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Church Bells

Church Bells

The Bells and Chimes of Motherland,

Of England green and old,

That out from grey and ivied tower

A thousand years have toll’d;

How heavenly sweet their music is

As breaks the hallow’d day

And calleth, with Seraph’s Voice

A nation up to prey!

Arthur Cleveland Coxe – 1849.

Dartmoor church bell inscriptions, one may question as to the interest in such a topic but it is part of Dartmoor’s heritage and is certainly one that in normal circumstances remains out of sight in the various church towers of the moor. Is it the case that for centuries these bells have been ‘transmitting’ hidden sentiments alongside their melodic peals?

It has been suggested that the use of bells in a Celtic church context dates back as far as the sixth century and by the eighth century were in general use in most churches. By medieval times they served several purposes; to mark the canonical hours, summonsed the faithful to worship, announce the death of a parishioner (the Soul Bell), to mark the Angelus and curfew and to warn of invasion or other such perils, to celebrate weddings, baptisms, feast days, royal births, victories and even defeats in wartime. Friar, p.44. 

Leaving aside the various technicalities of bells there is one aspect of them which can provide a brief glimpse into the history of each church and the sentiments of the period. Virtually every bell that hangs in the towers of Dartmoor has a legend or inscription on them, some of them record the names of the incumbent vicars and churchwardens at the time of their casting whilst others sport various religious or patriotic verses. 

The oldest bells tended to simply bear the Latin scripted name of  the saint to whom they were dedicated. By the fourteenth century his practice was then followed by various religious lines such as ‘ad laudem‘ (to praise). By the late 1600s most inscriptions were equally appearing in either Latin or English and by the mid 1700s many simply used English. Towards the end of the seventeen hundreds there appeared to be a move towards, what at the time, were regarded as ‘vulgar’ inscriptions. This basically meant that there was no religious sentiment involved, such Dartmoor examples being; ‘Thomas Bilbie Collumpton Cast Us All’. Today this would not cause any concern but does demonstrate the piety of the times.

I have recently happened upon a book published by the Reverend H. T. Ellacombe in 1872 in which he writes about the church bells of Devon. Between the years of 1864 -65 he visited every bell tower in Devon and recorded the various inscriptions found on every bell (apart from Sheepstor where he could not gain access to the tower). This meant clambering up 456 towers or turrets to achieve his goal which by some of his accounts was a dangerous and due to the bird guano a dirty task. When commentating as to the disrepair met with in some of the towers he remarks; “As for the guano of the daws (jackdaws) and owls, and other birds, it had not apparently been removed for years. Flooring, too, entirely gone, or so rotten as to break away beneath my feet; wet droppings from the roof, and not carefully prevented from driving through the windows.”, p.16.

Below is a table showing the more interesting legends that were found upon the bells of Dartmoor, clearly there are numerous others that simply bore the founders name and trademark and have not been included. As can be seen many have variants of “

I Call the Quick to Church and the Dead to Gravewhich seems to be one of the more popular ones. Other common inscriptions are those that proclaim prosperity and peace to the parish, along with ‘When I call follow all‘ There are several that ask to save or preserve the church and/or king (according to their dates these would refer to King George II or King George III).  

In normal circumstances inscriptions on ancient bells were generally placed immediately below the haunch or shoulder, although they are sometimes found nearer the sound bow.

Location Date Inscription
Belstone 1761 God bless the church – Pennington Fecit 1761
Belstone 1761 Prosperity to this parish – Pennington Fecit 1761
Belstone 1761 God save the king – Pennington Fecit 1761
Belstone 1761 I Call the Quick to Church and the Dead to Grave – Pennington Fecit 1761
Bovey Tracy 1818 Peace and Good Neighbourhood – I P 1818
Bovey Tracy 1818 To the Church Living Call and to the Grave Do Summon 
Brent, South 1769 To Christs I Aloud Do Sing – T B F 1769
Brent, South 1769 Success to Our Arms Thomas Bilbie Fecit 1769
Brent, South 1769 God Save the Church and King I : V : R : H : CH: W : t b f 1769
Brent, South 1769 Thomas Bilbie Cast Us Al 1769
Brent, South 1769  Religion Death & Pleasure Cause Me To Ring – Thomas Bilbie Fecit 1769
Brentor 1668? Gallus Vocor Ego Solus Super Omnia Sono
Buckfastleigh 1793 When I Begin All Strike In – T Bilbie Fecit 1793
Buckfastleigh 1793 Fear God Honour the King – T Bilbie Fecit M L Vicar S F & R F CH : Wardens 1793
Buckfastleigh 1793 Keep Peace and Good Neighbourhood Mr L Vicar Mr S F & R W Ch: Wardens – T Bilbie Fecit 1793
Buckfastleigh 1793 Religion Death & Pleasure Cause Me to Ring – Thomas Bilbie Cullumpton F 
Buckland in the Moor 1759 God Save the Church and King – T B F 1759
Buckland in the Moor 1759 Thomas Bilbie Collumpton Cast U s All 1759
Chagford 1766 Thomas Bilbie Collumpton Fecit 1766
Chagford 1766 God Preserve the Church & King – T Bilbie Fecit 1766
Chagford 1766 To the Church the Living Call & to the Grave Do Summon All 
Cornwood 1835 Rev W. Oxenham Vicar. Trowbridge Horton W Dodridge Wardens Cast at the Church Foundry Collompton 1835
Cornwood 1770 Nicholas Sheapeard Churchwarden John Pennington and Co Makers 1770
Gidleigh ? Iebs ois plaudit ut me tam sepius audit
Gidleigh ? Ste toma ora pro nobis
Gidleigh ? Est michi collatum ihe istud nomen amatum
Harford ? Noteoira
Harford ? In Nomine Patris
Harford 1666 Tomas Williams Esqvire Church Warden 1666 Mordecai Cockey Cast Me in Totnes
Hennock ? ABCDEFGHIJKLMNOPQRSTUVWXYZ
Hennock 1637 Soli Dio Detvr T P 1637
Hennock ? Protege virgo pia quos convoco sancta maria
Holne 1743 When I Begin All Strike In
Holne 1743 Keep Peace and Good Neighbourhood
Holne 1743 To the Church the Living Call & to the Grave Do Summon All 1743
Islington 1797 When I Begin All Strike In – T B F 1797
Islington 1797 God Save the King T B F 1797
Lustleigh 1799 When I Call Follow All T Bilblie Fecit 1799
Lustleigh 1789 God Preserve the Church and King Thomas Bilbie Fecit 1799
Lydford 1789 To the Church the Living Call and to the Grave I summon All
Manaton 1827 Rev Wm Carwithen M A Rector Alexr Nosworthy Stepn Nosworthy Churchwardens T Mears London Fecit 1827
Manaton ? Sancte george ora pro nobis
Manaton ? Est michi collatum ihcistud nomen amatum
Moretonhampstead 1762 Wheneer I Call Follow Me All – Pennington Fecit 1762
Moretonhampstead 1762 God Save the King – Pennington Fecit 1762
Moretonhampstead 1762 God Preserve the Church Pennington Fecit 1762
Moretonhampstead 1762 Prosperity to This Parish Pennington Fecit 1762
Okehampton ? Est michi collatum ihcistud nomen amatum
Peter Tavy 1761 Pennington Fecit 1761
Sampford Courtney 1770 I P & Co 1770 I Call all Ye to Follow Me
Sampford Courtney 1770 I Call the Quick to Church and the Dead to Grave I P & Co 1770
Sampford Courtney 1770 I P & Co 1770 Peace and Good Neighbourhood
Shaugh Prior 1769 When I Call Follow All I P & Co 1769
Shaugh Prior 1769 I Call the Quick to Church and the Dead to Grave I P & Co 1769
Sheepstor 1769 I P 1769
Sheepstor 1769 I Call the Quick to Church and the Dead to Grave
Sourton 1776 To the Church the Living Call and to the Grave Do Summon All  T Bilbie Fecit 1776
Tavistock 1769  I To the Church the Living Call and to the Grave Do Summon All  T Bilbie Fecit
Tawton, South 1744 When I Begin All Strike In 1744
Tawton, South 1744 Prosperity to this Parish A Gooding 1744
Tawton, South 1744  I To the Church the Living Call and to the Grave Do Summons All 1744
Throwleigh 1763 When I Call Follow All – Pennington Fecit 1763
Throwleigh 1763 God Preserve the Church Pennington Fecit 1763
Throwleigh 1763 God Save the King – Pennington Fecit 1763
Throwleigh 1763 To the Church the Living Call and to the Grave I summon All Pennington Fecit 1763
Walkhampton 1769 I Call the Quick to Church and the Dead to Grave I P & Co 1769
Widecombe 1848 C & G Mears Founders London 1848 Hear Me When I Call Attend All Ye People
Widecombe 1632 Robeart Hamlyn Sonne of John Hamlyn Chittleford T P 1632 Gathered of the Young Men and Mayds Fyftene
Widecombe 1633 Soli deo deter T P 1633
Widecombe 1632 Draw Near Vunto God and God Will Draw Vunto You T P 1632
Widecombe 1774 Mr John Hext & George Leaman  CH : Wardens Thomas Bilbie Fecit 1774

Please note: T B F means Thomas Bilbie Fecit and I P refers to John Pennington. Apologies for no Latin translations but I was never allowed to stay in French lessons never mind Latin.

When looking at the above list it there are two surnames that appear on many of Dartmoor’s bells and they are that of Pennington and Biblie. Both are often preceded by the Latin word fecit which translates as ‘made’ and refers to the two most prodigious bell founders of their time. Thomas and John Pennington’s bell foundry was in Exeter and it’s noted that between 1618 and 1753 the family cast ninety two of the Devon bells. Along with the inscriptions every bell founder also stamped their trade marks and below is that of the Penningtons.

Church Bells

The Bilbie family were bell founders and clock makers who originally hailed from Chew Stoke in Somerset but later moved to Cullompton in Devon. Between the years of 1715 and 1815 they cast three hundred and fifty two of Devon’s and were by far the most popular founders in Devon. There trade mark was simply a series of little bells which appeared after their name as can be seen below:

Church Bells

It has been said that the Bilbies were all of a wild appearance and could barely read or write as is obvious from some of their inscriptions. They also had a strange way of casting their bells, it was always done at midnight when the moon was full and the weather conditions still and calm.

The question remain to be asked as to what exactly was the purpose of these inscriptions? As few people had access to the belfries in which they hung it would be fair to say that they were unseen. Could it be that along with the various peals of the bells that not only did they ring out their ‘music’ but also carried the inscribed sentiments across Dartmoor? But next time you hear the melodic sound of Dartmoor’s bells drifting along on the moorland air just think what hidden legend are on those bell

Church Bells

Rev. H. T. Ellacombe 1872 The Church Bells of Devon. Exeter: H. T. Ellacombe.

Friar, S. 1996. A Companion to the English Parish Church. Stroud: Sutton Publishing.

 

About Tim Sandles

Tim Sandles is the founder of Legendary Dartmoor

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