“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 Grave” which 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.
|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||?||In Nomine Patris|
|Harford||1666||Tomas Williams Esqvire Church Warden 1666 Mordecai Cockey Cast Me in Totnes|
|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.
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:
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
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.