English Heritage and Church Bells

The proposals at the Central Council meeting

The Motion: “That the Council affirms that bell restoration should be in accordance with the Code of Practice for the Conservation and Repair of Bells and Bellframes, issued by the Council for the Care of Churches in 1993. Pressures from organisations or individuals for more rigorous or more liberal constraints to be applied will be strongly resisted until such time as this Code may be revised or replaced.”

The motion was proposed by R. B. Smith (Hon.) with the following speech:

“This Council was represented on the Working Party which produced the 1993 Code of Practice and the draft code was formally accepted at a Central Council meeting prior to the publication of the Code by the Council for the Care of Churches. The other parties to the agreement were English Heritage, Bellfounders and Bellhangers, and of course, the CCCs themselves. The aims of the Code are:

1) To encourage the continuing use of church bells to announce public worship;

2) To ensure the conservation of historic bellframes and fittings;

3) To encourage the art and craft of bellfounding in England;

4) To promote the tradition of change ringing, itself an important part of the nation’s heritage;

5) To provide workable guidelines, recognising all viewpoints and interests, and balancing the needs of conservation and bellringing practice.

“Since then the goalposts have moved - in some cases so far that they are not even on the pitch. The concern of those who are required to do the necessary work to keep bells in good working order is that we now have to guess at the possible reaction of every man and his dog when we should be giving the customers (i.e. the churches) the best advice based on what the Code of Practice says.

“English Heritage are not the only protagonists but their accumulation of wealth through the National Heritage Memorial Fund has caused many influential people, particularly architects and members of Diocesan Advisory Committees, some of whom are in the pockets of English Heritage, to veer so far away from the spirit of the Code that only one of the objectives (i.e. to ensure the conservation of historic bells, bellframes and fittings) remains.

“Some people may be aware that SPAB (Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings) held a course at Lichfield Cathedral on 28 April entitled “The Repair of Timber Bellframes”. One would have thought that they might have found it helpful to have had representation from the trade and from bellringers but neither of these groups was circulated with the information. I received details via our vicar who happens to be a member of our DAC but by then the course was fully subscribed. The fact that most of those attending would be members of DACs means that these people will have been given a very one-sided picture of what may or may not be possible in practical terms.

“There are those who would have us rip out everything and start again - they too need to be resisted. However such people rarely have the influence of the ‘conservation at all costs’ lobby and it is not very difficult to resist this approach, particularly with the overwhelming body of opinion to which I have already referred.

“There is a misconception in the minds of many people, including members of PCCs and DACs with respect to the position of English Heritage and the granting of faculties … We, that is bellringers, and those involved in bell restoration, face a great uphill struggle if worthwhile restoration is to continue to take place after the Millennium. Our concern is not the relatively few restorations which will be funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund, although it is my contention that these ought to be in accordance with the Code of Practice. It is all the other projects over which English Heritage have influence as a result of their grant aid to other projects in churches. Members may think that the recent public argument about tuning the bells at St John’s, Waterloo Road stemmed from EH providing money for bell restoration. This is not the case. EH gave money for the redecoration and general repairs to the church and on that basis insisted that their requirements for the bell restoration should be in line with their Heritage Lottery conditions.

“This was not spelled out in the recent Ringing World article by Graham Pledger (p.382) on behalf of English Heritage, and members need to be aware of this.

“My contention is that if we, English Heritage, the trade, and the Council for the Care of Churches are all party to an agreement we should all work to this irrespective of the change in our personal circumstances (e.g. sudden acquisition of wealth). In voting to support the motion which is before us you will be directing the officers of the Council to press bodies such as EH and SPAB to work to the guidelines of the Code of Practice. It may be that a letter from the Secretary of the Council to all Diocesan Chancellors drawing their attention to the problem of conservation in isolation from the other aims of the Code of Practice would be appropriate. I emphasise the words ‘strongly support’ - very easy to do when things are going well; not so easy when things are going badly. Believe me, giving strong support as a Manchester City season ticket holder is not easy. I propose the motion which is now before you.”

The motion was seconded by D. J. Kelly (Bath & Wells):

“A fly on the wall of the bellfoundry somewhere in the UK overheard a conversation between a representative of English Heritage and a foundry representative. A ring of bells was chimed to show they needed retuning. The representative from English Heritage did not think they sounded too bad, to which the foundry representative replied ‘Even a whelk could hear they are out of tune.’

“This did not happen, but it could because of English Heritage changing position on the Code of Practice for the Conservation of Bells and Bellframes. I would like to give two quotations, the first from the Code of Practice and the second from Graham Pledger’s article in The Ringing World (p.382).

‘A set of bell should sound musical, balanced and in tune. Where bells are not in tune, or where they are poor sounding, careful and limited adjustments to the notes and principal harmonics can usually be affected. The case for or against tuning involves balancing the desirability of leaving as found on the one hand against the potential benefits on the other.’

”The second quotation, as printed in The Ringing World is:

‘There should be a presumption against tuning any bell. If a strong case for tuning is made, listed bells should remain uncut wherever possible, and minimal tuning i.e. adjustments to the nominals only and not the other partials will be preferred. Major tuning even where possible is not acceptable.’

”English Heritage’s position on tuning is flawed, as it is not possible to tune the nominal without affecting some of the remaining partials. English Heritage’s statements are not balanced, they are totally one-sided and ignore four out of the five objects of the Code of Practice. I ask you to give a substantial YES vote. A vote of 94.4% or greater should be acceptable. I would like to second the motion.”

In the discussion that followed, Mr Halls (Derby) declared his support of the motion with a 8½ minute prepared speech, which touched on many of the points raised in his letter to The Ringing World (p.476), and which outlined his own personal Code of Practice, where conservation played a very small part.

Preb. Scott (Life) pointed out that it wasn’t sensible to leave conservation out of the reckoning, or else we will be sidelined. We were up against a certain amount of ignorance, for example the assumption on the part of the SPAB that all wooden bellframes were good. Preb. Scott noted that some of our metal bellframes were now genuine antiques. Our role should be to educate, and Preb. Scott gave an example of an English Heritage representative arguing against tuning old bells as they ‘represented the musical taste of the time they were cast’. Preb. Scott then proposed that the motion be amended by the deletion of the second sentence. This was seconded by Mr Threlfall (Hereford), but was voted down.

Mr Dawson (Southwell) then noted that there was a tendency to confuse ‘conservation’ and ‘preservation’, which were two different concepts. He also noted that these were part of a much greater national debate.

Mr Davis (Ely) then pointed out that the motion as expressed was not against conservation, as it stated resistance to both more rigorous and more liberal application of the Code. This showed that we do support conservation, but within the Code of Practice.

Mr Frost (Hon.) stood to explain that English Heritage do adhere to the Code where they give advice to Chancellors, it was with respect to their own Lottery fund that they were more rigorous. He emphasised that bells were not museum pieces, and that disputes with English Heritage or any other conservation body were usually resolvable, and that any person having any difficulties should not delay in contacting the Towers and Belfries committee for help.

Mr Bone (Essex) rose to demonstrate that English Heritage do adhere to the Code, quoting from the recent parliamentary question published in Hansard (reprinted on p.552). He stated his belief that problems came from particular assessors not fully understanding the Code, and that we needed to find a way to invoke a higher authority within English Heritage to resolve this.

Mr Barr (Univ. of London) then stood to clarify the situation at Waterloo Road, noting that the problem came from conflicting assessments made by two separate assessors, and from a confusion over who was wearing what hat when.

In replying, Mr Smith said that the object of the motion was to make people aware of the problem, and pointed out that the industry was always held responsible for the end result. We should insist upon preservation of the best, and new recording technologies should be used more often to keep a record of that which gets replaced.

The motion was carried with a significant majority.

The Ringing World, June 5, 1998, page 551

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