The Bells of St Andrew's Church
St. Andrew's Church in Toft has a very fine ring of six bells. Up until 1999 there were only three bells in the tower, at which time we installed an additional two to make a ring of five. With the aid of many benefactors we also had the mechanism completely restored, so that our tower gave good account of itself on the 31st December 1999 when we joined other towers throughout the country ringing-in the New Millennium. A sixth bell was added in 2001, making it up to what we have at present. Some of the bells are very old and in the following account it is interesting to relate to what was happening in the world at the time when each one was cast.
The Church Tower
Following the execution of Charles I in 1649 Puritanism was rife and St. Andrew's fell foul of the great destruction. The reforming Bishop of Ely sent William Dowsing to root out objects of superstition. Among the items reported as having been destroyed (for which he received 6s.8d. i.e.33p.) was a bell marked: Orate pro anima Sanctae Katherinae (Pray for the soul of Saint Katherine).
The Tower collapsed in 1890 whilst under refurbishment (the bells and the frame were luckily not in the tower at the time) and was re¬built in 1894 with the three bells housed in the same wooden frame and with the same three bells that we have today, including the one supposed to have been destroyed. In 1999 we added a further two and in 2001 we added another, bringing it up to the present complement of six bells.
The bells are tuned to the key of A (893Hz). Bells 3, 4, 5 and 6 have Canons, while the old oak frame which was installed in the late 19th century by Whites of Appleton supports bells 2, 5 and the Tenor bell 6. A steel frame was introduced in 1999 to support bells 3 and 4 and a steel rider-frame was added in 2001 to support the Treble bell 1.
Bell 1 - the Treble
Cast on I8th January 2001 at the bell-foundry of John Taylor, Loughborough. Weight 3 hundredweight, 24 pounds (163.3 Kg); Diameter 2' 0". The casting of this bell was made possible by a generous bequest from the late John Vince, a resident of Toft and a bell ringer of considerable ability. The bell bears a decorative vine-leaf border, the Bell-Founders mark, a cross associated with this church, and an inscription: JOHN VINCE 1935 – 1999.
The year 2001 witnessed the first paying passenger to go into outer space. Dennis Tito set off from Kazakhstan for a holiday aboard the International Space Station. It cost him £14,000,000
Cast on 7th January 1999 at the bell-foundry of John Taylor, Loughborough. Weight 3 hundredweight, 2 quarters (177.8 Kg); Diameter 2' 11/2". The bell bears the mark of the Millennium Commission, the bell-founders mark, a cross associated with this church and an inscription: RICHARD HOWARD CHURCHWARDEN 1971-73 AND 1981-96. The Millennium Commission and others funded the casting of this bell, together with the restoration of the whole installation, in time to ring in the new Millennium at midnight on 31st December 1999. The bell is dedicated to Richard Howard, who served on the Parish Council and as a Churchwarden in Toft.
By the year 1999, the exploration of space had been progressing for over 40 years. Notably, in 1957, the Russians achieved the first unmanned orbit of the Earth and in 1961 Yuri Gagarin piloted the first manned orbit of the Earth. In 1969 the Americans landed men on the Moon and Neil Armstrong became the first man to walk on the Moon.
Cast in 1797 during the reign of George III at the bell-foundry of Robert Taylor, St Neots. Weight 4 hundredweight, I quarter, 12 pounds (221.3 Kg). Diameter 2' 3". The bell was purchased from our neighbouring parish of Hardwick. It is dedicated to Peter Whittet. The Whittet estate, acquired about 1740, included land in Hardwick and Toft until the inclosures, about 1812, when it was broken up. Peter served as a churchwarden in Hardwick. Two other bells were cast at the same time also bearing the same dedication, possibly a gift from Peter. One hangs in St Mary's Hardwick for tolling, the other in a stylish tower, in the open, at Bar Hill Church. The bell bears the inscription: ROBERT TAYLOR ST NEOTS FOUNDER 1797 PETER WHITTET CHURCHWARDEN
During 1797 Napoleon Bonaparte, as a General, defeated the Austrians during the Revolutionary Wars. Commodore Horatio Nelson defeated the Spanish Fleet off Cape St Vincent and in the same year lost his right arm at Santa Cruz. John Adams was inaugurated as President of the United States of America.
Before the bell was hung in Saint Andrew’s church it stood inverted as a collection pot to raise money for the restoration and conservation of the bells
Cast in 1666 during the reign of Charles II, probably at Haddenham, Cambridgeshire, where Graye had his foundry. Weight 4 hundredweight, 3 quarters, 2 pounds (242.2 Kg); Diameter 2' 5". The bell carries one inscription: CHRISTOPHER GRAYE MADE ME 1666
During the year 1665 the Great Plague of London resulted in the death of 68,595 people. Two-thirds of the population of 460,000 fled from the city. The Great Fire of London in 1666 virtually destroyed the city. St Paul's Cathedral fell victim to this devastation and 200,000 people were made homeless. The site in Pudding Lane where it started is marked by a monument designed by Sir Christopher Wren. Samuel Pepys the diarist lived throughout both events and wrote extensively about his experiences and involvement. In 1666, of Isaac Newton it is said that the fall of an apple from a tree suggested to him the law of gravitation. Also, by using his calculus, he measured the orbit of the Moon. France and Holland declared war against England.
Cast, circa 1470-1498, by Reignold Chyrch at his foundry in Bury St Edmunds during the reign of Edward IV. Weight 5 hundredweight, 3 quarters, 9 pounds (296.2 Kg); Diameter 2' 71/2". It carries an inscription: Sancta . Katerina . Ora . Pro . Nobis - Saint Katherine, pray for us. It is perhaps no mere coincidence that in 1473, Saint Catharine’s College was founded in Cambridge, during an era of great devotion to the saint. A shield appears on the shoulder of the bell three times. It carries the motif of a coronet and crossed arrows, the emblem of St Edmund, whilst the S and the cross identify it as being cast in the foundry at Bury St Edmunds.
Edward IV became king of England in 1461 with his defeat of Henry VI in the War of the Roses, only to lose his crown when Henry was restored to the throne in 1470. But Edward again defeated Henry at Tewkesbury and regained the throne in 1471. In 1476, William Caxton set up his printing press at Westminster. In 1478 he printed and published Chaucer's Canterbury Tales and went on to print around 100 other books
Bell 6 - the Tenor
Cast, circa 1523-1538, by Thomas Lawrence London, during the reign of King Henry VIll. Weight 8 hundredweight, 3 quarters, 2 pounds (445.4 Kg); Diameter 2' 11". There appears on the bell a Gridiron, handle downwards, being the emblem of Thomas Lawrence, also two coins and a Fleur-de-lis in an inverted shield.
Henry VIII is probably best known for having had six wives, of whom two were divorced and two executed. In 1533 Henry declared himself Supreme Head of the English church and broke off relations with Rome. The oldest register in Toft dates from 1539. 1525 saw the publication of the translation by William Tyndale of The New Testament. In 1533 Thomas Cranmer was consecrated Archbishop of Canterbury. In the same year, the coronation of Anne Boleyn took place and again in the same year she gave birth to the future Queen Elizabeth I. Anne was executed in 1536.
Ring Out, Wild Bells
Toft bell-ringing in the present day
Richard Howard was in the vanguard of what we might call the modern era of Toft bell-ringing. Until the relatively recent intervention of Richard, his wife Joan and Ann Mitchell, the bells of Toft had not been rung for some 25 years. The key event which launched the new era was the release in 1991 of Terry Waite, from incarceration as a political hostage. Throughout the country, church bells were rung in thanksgiving for his deliverance from a dreadful ordeal that had lasted 1760 days. Richard Howard, Joan Howard and Ann Mitchell, all untrained in the art, simply tolled the bells (i.e. swung them from side to side without taking them through their full 360º) as Toft’s contribution to the national thanksgiving. Letters which later passed between Richard and Terry Waite in 1998 and 1999 testify to Waite’s gratitude to the many who had kept him in mind during his darkest days.
After this initial event, Doris Llewellyn (now deceased, at that time of Preston Close) also became interested in bell-ringing. And so the four pioneers took a course in ringing and were given tuition by Marina Warner of Barton. Soon this team became competent bell-ringers and their numbers were increased by others who became interested. At its height, the Toft bell-ringing practice team could number 10 ringers. Now, sadly, that number has been reduced to a handful and those still ringing have joined forces with ringers at Little Eversden. Richard sincerely hopes that new, young Toft recruits might be encouraged.
Why become a bell-ringer?
Richard gains two immense sources of joy and benefit from ringing the bells. Not least is the sheer physical exercise and exertion of heaving the ropes and moving the massive weights of the great bells. But there is also, for him, a good deal of mental satisfaction, the satisfaction of the trained observer. The art of ringing complex sequences of bells that create the lovely English traditional methods depends greatly upon the ringer’s ability to observe the other ringers and to synchronise with them so that the melodies flow without interruption or overlap. The bell doesn’t ring immediately when you pull the rope; the bell only rings when it has nearly completed its 360º rotation, so that ringers have to synchronise precisely with one another. Richard also takes great pleasure in the job of Tower Captain. The Tower Captain finds ringers whenever needed, keeps watch on the mechanical serviceability of the bells, above all keeping an eye on the stay – the long piece of wood made to break if the bell is swung too hard and not checked. The captain makes sure wood is available to replace a broken stay, a not infrequent event during training sessions.
The bells and their social function
The bells were originally rung to call the people to prayer, a function they still fulfil. They probably also served as a time-keeper for people in ancient days. Occasions for ringing church bells nowadays include national expressions of thanksgiving, wars, coronations and other momentous events, but the main reason nowadays is for weddings and, still, for calling the people to prayer. Toft bells ring the New Year in at midnight each year, and visiting teams frequently come from all over the country at various times in between to ring our bells.
The home of the bells – Saint Andrew’s church tower
When Richard Howard first moved in to Toft 45 years ago and was doing up his house and garden, he went to Mr Gauge of Bourn for sand and gravel. Talking to him, and revealing he was from Toft, old Mr Gauge told Richard he had been standing on that same spot one day in 1890 when he saw a great cloud of dust emanating from Toft: it was Toft church tower collapsing! The tower had been undergoing some sort of renovation – builders were there when it collapsed. The tower was originally wood, and there exists a picture of a stone tower dated 1743. The bells housed in the Church tower are some of the oldest in Cambridgeshire. They were cast in foundries including Bury St Edmunds, St Neots and Loughborough,) and bear inscriptions as described above in Richard Howard’s history of the bells. But one bell was a special surprise for Richard himself. Whilst overseeing the casting and commissioning of Bell 2 he became concerned that the foundry seemed not to heed the urgency of deciding upon an inscription. Unbeknown to Richard, it had been decided to dedicate the bell to him! The inscription honours his service to Saint Andrew’s church and we hope will remain for many generations. Richard reports that he asked the bell-maker: ‘How long does a bell last?’ To which the bell-maker replied: ‘We don’t know any that have worn out yet!’
25 years of silence ended when Richard and the team took over. The 2000 Millennium year was approaching and funding became available for projects the length and breadth of the country. Toft applied for a grant to augment its three bells to four, but the grant-funding body were reluctant, saying they would much rather an application to augment to five or six. The decision was made to go to five, for which a 50% grant from the Millennium fund was obtained, which, along with other funding, meant that only £1500 had to be found out of the village coffers to meet the total bill, which exceeded £40,000.
Coda: A poem for our bells
Bells have been ringing in Toft for half a millennium. Their impassive maws have reverberated with the joys and sorrows of generations of Toft’s inhabitants, the great upheavals of political and social revolutions, the steady, quiet rhythms of Toft life over the centuries, outliving the brief lives of those who have rung them and the thousands of Toft residents who have heard their notes drift across the fields and meadows that surround our village. So we say to our bells, in Tennyson’s stirring words:
Ring out, wild bells, to the wild sky,
The flying cloud, the frosty light;
The year is dying in the night;
Ring out, wild bells, and let him die.
Ring out the old, ring in the new,
Ring, happy bells, across the snow:
The year is going, let him go;
Ring out the false, ring in the true.
Ring out the grief that saps the mind,
For those that here we see no more,
Ring out the feud of rich and poor,
Ring in redress to all mankind.
(Alfred Tennyson, 1809-1892)
Toft Bells and the Bell Tower was compiled by Michael McCarthy (based on an interview with Richard Howard, recorded by Michael McCarthy 4th October 2010 in Richard Howard's 90th year.