It is difficult to tell when the first set of bells were rung at St James, but certainly there was a “Ring of Five Bells” in place by the beginning of the eighteenth century. These were hung in the wooden tower that was constructed in 1712 after the original stone tower had collapsed.In 1885 the bells were re-hung in the new tower (built in 1883) together with a new framework and fixings allowing the bells to all swing in the same direction. Due to the size of the tower, a ‘gallow end’ had been fitted at the end of the 3rd bell pit, as there was no room to fit a conventional frame side. The 2nd bell had been recast at this time and was connected to a mechanical turret clock mechanism that would sound the hour. In 1978 the stonework on the western buttresses of the tower began to crumble and the bells have not been rung since that time. It is thought that the ringing of the bells had not been a contributing factor in the deterioration of the tower as there was no evidence to suggest that there had been any appreciable framework movement when the bells were rung.
In 1984 the bells were removed and taken to the Whitechapel Bell Foundry for reconditioning before being placed as part of a new ring of eight at St. Peter & St. Paul’s in Grays. The large Tenor bell was separated from its compatriots, being placed two years later in St. Mary the Virgin, Little Baddow. Pictured are Andy Good, Chris Laub and David Culham (picture in Thurrock Gazette of 29 June 1984) as part of the team removing the bells from St James tower on their way to be reconditioned at the Whitechapel Bell Foundry. There was initially a week delay in the lowering of the bells, as the main cross beam in the tower had cracked on the first attempt.
The Removal of the Bells from St. James
Not everybody was happy with the removal of the bells as is highlighted by an extract from “Uncertain Harvest - Field Notebooks of West Tilbury (1981-97)” by Randal Bingley.
The tenor bell, originally cast by John Wood in 1694, was recast by the Whitechapel Bell Foundry and re-hung in St James (by Mears and Stainbeck) in 1953 to commemorate the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. The tenor bell was cast without canons (the metal loops normally cast at the top of the bell as a means of attaching it to a wooden headstock).The bell is inscribed “EIIR recast 1953”As the Bb tenor bell did not fit in with the new ring of eight at St Peter & St Paul in Grays, it was kept for safe keeping at the Whitechapel Bell foundry until a new home could be found for it.In 1986 the tenor bell was moved to its new home at St Mary the Virgin in Little Baddow, Essex, to become a new 7th bell of a ring of eight. This was as a substitute for a previous bell of approximately the same size and weight, but which was exceptionally poor in tone.
The 4th Bell (C) – 1621
The 4th Bell bears the inscription “Thomas Bartlet made me 1621”. The Whitechapel Foundry mark is also impressed on the bell.When the bell was tuned in 1984, a crack was discovered in the crown, which was repaired by welding. The 4th now forms the 5th of the new ring of eight at St. Peter & St. Paul.Two original cast canons are missing, having been removed (probably in 1885) to facilitate the fitting of false crown staples (the stumps of the original cast-in staples remain).
The 3rd Bell (D) – 1694
The 3rd bears the inscription “TF 1694”.And on the waist is crudely scratched “I W Made Me 1692”It is believed to have been cast by John Wood and is listed for preservation by the Council for the care of churches.The 3rd now forms the 4th of the new ring of eight at St. Peter & St. PaulTwo original cast canons are also missing from the 3rd (the stumps of the original cast-in staples remain).
The 2nd Bell (Eb) – 1883
The 2nd was also originally one of John Wood’s bells, but it was recast in 1883 when the West Tilbury bells were rehung in new fittings by Gillett & Co, Croydon.The 2nd originally had angular canons.The bell was originally inscribed “TF recast by Gillett and Co, Croydon 1883”.It was again recast in 1984 at the Whitechapel Bell Foundry before becoming the 3rd in the new ring of eight at St. Peter & St. Paul.The bell is inscribed “In memory of Janet Lennox Hayston” and the recasting was made possible by the donation of John Hayston in memory of his wife Jean.
The Treble Bell (F) – 1694
The bell is dated 1694 and is inscribed “IB”It is thought to be made by John Wood for John Bartlet of Whitechapel.The Treble could not be tuned to blend with the other bells in the new ring of eight at St Peters & St Pauls, but it has been retained with them and is used as a service bell. It is also connected to the churches clock mechanism to chime the hour.It remains in its original St James’ fittings and is hung in a timber frame that was part of the West Tilbury frame that was originally constructed by P.T. Saunders in 1885.
The Bells at St Peter & St Paul, Grays Essex
An appeal for £24,000 was launched in July 1983 to combine the ring of bells at St James with those from another redundant church, St Clement (the parish church of West Thurrock & Purfleet) into a new ring of eight bells at St Peter & St Paul in Grays. These bells, together with the original bells at Grays, were sent to the Whitechapel Bell Foundry for cleaning and tuning with two of the bells (the new 2nd & 3rd) being recast.A new steel bell frame was fitted into the tower of St Peter & St Paul after a reinforced concrete ring beam had been inserted to strengthen the tower which had originally been built in 1846.
In April 1985 volunteers, under the supervision of Andrew Barham, installed the new bells in the tower. The bells were rededicated on the 8 May 1985 by the Bishop of Chelmsford after which a quarter peal was rung to commemorate the 40th anniversary of VE DayThe picture (right) shows the 3rd bell being installed in St Peter & St Paul in April 1985
The Whitechapel Bell Foundry
The history of St James’ bells have been closely tied to the Whitechapel Bell Foundry throughout their joint history.The Whitechapel Bell Foundry is Britain's oldest manufacturing company, having been established in 1570 (during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I) and being in continuous business since that date. Whitechapel's famous bells include the original Liberty Bell (1752), the Great Bell of Montreal and, probably best known of all, Big Ben at the Palace of Westminster. Cast in 1858, this is the largest bell ever cast at Whitechapel, weighing 13½ tons. To this day, a cross-section of the bell surrounds the entrance door to the Foundry
England's heaviest change ringing bell - Liverpool Cathedral tenor, weighing over 4 tons - was cast by Whitechapel in 1939. In 1991, the world's first peal of 16 change ringing bells were installed by Whitechapel at the Church of St Martin in the Bull Ring, Birmingham, EnglandWhitechapel Bell Foundry's long history spans the reigns of twenty seven English monarchs, and among the royal visitors to the foundry were King George V and Queen Mary who came to witness the casting of two bells for Westminster Abbey.
August 1856: Casting Big Ben
The Foundry buildings date from 1670, four years after the Great Fire of London, and presumably replaced earlier structures lost to that conflagration. Originally built as a coaching inn called the Artichoke, the lease of the buildings was acquired by Thomas Lester - then Master Founder at Whitechapel - to accommodate the need for extra workshops and space during a time of great expansion in the craft of bell founding.The traditions of craftsmanship and old skills working alongside modern technology today still produce bells which are renowned, at the "sign of the three bells" in London's East End