The church bells of St Mary's

Church bells have always been an important feature in village life.  They have called people to services, marked wedding etc celebrations and been rung to commemorate special events of local and national importance.

There is now a peal of 8 bells at St Mary’s, Norton, but over the years it appears that the number of bells atop the tower has varied.

[Bell tower at St Mary’s and view from the nave to the base of the tower.  Aug 2023]

The earliest reference to the bells that I have found was in Gloucester Diocesan Records where it is recorded that in 1681 “communion vessels and linen, bible and prayer book, parish chest and four bells” were present in the church.  None of these four bells seem to have survived.

The earliest bells still in situ are two that date from 1685 that were cast by Abraham Rudhall I of Gloucester.  The first of these weighs 4.5cwt, nominal 1238.5, 28.5ins diameter, in D and the second weighs 5cwt, nominal 1114.5. 29.5 diameter, in C.  It is recorded elsewhere that these two bells weigh 5 and 5.5cwt.

Abraham Rudhall was the son of Quaker parents, Henry and Grizell Riddall. He was the first of a noted family of bell-founders active in Gloucester between 1684 and 1830 who are said to have cast over 4500 church bells. The family business was founded by Abraham Rudhall (1657–1736) who developed a method of tuning bells by turning on a lathe rather than the traditional chipping method with a chisel. One of the earliest ring of bells he cast was for St Nicholas' Church, Oddington in 1684. He came to be described as the greatest bell-founder of his age. The business was continued by his eldest son, also called Abraham, his son Abel, and three of Abel's sons, Thomas, Charles and John. In 1815 John Rudhall was declared bankrupt and the bell foundry bought by Mears & Stainbank who owned the Whitechapel Bell Foundry. The business formally closed in 1828 but bells bearing John's name have been found with dates up to 1835.

[The groundfloor ringing chamber at the foot of the tower.  Aug 2023]

In Bliss and Sharpe, Ch. Bells of Glos, 464–5; Rudder, Glos. 394, it is recorded that three bells were added at Norton in 1685, two the gift of the ringing enthusiast Henry Brett of Down Hatherley, and the third bearing an inscription expressing royalist sympathies.  One of the bells described in Bliss and Sharpe was inscribed ‘if you ask who gave me, Squire Butt of Hatherlee’.  The third bell, which is no longer present, weighed 6cwt and was inscribed ‘I am third bell to ring many a day for our king’ – this would have been King James II.

Abraham Rudhall I was also responsible for the next oldest bell at Norton, a 7cwt from 1711, nominal 891, 33.5ins diameter, in A#, inscribed ‘William Fluck, William Welch, Church Wardens’.  An 8.5cwt bell from 1735, is ascribed to Abraham Rudhall II, nominal 805.5, 37ins diameter, in G#, inscribed ‘John Poole and William Mann, Church Wardens’. Again, these bells have slightly different weights in different sources.

[This is believed to be one of the Rudhall bells.  Aug 2023]

In the 1930s Rev Evans Prosser wrote that the sixth bell weighed 12cwt, but bore no inscription; more on this later.

[Spiral stairs up the tower to the room below the bells.  Aug 2023]

I have found no further references to the bells until the Norton churchwardens’ accounts, from 1837, which recorded; “Paid tolling bell for late King (William IV), 5s”.

At the time St Mary's church was restored in 1876 it is recorded that there were six bells in the peal .  Five of the bells had to be rehung whilst the sixth needed to be recast it being broken and part of it having been taken away.  Work on the church tower, including bell repairs, was estimated by Messrs Waller to be £56 but the restoration of the bells had to wait until later when further funds could be raised for this purpose.

In 1912, the Gloucestershire Chronicle newspaper published a series of articles entitled “In and around Gloucestershire with pen and camera” written by Gerald Clinch.  Gerald wrote about many parishes and on 5th October 1912 it was Norton’s turn.  He found that the whole parish was looking a little run-down and began with a short poem;

“Neglected hamlet of a distant age, Close to the City’s northern walls, Near to the noisy hum of business life, Your old church tower the past recalls”.

Amongst other things he went on to write “…at no small trouble to himself the vicar [Rev Cherrington] was good enough to accompany me in search among the bells for dates and inscriptions.  Of the bells themselves and the present condition of the belfry I feel constrained to remark that it seems a very great pity – to put it mildly – that here in Norton, within sight of the old Abbey (now the Cathedral) of Gloucester, this ancient church should be allowed to continue in its present neglected state.  There are six bells, five intact and one completely smashed; but they are in such a condition that it has not been considered safe, I am told, to ring a peal upon them for the past 20 years.  Surely some concerted effort might be made to put these bells in order … It is to be hoped then that something will be done to remedy this lamentable state of affairs at Norton.  I shall feel that my work is not in vain by calling attention here to the belfry of Norton if I lead the charitable to come forward and assist in putting this dilapidated belfry in order”.

Ove the years, references to the bells haven’t always been positive.  Norton churchwardens’ accounts, Easter Vestry Meeting 1909;  “The vicar [Rev McLean] complained of having to open the church and ring the bells for the early morning services maintaining that it was the Clerks duty.  He instanced the 7am service on Easter morning when 20 or more people were waiting outside the church.  The Clerk declining to do this it was decided to refer the matter to the Archdeacon”.

In 1930, Capt George Walker Norton, of Norton Court, decided that something should be done to restore the bells to their earlier glory and set things in action through his solicitors.  On 21st June 1930, Thomas Bond & Son, Bellfounders of Burford, Oxon, wrote to Messrs Stratton Davis, Yates & Dolman of Gloucester (for Capt Walker of Norton Court) providing details of their estimate and specifications for restoring the bells at St Mary’s, Norton.

“An estimate to take down and recast the third and tenor bells in the church tower of Norton, nr Gloucester, and to rehang the bells with all new fittings and English oak frame.  To dismantle the bells of their existing fittings and renew same with wheels, headstocks, stays, sliders, rollers, steel gudgeons, gunmetal bearings, bored and fitted in cast iron pedestals, bolts, nuts, screws, washers and all requisite smithwork connected therewith.  To quarter-turn the four old bells with new reversed crown staples and clapper joints, so as their clappers strike on a fresh part of the bell or on unworn surfaces.  To take out and remove the existing frame.  To provide and erect a new massive English oak bell frame, constructed for six bells on one level, fitted with diagonal braces, well pinned and bolted together by long vertical bolts.  To recast the existing third and tenor bells, do all necessary returning and to re-use the same metal.  To supply six new bell ropes (best quality) with worsted sallies and flax ends.  To provide and lay necessary oak for floor under bell 1½” thick.  To fit all necessary rope guides and rope blocks in floor.  Including in the foregoing the provision of all labour and men’s out expenses, all cartage and requisite tools and hoisting tackle.  We do hereby agree to complete the work as specified above at and above the level of the upper part of the framing, evidently as a result of ringing after the framing became weak and loose and particularly following the wedging of the framing against the walls.  The upper stage of the angle buttresses were not very securely bonded to the main walls when the tower was built and serious cracks are evident in the buttresses and adjoining walls while the walls and parapets have bulged considerably and the stonework has to a certain extent been disintegrated.  In order to secure the upper part of the walls, iron tie rods have been inserted, four rods just below the roof timbers and two rods fixed diagonally above the lead roof. The rods are bolted to iron straps on the face of the walls.  At the same time a large number of iron cramps, bolts, straps, etc were used to tie together the parapets and wall stones.  While these have served their purpose, it is extremely unfortunate that iron was used as the rusting and expansion of the iron has already done considerable damage.  The angle pinnacles have been removed at some time and the tops cramped with iron.  There are many open joints that require pointing.  The lead roof is in fair condition but the apron flashing which is fixed with iron holdfasts should be properly secured and pointed.  The oak beam that has been inserted to carry the defective roof beam rests on a bed of soft mortar at the ends and this should be properly bedded on hard stone pads and pinned up.  The steps of the tower staircase are badly worn and the stonework to the walls of the tower requires pinning up and pointing in several places.  Two of the tower lights have been fitted with iron louver plates in place of the original stone.  No lightening conductor is provided.  The wire guards to the lights are dilapidated.  It was noted that some of the beams and plates have been attacked by Death Watch beetle. 


Bells & Framing.  I recommend that the whole of the bell framing and fittings should be taken out and new provided.  The new frame should be in oak, properly designed to throw all the strain on the lower beams and entirely free from the walls at the top.  It would be desirable to re-arrange the bells so that the fifth and tenor bells swing in opposition to each other and 1,2,3 and 4 at right angles to 5 and 6 and at the same time 1 and 4 in opposition to 2 and 3.  The present tenor which is broken and the third bell which is cracked will have to be recast.  Part of the floor under the framing requires renewal.

Fabric.  All the iron straps, cramps and bolts should be taken out of the stonework of the parapets and walls and replaced with gunmetal or copper where necessary, with the exception of the six main tie rods and straps.  These do not appear to be doing serious damage at present and are efficient in their purpose of keeping the upper part of the walls and parapets in position.  These could be replaced by gunmetal where the metal passes through the walls, but the cost would be considerable, and I am inclined to advise leaving the rods as they are for the present.  These should of course be painted.  (The replacement of the iron rods would very possibly lead to the rebuilding of the upper stage and parapet).  I should not propose to replace the angle pinnacles.  The open joints and cracks of the stonework should be well grouted and pointed and the lead aprons properly secured.  The pointing of the walls should be done with lime mortar and cement should only be used for grouting and pointing weatherings.  A closer examination of the buttresses than is at present possible may very likely indicate the necessity of securing some of the stones to the upper stage where these are inadequately bonded.  Internally, the main roof beams should be properly bedded, the open joints of stonework grouted and pointed and all missing stonework properly pinned up.  The iron louvers should be replaced by stone and a step ladder provided to the trap door in the roof.  Proper wire guards are required to all the tower lights.  I suggest that the stone steps to the circular stair which are badly worn should be made up with granolithic hardened with ferrolithic or similar preparation, the whole well keyed to the stone with copper studs.  A pipe handrail to be provided.  A proper copper tape lightening conductor should be fixed with terminals at each corner of the tower.  A copy of Messrs Bond & Sons estimate for re-hanging the bells is enclosed with an alternative estimate for forming a lighter peal.  If the structural recommendations are carried out I do not think the lighter peal is essential.  I estimate the cost of the work as follows :- Messrs Bond’s estimate for bell hanging etc £266 

Builders work in repairs (approximate only) £250 - £300

I am preparing specifications for the work and shall be glad to receive your instructions in due course.  A copy of this report and drawing of the bell frame will be required in connection with an application for a faculty”.

[The bell framework and wheels.  Aug 2023]

The Norton churchwardens’ accounts, from the Vestry Meeting in Schoolroom on 8th April 1931 record;  “This meeting at the Vestry expresses its appreciation of the goodwill of Captain George Norton Walker of Norton Court in defraying the entire cost of restoration of the ancient tower of Norton Church; of recasting the Third and Tenor bells and of rehanging the whole peal of six bells in a new oak framework thus causing the full ring of the bell to resound again after some thirty eight years.  Appreciation was also felt of the good work of Messrs Estcourt the builders and Messrs Bond & Sons of Burford, Oxon, the bellfounders”.

The final cost was £600, paid by Capt G N Walker, and the bells were dedicated by Bishop Headlam, Bishop of Gloucester.

[This must be one of the bells that was recast.  Aug 2023]

The tenor bell, pictured above, was recast by Gillett & Johnston, is dated 1930, weighs 10-3-14, nominal 719.5, 40.5ins diameter, in F#.  As well as the name of George Walker those of Samuel Cox and William Barnard, churchwardens, can also be read.  Earlier it was stated that one of the early bells bore no inscription; however, William Barnard and Samuel Cox were churchwardens towards the end of the 18th Century so perhaps their names were on the original bell and when the bell was recast their names were added again.  The other bells from the early 1700s were inscribed with the names of the incumbent churchwardens indicating this was possible.

The second of the 1930 bells weighs 6cwt, nominal 983.5, 32.5ins diameter, in B.

Briefly, Gillett & Johnston was founded by William Gillett as a clockmakers in Hadlow, Kent.  He later moved to Clerkenwell, London, then to Croydon where the business was established in 1844.  Arthur Johnston bought into the company in 1877 and around this time they expanded into the bell foundry.  After many changes over the years, moving into the 21st Century, Gillett & Johnston are still in the same business based at Bletchingly, Surrey.

On 17 May 1934, Canon Evans Prosser, Norton’s longest serving vicar, had his service of institution at St Mary’s.  Amongst his memories he once wrote; “To be honest I do not remember very much about the service of institution but I do recollect ringing the church bell.  In those days, it was always thought that you could tell how long a new Vicar was likely to stay in the parish by the number of times he rang the bell on that occasion.  If I remember rightly, I did ring more than the usual number of times.  So I became duly instituted as Vicar of Norton”.

In the mid-1930s there was much discussion and argument at Norton on the subject of new bells.  Miss Esther (Tess) Hughes who ran the village shop at Cold Elm wished to donate a pair of bells in memory of her father and brother who were both keen bellringers.  The following account has been extracted from several Parish Magazines written by the late Canon Evans-Prosser in the 1970s.

“For a couple of years before I got here, the Norton Parochial Church Council [PCC] had been much agitated by the desire of Miss Esther Hughes to present two extra bells to the church in memory of her father and brother who had been noted bellringers for many years.

Miss Hughes tried hard to get the PCC to accept these bells but the PCC hedged.  Her champion on the Council was Mr H A Cook, who could not see why they could not be accepted unanimously, as they would cost the church nothing.  However, the PCC thought they would rather have a stained glass window or a striking clock or a lych gate.  They deputed Mr Cook to go and see her and suggest having one of these instead of the bells and eventually they decided to send Miss Mullens along with him.  Miss Hughes would have none of this; it was to be the bells or nothing.  This was reported back to the last PCC meeting that my predecessor presided over and he suggested that a paper ballot should be held on the question of accepting the bells or not.  The voting came out six each way and Mr Congdon [the vicar of the time] refused to give a casting vote.  That was how matters stood when I got here.  Months afterwards, another meeting was held at which the voting was nine for and three against.   [This is largely substantiated in the PCC minutes].

After much to do, the PCC agreed to apply for a faculty for the bells to be hung.  In the interval, we had the 1935 Vestry at the school.  This was packed from floor to ceiling; the only time in my life I have seen a full house at the Vestry.  It was commonly said that the reason was to ensure the right people being elected to the PCC so that Miss Hughes should have her bells.  The village as a whole was very much in her favour.

[On 7 July 1934, Thomas Bond & Son, Bellfounders, Burford, Oxon, had submitted an estimate for the entire job; “to supply 2 new treble bells to complete the octave, all wheels, headstocks, etc, extra framework, and labour”, at £105].

[On 3 March 1935 a notice of intent was affixed to the church door 30mins prior to Divine service and remained in place throughout].

To cut a long story short, the bells [cast by Mr Bond of Burford] were hung and they were dedicated on October 17th 1935 by the Archdeacon of Gloucester, Mr Hodson, who afterwards was made Bishop of Tewkesbury.

The village was now rather concerned as to what Captain Walker’s reactions would be as it was he who some years before had had the tower repaired and the existing six bells rehung, and it was generally thought that he did not like the idea of having these other two bells put beside his.  A little judicious talking on my part and of that of my aunt Miss Evans, who then lived with me, put matters right”.

Photo of the bells donated by Esther Hughes.  Tess gave 2 bells so it is confusing why there is 3 in the photo.  Perhaps the centre bell was just there to add to the photo by showing the interior of a similar example.

[One of Tess Hughes’ bells.  Aug 2023]

Tess Hughes’ bells were inscribed to the memory of her father and brother but it is dark and dusty in the tower and the angle that the bells hang is such that I can’t read the full inscription.  “Bond of Burford Oxon 1935” can be read around the top of the bell and also “Gift of Esther Hughes in memory of her father John Hughes and her brothers David, John, Henry and William”.  The one bell weighs 3.75cwt, nominal 1438.5, 27ins diameter, in F# and the second weighs 4cwt, nominal 1391, 27.5ins diameter, in E#.

Henry Bond was a bell founder who had a foundry at Westcot from 1851 to 1861, then moving it to Burford where he continued until 1905 when it was taken on by Thomas Bond who was here till 1947 and must have made Tess’ bells.

The Old Bell Foundry at Witney Street, Burford, where Tess Hughes’ bells would have been cast and more recently after renovation.

In the afternoon of 12 May 1937, the village bellringers rang a special coronation peal at St Mary’s to mark the coronation of King George VI and Queen Elizabeth.

The bells and their fixtures are no longer in the best of condition but in 2023 a project was begun to rectify this.  Details can be found at

NB.  The weight of the bells seems to vary slightly in different sources.