The Bells

It is not known when there were first bells in St Michael’s but churchwardens’ accounts for 1439 show the tower contained five at that time. These were later replaced by five new ones, ordered in 1489 from a foundry in Bury St Edmunds at a cost of £42. Up until 1530 the bells were repaired and sometimes replaced by a foundry in London. It was those bells that rang out when Queen Elizabeth I was crowned in 1558, 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.

In 1671 a sixth bell was added to the peal but by the 18th century, after so much use, all had to be recast. This task was carried out in 1713 by John Waylett, a local bell founder who re-cast three of them and with the metal of the remaining three, cast five new bells making a ring of eight. He also cast a new bell in 1730. Another bell founder, John Briant, of Hertford, renewed two of the bells in 1791 and another in 1802. He also cast a funeral bell that same year. When the tower and spire were rebuilt in 1819, the bells were put into storage and a new wooden frame constructed in the belfry to accommodate ten bells. John Briant cast two new bells in 1820 and rehung all ten, the largest of which weighs 17cwt. It is these ten bells that constitute the present ring.

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 was originally driven by a pendulum 80 ft (24 metres) long and a lead weight weighing a quarter of a ton. 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.