observation that the Bells – one each from 1746, 1777 and 1822, three from 1887 and two from 1892 had never been tuned together and the musical result was capable of improvement, the Bells being cast on a thick scale. The PCC and ringers took the brave decision to implement all the recommendations of the Bell Founders. Thus it was that in November 1975 all eight Bells took the “well-trodden path” to Whitechapel. The old fittings were removed, and during the absence of the Bells (having their canons and cast-in crown-staples removed, and being tuned and being provided with all new fittings) the frame was strengthened with a complete set of tie-rods, many of which pass through the frame heads, braces, sills, and secure the frame to the floor and beams below. On their return the Bells were rehung and rededicated by the Revd Peter Gausden (now of Monkton). Much of the tower work was done by KCACR BRF members. Apart from improved running order, the  tone of the Bells after tuning was appreciated by all – in the process some 6-cwt of metal was machined out, giving a new ‘slim – line’ ring. St Peter’s ringers under the successive captaincies of Nellie Bridges, Reg Foreman, Sonia Stockwell (all now sadly missed) and more recently Sarat White and Mary Bridges, was about to enter the “Golden Years” as the array of peal boards testifies.

To bring things up-to-date, after nearly 40 years’ constant service, the Bells were in need of a maintenance overhaul. It was at this time that major structural issues affecting the tower were identified and it was with regret that in 2015 all ringing at St Peter’s stopped for safety reasons. The ringers carried on, largely at St John’s and at St Saviour’s, Westgate; the kindness of their ringers was much appreciated. In addition, they were able to augment the Sunday service band at St John’s, and elsewhere as required for the duration. Back at St Peter’s, the ringing chamber was stripped of its ringing paraphernalia to allow the builders to undertake their work to the tower. At the same time, following visits from Whitechapel and Taylors, it was proposed not only to carry out the essential maintenance work but also to replace the unsightly rope guide (positioned too high to be of much benefit). Both foundries recommended that in view of the great height of the ringing chamber (30 feet) that two sets of guides should be fixed to steady the ropes. This design also allowed the 1970 pulleys to be done away with and correct new ones fixed so that the ropes fall in a circle rather than the two ill-spaced crescents which had served for the previous 110 years. The two smallest bells were rehung in each other’s pit to achieve this. The foundry work was carried out with skill and devotion to detail by John Taylor & Co of Loughborough, and the KCACR “heavy brigade” again assisted with the tower work and a most generous grant of £10,000. The restored tower was dedicated by the Bishop of Dover in January 2017  At long last St Peter’s has a ring of Bells worthy of its magnificent tower. We hope you like them. And as you leave, do admire the tower screen, designed and engraved by the late Jack Peppiatt DFC, a popular ringer in the Canterbury District, and a member here 1985-2000.

The Bells

Treble  27 1/6” diameter, weight 4-cwt 1-qr 27lb, note F, and 2nd, 27 7/8”, 4-1-12, E.  Both inscribed MEARS & STAINBANK, WHITECHAPEL FOUNDRY, LONDON. / ALFRED WHITEHEAD, VICAR. / THOMAS BARWICK, / EDWARD S.GOODSON, CHURCHWARDENS. / 1892.                                                                 3rd , 30½ , 5-2-18, D.  THOs SWAIN () MADE : MEE : IN J777 ()  ()  ()  [The () mark represents Thomas Swain’s unique foundry mark – the 3-bell design like Whitechapel with THos Swain Fecit below.         4th 30 7/8”, 5-2-3, C.   ROBERT CATLIN FECIT J746 (5 ornaments)                                                                5th, 33 ¼”, 6-1-27, Bb.  MEARS & STAINBANK, FOUNDERS, LONDON. / THIS BELL WITH THE FIFTH AND TENOR / WAS RECAST BY PUBLIC SUBSCRIPTION / IN THE JUBILEE YEAR OF THE REIGN OF QUEEN VICTORIA / 1887.                                                                                                                                                 6th, 36¾”, 8-0-22, A.  T MEARS OF LONDON FECIT. (ornament) ROBERT BARFIELD HENRY SHIVENS CHURCH WARDENS 1822.                                                                                                                                   7th, 38 3/8”, 9-2-6, G. MEARS & STAINBANK, FOUNDERS, LONDON. / GOD SAVE THE QUEEN / 1887. / ALFRED WHITEHEAD, M.A. / VICAR / THOMAS BARWICK / EDWARD S. GOODSON CHURCHWARDENS. Tenor  43 ¾” , 13-2-22, F. [Inscription as on the Tenor].

The weight of the 1746 Tenor was given as 15-cwt; the 1800 Tenor was given as 15-0-0; and the present Tenor weighed 14-3-9 before removal of canons and tuning.  Note that the 2nd is 15 lb lighter than the Treble, and the 4th is 15 lb lighter than the 3rd.

David Cawley