History of Drayton St Leonard Bells
Drayton St Leonard bells have rung out across the village and fields for over 500 years; Sunday by Sunday for services, and also for weddings and special occasions.
The earliest mention of bells was in 1552 when there were “3 belles yn the steple” . The oldest bell still bears the date 1470, and was cast by William Chaimberlain of the London foundry, and was probably hung in the church at that date. It was the heaviest of the three, weighing just over 7cwt. It is not known when the other two in existence in 1552 were cast. It is likely that the church continued with three bells up to 1884, although two of these early bells must have been either replaced or re-cast in the seventeenth century, as they bear the dates 1625 and 1603, and were cast by Ellis Knight I and Henry Knight I respectively.
By 1884 all three were reportedly cracked, and were sent away to the Mears and Stainbank Church Bell Foundry in Whitechapel where they were recast to provide three new bells. At the same time, three new, lighter bells were cast. An oak frame to hold this new ring of six was made - it was slightly larger than the internal size of the tower and therefore had to rest on the west wall of the church.
The tower is unusual being a largely independent timber structure within the west end of the church. All towers move when bells are rung – however the movement here was not ideal because the total weight of the six bells was rather more than the structure was comfortably able to withstand.
Over the next 130 years, the consequent movement of the tower made the bells challenging to ring, a problem which was exacerbated in the summer months due to shrinkage of the timber, and various attempts were made to stiffen the structure. Latterly we were only able to ring 5 of our 6 bells in the summer. In addition to this, the bell fittings were reaching the end of their life and needed replacing.
In 2013 a Structural Engineer’s Report came up with some recommendations to stiffen the tower. Whitechapel Bell Foundry drew up a specification to remove the existing bells from the tower and re-cast them to a lighter, more tuneful ring of 6, and re-hang them on new fittings with a new rope guide. Amazingly, they had in their store the original stamps that were used for the inscriptions all those years ago, and were able to use them on the new bells!
The old bells were rung for the last time on Easter Sunday 2016; the new bells were cast on 22nd April 2016; and were hung in the tower at the beginning of July, ringing out for the first time on 12th July.
St Peter’s Church has a ring of six bells numbered, keynote F#. There were not always six bells, the earliest known history referring to a ring of four bells existing in 1552. These would be equivalent to the present 3rd, 4th, 5th and tenor.
In 1641, Ellis Knight I of Reading recast the 4th and 5th (presumably cracked or otherwise damaged) and added the 2nd. Apart from some minor twentieth century surgery, these three bells – 2nd, 4th and 5th – remain as cast and still carry the date 1641.
The 3rd bell was also recast, during the late 1690s, by William and Robert Cor of Aldbourne, followed, in 1774, by the 6th, recast by Thomas Rudhall of Gloucester. He also augmented the ring to six bells, adding the treble during 1775.
These recast and added bells were apparently of sound quality as no further work was recorded until 1925. On 12th May in that year, King George V and Queen Mary watched as the Croydon bell founders, Gillett and Johnston, recast the treble and 3rd without canons (the crown shaped fixing loops on the top of the bell). They also removed the canons from the 2nd, 4th, 5th and tenor, then retuned and bolted all six bells directly to their headstocks. The four ‘old’ bells were quarter-turned to allow the clapper to strike an unworn area of the bell mouth. The bells were hung in a new cast iron frame with provision for a total of eight bells.
If you have followed the story so far you will appreciate that the bells were cast (or recast) during three different centuries and at three different foundries, but yet are acknowledged (by some) to be the best ring of six for miles around.
There is a ring of six bells, all by Mears and Stainbank and dated 1867, and a sanctus bell of 1832. In 1999 the six bells were re-tuned and re-hung with new fittings in a restored bell frame in time to ring in the new Millennium.
St Peter, Marsh Baldon, Oxfordshire is located on the right, just inside the western gated entrance to the village. The C14th tower has been transformed into an octagonal shape, with squinches at its upper bell-stage, and is unlike any other tower in the branch. The Early Decorated church was totally rebuilt in 1890, and the wooden porch has a sundial over the doorway. The bells are rung from the ground floor and require sensible handling.
In 2012 a new team of ringers was formed to allow the bells to be rung for the Queen’s jubilee. The team of eight ringers have progressed quickly under the instruction of John White and Hilarie Rogers. At the end of 2012 with the approval of the Oxford Diocesan Guild the tower transferred to the South Oxford Branch.