History of the bells and clocks at St Michael's
We know from the old churchwarden's accounts that there were three bells in the tower in 1433. It is likely that these bells were transferred from the old Norman church into the early 15th century building which exists today. Six years later, in 1439, those bells were replaced by a new ring of 5 bells. They, in turn, were melted down by a Bury St Edmunds bellfounder called Reignold Chirche in 1493 and recast into a new 5 bell peal, with a tenor bell weighing approximately 23 cwt. Two of the bells had to be recast in 1508 and 1522 by a London founder.
This was the peal of bells that rang out when Queen Elizabeth I came through the town in 1561 and again when the Spanish Armada was defeated in 1588. On the latter occasion, ringers were rewarded with ale and candles. Throughout the 17th century they rang out loud and clear to celebrate any event of national or local importance, including the coronations of James I in 1603, Charles II in 1661, and James II in 1685. In 1629 and 1630 they were rung to celebrate a visit to the town by Charles I and the fact that he ‘dyned at ye George’ in North Street.
Following the Reformation, change ringing started to develop in England and in the mid to late 17th century this had developed into the method ringing which we practise today. Probably driven by this, a treble bell was added to make a ring of six in 1671.
By 1713 the bells were in a poor condition. The tenor bell had broken cannons, the treble was cracked and the third was in a poor state. A Bishop's Stortford bellfounder called John Waylett whose foundry is thought to have been on Bells Hill was employed to put them right. Waylett recast the treble and third and used the tenor to create three smaller bells. This produced a lighter eight bell ring from the original six, containing five new bells and three original ones. Change ringing would by now be the order of the day. A new eight bell frame had also been made, in an early change ringing style.
In 1730 Waylett was employed to recast the tenor (which was one of the remaining old beIls). By this time, John Waylett had moved to London and this is the last surviving bell that he made.
A Hertford bellfounder, John Briant recast the other two old bells and the John Waylett treble in 1791. In 1802 he returned and recast the sixth bell, which its new inscription suggests was used as a funeral bell.
" statutum est omnibus semel mori"
" it is decreed that all will at sometime die"
By 1815 the top of the tower and spire were in a perilous state and an act of Parliament was passed to allow it to be rebuilt. In March 1819 the bells and frame were removed and stored in a local warehouse. The top of the medieval tower and spire were taken down and then rebuilt, in a Georgian style, in stone and brick. By March 1820 the building work was complete and John Briant put the bells and frame back in the tower, with the addition of two new treble bells, to make the existing ten bell peal.
The last major work done was in 1928 when the bells were taken out again and retuned at the Whitechapel bellfoundry and fitted with new cast iron headstocks and ball bearings. They were rehung in the old frame which had been stiffened by the use of iron plates and brackets.
The first mechanical clocks appeared in this country during the 14th century, and a church clock was in place on the tower of St Michael’s in 1431. Not being the most reliable of timepieces, however, it was replaced in 1494 by one with chimes. It must be remembered that in those days people didn’t have watches and the church clock was very important to them. Nor was there such a thing as ‘Greenwich Mean Time’, so clocks would only show an approximate time, which could differ by some considerable margin in towns throughout the country. What we now know as ‘Standard’ time wasn’t available everywhere in Britain until the BBC started broadcasting the ‘six pips’ GMT time signal in 1924.
The same John Briant who cast six of the current church bells, also made and installed the clock on the east side of the tower in 1820. Those on the other three sides (all 5ft 6ins in diameter) were added by John Yardley in 1846, and were paid for with the aid of public subscription. Known as a ‘bird cage’ clock, and housed in a wooden casing on a floor between the belfry and the bell-chamber, the mechanism has a 13 ft pendulum and was originally driven by a lead weight weighing a quarter of a ton, which descended 80 ft. It required winding by hand three times a week. The clock was regularly serviced, but on 5 August 2005, was totally removed for the first time in 185 years for repair and overhaul. The work, undertaken by A. James (Jewellers and Horologists) of Saffron Walden, took four weeks to complete and the cost of over £6,000 was funded by Friends of St Michael’s. When reinstalled, the clock was fitted with an automatic winder.