The intriguing story of Eastington’s church bells

Stephen Mills

There’s perhaps nothing more quintessentially British than the sound of church bells echoing across the rural landscape. It’s a sound that’s been an almost constant feature of village life for many, many centuries.

In earlier times, smaller churches had perhaps just a single bell, but when practically no-one owned a clock of any sort, its regular note marked the passing of the hours, calling the farm labourer to the field, the blacksmith to his forge, and in Eastington’s case, many others to the local cloth mills. But obviously, alongside this important role, the main function of church bells was for religious purposes, summoning villagers to services or to announce the fixed times of daily Christian prayer. They also brought people together for happy occasions such as weddings, but at other times, signalled the passing of a relative or neighbour, summoning friends and family to the funeral. Only a few weeks ago, muffled church bells across the country marked the passing of Queen Elizabeth.

In the Christian tradition, up to the 18th century, the ringing of church bells was also believed to drive out demons, but bells might also be rung to heal the sick, to calm storms before a journey, to protect the souls of the dead, or to mark the day of an execution. Some people were of the opinion that bells could ring themselves, especially at times of tragedy or disaster.

So, the ringing of church bells was not necessarily limited to religious purposes, and at important points in history, they rang out to warn the local population of impending danger such as possible invasion or attack. However, for a time, the opposite happened during the Second World War – on Churchill’s instructions, all church bells were silenced for a time, only to be rung in the event of a German invasion.

But church bells also came into play when periods of conflict came to an end – for example, at the end of the Great War of 1914-18, a dark period in history that claimed the lives of 21 million soldiers and wounded 21 million more. When the armistice came into force at 11 am on the 11th November 1918 (“the eleventh day of the eleventh month at the eleventh hour”) and the guns finally fell silent, the bells of churches scattered throughout the Five Valleys rang out joyously, accompanied by innumerable factory hooters and whistles.

It was somewhat ironic that during the conflict, many church bells around the country had been requisitioned, melted down and used to manufacture artillery shells sent to the frontline. It was doubtless a sad occasion to see bells treated in this way as they were traditionally considered to be symbols of peace and community.

St Michaels’s bells

Bells were first introduced into Christian churches around 400 AD although it would take another 200 years for them to feature prominently in Britain. A church could have a single or multiple bells, although the situation could change. For many years, Eastington had a single bell. Keys’ History of Eastington confirms that from the date of the earliest church warden’s entry in 1616, up to 1953, there was only one bell. Numerous other sources confirm that this was the case.

But history hints that in earlier years, Eastington may once have had a peal of bells – the records for St Cyr’s church, adjacent to the Stroudwater Canal just outside Stonehouse, suggest that by 1703, it had a total of six bells. Four of these were dated 1636 and said to have come from St Michaels in Eastington. However, it was not until 1953 that Eastington once again had a peal of bells. In that year, St Peters church in Frocester was in the process of being demolished. Fortunately, the tower was retained (it’s still there – Figure 1) and a new home found for the peal of six bells that was re-hung in the tower of St Michaels. Work was undertaken by local builder Mr L W Clutterbuck and Whites of Appleton. Along with the bells, he adapted the 1850 bell frame from St Peter’s. The Frocester bells replaced the existing single one known locally as ‘Mournful Minnie’.

The ’new’ bells had a long and interesting history before starting their new life in Eastington. Four of the six had been cast by William Wettmore (or Whitmore) in Frocester way back in 1639, one by Abraham Rudhall in 1743, and another by John Rudhall in 1794; two were recast in 1892. The rehomed bells continued to give sterling service up to the mid 1980s at which point it was considered that remedial work was needed. The bell frame had decayed to the point that it was no longer strong enough for safe bell ringing and in 1987, a fund-raising appeal was started to raise the estimated £20,000 needed for the modernisation and repair work. A major part was for a new steel and cast iron bell frame, needed to replace the rickety wooden one. Money was also needed for wheels and wheel assemblies, pulley box and rollers, ropes, headstocks, bearings and so on (Figure 2).


In 1989, after a period of silence, following a tremendous amount of hard work (both physical and fund raising), the peal of six bells rang out once again (Figures 3 and 4). The bells were re-dedicated by the Rt. Rev. Jeremy Walsh, Bishop of Tewkesbury. In an interview with The Citizen at the time, Tower Captain Celia Harris commented that the final bill might be more than £20,000, but costs had been saved through the stalwart efforts of volunteers undertaking some of the work themselves. Funds for the restoration had been raised through a series of waste recycling schemes, coffee mornings, dances, and concerts.

Incidentally, Tower Captains were appointed to ensure, amongst other things, the good behaviour and respectability of the bell ringers – I’m sure Eastington’s ringers have always behaved impeccably!