One of the finest rings of 10 bells in the country rests silent at the top of the tower of the former St John’s Church, Hanley. They fell silent in 1981 when the church was made redundant, bringing to an end a history of bellringing in the tower that stretches back to 1790. After 30 years of exposure to the elements, the bells are in a perilous state. However there is now a plan to get them ringing again.
St John’s Church in Hanley was built between 1788 and 1790, replacing a Chapel that was built on the site in 1737. Bells have been heard from the tower of St John’s Hanley since 1790, when the original ring of bells was installed. These were replaced by the present bells in 1923. These are a very fine ring of 10 bells, cast by the famous Gillett and Johnston Foundry of Croydon – one of only 15 rings of 10 cast by this foundry. Two of the bells, the second and fifth heaviest of the ring, were given as War Memorials to local people who fell in the Great War.
The Gillett & Johnston bells were highly regarded by all those who heard or rang them, but had become increasingly challenging to ring before they fell silent in 1981 when the church was made redundant. In fact the bells had never been easy to ring, with three factors conspiring against the ringers:
the bells were hung right at the top of a brick tower which consequently moved with the movement of the bells, causing great difficulty in accurate ringing of the bells for change ringing
the ringers stand twice as far from the bells as ideal – around 40ft below rather than 20ft, making the bells too quiet for the ringers to hear
the length of rope between the ringers and bells was far from ideal – any stretch in long bellropes reduces the ‘feel’ the ringers have for the bell, reducing the accuracy with which the ringers can ring
Whilst not affecting the tone of the bells or their sound outside, any factors that limit the ability of the ringers to produce good quality accurate change ringing makes the bells not only less likely to be rung well, but less likely to be rung at all.
Restoration of the Church
St John’s Church was bought by a developer, Church Converts, in 2009. It was on the verge of being demolished and was high on the Buildings at Risk Register. It is Grade II* listed, principally because of the very early and rare use of cast iron in a church building.
The church, including the tower, was sympathetically and pragmatically restored between 2010 and 2012, and is now being marketed for use as a restaurant. This restoration comes at a time when Hanley is very gradually undergoing a renaissance, with new development of the City Centre starting, a revival in fortunes of some of the area’s pottery businesses, and proposed expansion of the Potteries Shopping Centre, which neighbours St John’s. It may still be some time before the area could be described as flourishing, but there is plenty of room for optimism.
One of the partners in Church Converts, Simon Linford, is a bellringer and knew of the significance of the bells in the tower. The bells are something of a ‘cause célèbre’ in bellringing circles and their future is of great interest to the ringing community. Other developers might have entombed the bells never to be rung again simply to satisfy a planning condition to protect them, but Church Converts has restored the fabric of the tower and is encouraging the restoration of the bells by making the tower and bells available to a Trust, which can restore them and have them ringing again.
Importance of the bells to Hanley
With the development of Hanley into the City Centre of Stoke-on-Trent, there is no longer a ring of bells that can be rung in the City Centre to mark events of national and local importance. Sadly, the traditional sound of British style bellringing is therefore no longer a part of City Centre life.
As part of the proposals for the development of the church, an application was made to move the bells to Stone, where they would have been restored and rung again. However there was huge public outcry, led by the Friends of St John’s, and an appeal to have the bells saved for Hanley successfully led to refusal of the application. One of the principal reasons for not allowing the bells to be moved was that they formed a War Memorial, and were a part of the City’s heritage. There was no accompanying proposal for how their restoration might be paid for, of course!
Proposal for Restoration
Therefore an initiative is now being launched to restore the bells hung for change ringing to this historic tower. To ensure that the bells ring for many generations to come, the bells will be removed from the tower and restored with all new fittings. They will then be returned to Hanley and hung in a new iron and steel frame. The inside of the tower will also be renovated to create a new room, at an ideal distance below the bells, from where the bells will be rung. In addition, a separate training room will be created within the tower at the level from which the bells used to be rung. This will provide a purpose designed facility, equipped to support the training of bellringers, and particularly the encouragement of young people – the Potteries Ringing Centre.
The teaching centre will be available to local schools and youth groups such that a new generation of ringers can be attracted and taught to ring. This will provide a valuable youth activity in the City Centre in addition to contributing to the wider community. Teaching bellringing as a performing heritage activity enables a practical application of mathematics and music. Bellringing also develops teamwork and social responsibility. Opportunities for complementary activities within the tower will also be encouraged, with the potential of further enhancing the education and development of young people.
The teaching centre and bells themselves will be available to all bellringers to use for training and practice. In addition to being available for teaching new recruits and developing the skills of more experienced bellringers, there will be opportunities for existing ringers to be trained such that they have the confidence to take on the role of teaching others to ring. The Potteries Ringing Centre will therefore play both a direct and indirect role in helping to further the art of change ringing in the local area and more widely.
While recruits to bellringing are taught on other rings of bells, the ringing centre at Hanley will be unique in that the bells are being hung and the facilities designed and installed specifically with the intention of providing an ideal teaching and practicing environment, and all necessary steps will be taken to seek to ensure that the tower can be made available for training and ringing purposes at all times without disturbing local residents or businesses.
To achieve these objectives, work is required in several key areas:
Restoring the existing 10 bells
All bells provided with new fittings
A new frame to be installed to accommodate the 10 bells
Installing sound control, ensuring that the bells do not form a nuisance during working hours, but can be ‘opened up’ for public performance
All necessary internal building work to restore the tower and services
New floors and access to be installed to create the new ringing room and teaching centre
Installing toilet and kitchen facilities
Equipping the teaching centre with appropriate fixtures and fittings
In order to carry out this work, a charity is being launched to raise £160,000 over 12 months to enable this work to be carried out and provide an initial fund to help support the subsequent maintenance of the tower and bells.