Ringing Out – the Bells of St Michael’s

Ringing Out – the Bells of St Michael’s

The first historical reference to the bells is from 1552, when the Lord of the Manor, Richard Duke, asked that one of the bells be sold to help fund some work to keep the mouth of the Otter open for boats.   He also persuaded those at East Budleigh and Budleigh Salterton, to do the same.   It is said that the Otterton bell was sold to Walter Raleigh’s father for £10.   Unfortunately we don’t know what he did with it.

Also in 1552, the year before his death at the age of sixteen, the then Sovereign Edward VI asked for an “Inventory of Church Goods” across the entire country.   Presumably he wished to find out what riches were being held by the churches, the Crown having profited greatly by the Dissolution of the Monasteries in earlier decades under his father, Henry VIII.   This inventory was made in 1553 and included bells of course.   It was recorded that there were then three bells in the tower and that one bell had been given to “Ottermouth Haven”.

In 1737, the accounts record that 8/- (40p) was spent in mending the clapper of the great bell.   Also in 1743, 4/- (20p) was spent in “cutting new brass and righting (repairing) the great bell”.

In the Seven Years War (1756-63), a conflict spread over the known world, a partition was made in the Belfry Chamber to provide a store for the Militia arms and clothing.

In 1776 the bells were weighed, presumably after being taken down for recasting.   The parish was required to pay its bell founder by the pound and needed to know how much metal was being provided to the founder, compared to the weight of the bells on completion.   It was quite usual at this time for bell founders to quote a price for new bells by the pound (in weight), and be paid extra for any additional metal provided.  There were five bells at this time and they weighed as follows: first Bell 586 ½ lb, 2nd Bell 576 ½ lb, 3 Bell 672 lb, 4 Bell 845 lb, 5 Bell 1278 lb.     Thus bell 5 weighed over half a ton, 570 kg.

Such weight is carried in the tower on a frame which rests on the thicker lower walls, in some cases on corbels, though all the walls have to be strong to withstand the vibrations.

So in 1777 the parish contracted with Mr Thomas Bilbie II of Cullompton to cast a complete new ring of five bells.  Three of these bells are still in the tower.

In 1824 the treble bell (the smallest) was recast.   Presumably, it had become cracked.   The job was carried out by William Pannell, who had by then taken over the Cullompton bell-foundry following the death of Thomas Bilbie III.

In 1864, the tenor bell (the largest) was recast by Charles and George Mears of the Whitechapel Foundry in London.  By this time there were no bell founders working in the West Country, and as the railways were now in a position to provide cheap and quick transport, the London foundries took a lot of the trade.    This famous Whitechapel Foundry was founded in 1570 and carried on trading, under various different owners, until 2017.

In 1864/5 the Revd. Henry Thomas Ellacombe of Clyst St. George carried out the monumental task of surveying almost all of the bells in Devon.  He was refused entry to only two towers; one can only guess at the possible reason for these refusals when they involved a well-known researching priest.   The Revd Ellacombe was trained as a Civil Engineer with the Brunels but was moved to become a priest, and his first parish was Bitton, then a coal mining village between Bath and Bristol.  He was of Devonshire stock, however, and took the living at Clyst St. George at the age of 60.  He died there, still in post, at the age of ninety.  He recorded that the five bells at St.  Michael’s Church were re-hung in a new oak frame in 1865.  The work was carried out by Thomas Hooper of Woodbury.  His fine woodwork stands today in good order.

The other association with Revd. Ellacombe is that St.  Michael’s Church was provided with a bell chiming apparatus designed by him.  There are many such in belfries across the land, although the one here is in need of a complete restoration.  The frame from which it was operated has fallen apart and much of it is missing.  If it were working, it would allow all of the bells to be sounded by one person, although the volume would be less:   moreover, the quality of the sound from such an arrangement is poor unless it is operated by a skilled person.

In 1890, St.  Michael’s Church added a sixth bell to the peal.  This was cast in Loughborough by John Taylor & Co.  The framework to carry this new bell was designed, built and installed by Harry Stokes of Woodbury, the successor to Thomas Hooper.

In 1935, the five heaviest bells were re-hung on new cast-iron headstocks and all six were provided with new ball race main bearings.  This work also was done by John Taylor & Co.

The details of the individual bells are as follows:

Bell Inscription Dia. Note Weight (cwt)
1st Treble 1890 (plus the foundry mark) 28″ D# 5 approx.
30″ C# 5.25 approx.
3rd THOMAS BILBIE CULLUMPTON FECIT 1777. 31″ B 5.5 approx.
4th Mr W:I: & Mr I:C : C:W : T:B FECIT 1777 33″ A# 6 approx.
5th 36″ G# 7.5 approx.


 T : B : FECIT 1777.

6th Tenor C & G MEARS FOUNDERS LONDON 1846 42” F# 12 approx.



These bells are currently rung by ringers from Otterton and East Budleigh. Ringers from elsewhere occasionally come to ring. During the 1970s there was a thriving band which competed in local ringing competitions, sometimes very successfully. There are many certificates on the walls of the ringing room which mark these events.

The clock in the tower which drives the hands on the dial and the hour chimes, was provided by William Potts of Leeds in 1891. It has a pinwheel escapement.
There is also an ancient (probably early 18th C.) field-gate frame Quarter-clock. Presumably this drove the chimes before the current clock was fitted and had a dial provided. See the Clock topic.
Finally and most unusually, there is a chime barrel which probably dates again from the 18th C. This is not in working order and appears to have been brought here from elsewhere as it allows for the chiming of six bells when there were only five in this tower at the time. It is not clear if it was ever set up to work as there is no sign of the drive and linkage to hammers.
We are most grateful to James M. Clarke of Bideford, an advisor to the DAC, for collating these notes in February 2018.