Diocesan bells advice out-of-tune with court

The tuning of church bells arouses almost as many emotions as a boundary dispute, and has added complications: technical issues regarding their acoustics; an often subjective assessment of the sounds produced; and the concerns of the ringers themselves regarding the ease with which a bell may be rung.  Complaints over alleged nuisance are another issue, although  these are generally dealt with by the secular courts or the local authority environmental officers.

The short judgment in Re St Michael Michaelchurch Escley [2014] Hereford Cons Ct, Mark Ockelton Dep Ch is a further consideration of the direction given by the Chancellor and an admonishment of the Diocesan Advisory Committee for its approach to the issue:

“I considered this Petition in January and directed that a Faculty issue for the work proposed, with the exception of tuning of the bells, which although proposed by the founder had not been considered by the DAC. For some reason not entirely clear to me, my decision was interpreted as a request for further information. The DAC now say that they recommend tuning ‘to improve the musical relationship’ of the bells as indicated by the founder, and the DBA says that he has no objection. I find it a little troubling that the DAC, having originally ignored the issue, proceeds simply on the basis that if an old thing can be ‘improved’ by being modernized, it should be: but as I am evidently asked to do so I have considered the matter again, in the light of the DAC’s comments, the DBA’s analysis, the bellfounder’s report, and other material available to me.”


There are similarities with the earlier case Re St Michael, Cornhill, [2010] London Cons Ct Seed Ch which also addressed the retuning of a ring of historic bells dating from 1728, (Doves Guide indicates that the Escley Bells are from 1732 [1]).  However, in this case only three of the original bells from that date remained and the majority had been recast in 1960, some as recently as 1968, albeit all at the same bellfounders, the Whitechapel Bell Foundry. Nevertheless, the arguments between “old” and “new” tuning were the same, and were summarized by Chancellor Seed QC, [at paragraph 15(a)] as follows:

 “… prior to a form of tuning advocated by Canon Simpson in the late nineteenth/early twentieth century, bells were cast to strike a true note of good tone without any great concern as to whether the subsidiary notes were in tune with each other or the strike note, or necessarily to any exacting degree, with other bells in the ring. Where [this] “new style” is concerned with harmonic accuracy [there] appears to be no precise agreement about how “old style” tuning is defined, other than that the bells have not been tuned in accordance with true harmonic tuning as was advocated by Canon Simpson. It appears that old style tuning is rather like describing an elephant – you know it when you hear it.”

Judgment in the instant case

The Deputy Chancellor outlined his reasoning for excluding the work relating to the re-tuning of the entire ring of bells in the current petition:

“1. Tuning bells is irreversible. In the case of a complete ring by a single founder as yet untuned, the tuning destroys an artefact: that is to say the original sound of the bells. We do not have many sounds preserved from before the days of sound recordings and those that survive are a valuable part of our heritage. At Michealchurch Escley the ring appears to be untouched, save for the loss of the canons on the third [2] and the crack in the tenor. The former makes no difference to the sound of the bells and the latter is to be repaired by welding, which again will not materially alter the original sound. If the bells are then restored for ringing the sound they make will be the same as when they were installed in 1732. That is something to be valued and (subject to what is said in paragraph 3 below) to be proud of.

2. Tuning is also a matter of taste and fashion. The present conventions of tuning in general depend on our views as to temperament; and the present conventions of the tuning of individual bells derive from work done in the period after about 1890. There is no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’: that is why the bellfounder’s figures are merely a comparison with ‘modern harmonically tuned bells’, not with anything said to be ‘correct’. And it is to be noted that what the bellfounder says is that the tuning is ‘distinctly old style’, that is not necessarily a criticism.

3. I would certainly not rule out tuning if a case were made out, particularly if it were shown that the bells sounded so bad that the mission of the Church was affected (including if there were a disinclination for ringers to want to ring them), or a feeling that they let the church down in some way. But there is no suggestion of that here. Indeed it is not apparent whether the parish even realise that they have an early-eighteenth century sound that they propose to destroy.”


Whilst presented by the media as the refusal of a bid to re-tune 18th Century church bells in order to preserve their ‘heritage’, paragraphs 5 and 6 suggest that the decision is more nuanced, [underlining in original]

“5.  … all that is really being said is that the bellfounder can modernise the sound; although it is not said that there is anything horrible about the historic sound the bells currently have.

6. Because it is irreversible, tuning of a complete old ring is a serious matter, not merely to be accepted ‘on the nod’ … Where a good case is made there may need to be a balance struck between the asserted needs of the present and the desirability of preserving the past. But where no case is made at all, there can be no reason to destroy the heritage.”

The position therefore appears to be this: no evidence to support the retuning of the bells was presented to the court since this was not part of the petition; the court considers retuning is an important issue; and it cannot make a decision on such an issue when no evidence has been presented.  The court’s approach to the tuning of bells is consistent with the Code of Practice drawn up by the Council for the Care of Churches, (now the Church Buildings Council), and the English Heritage Guidelines for Consultation. The latter indicates that English Heritage will start from a presumption in favour of the retention of historic bells and bell frames, preferably in use, and the CoP’s Statement of principles: historic bells, bellframes, and fittings indicates inter alia:

“Each case should be decided on its merits, without inflexible rules or standard specifications but being guided by the principles in this Code”


Continuity in use is desirable: unnecessary replacement or alteration of historic bells and bellframes should be avoided. This minimum alteration philosophy should also apply to the treatment of earlier repairs and alterations. Wherever possible there should be a presumption in favour of their retention but if, after a full assessment, major replacement and alteration appear inevitable, then in such cases consideration must be given to preservation, in situ or elsewhere.


With historic bells, the presumption should be to leave as found. Any proposal to make alterations, such as the removal of canons and argent, changing the hanging method, tuning, or the drilling of holes, should be justified, particularly if in conflict with any of the criteria given in this Code, as reversibility is rarely possible.”

With regard to bells worthy of preservation, the Code notes the importance of complete rings of bells by one founder.  Should the Petitioners wish to pursue the matter and apply for it to be decided after an oral hearing, it is likely that this will attract much attention from the ringing community: twenty individuals and groups registered objections in Re St Michael, Cornhill, above.

We will follow reaction to the present judgement in The Ringing World and elsewhere, with interest.


[1] The entry for the Escley bells in Dove’s Guide for Church Bellringers indicates that two of the Rudhall Foundry bells have been turned, [note: not tuned, but returned to the foundry so that they could be physically turned to avoid the clapper striking a worn area, in order to avoid cracking].

[2] The purpose of the canons cast on the bell heads is to suspend them from their headstocks by means of strap fixings.  Modern practice is to either remove canons (if the bell is not of a great antiquity) or in the case of a new bell cast it with a flat head that is machined and drilled for independent bolt fixings, which are stronger and firmer than traditional straps.

6 thoughts on “Diocesan bells advice out-of-tune with court

  1. “The present conventions of tuning in general depend on our views as to temperament; and the present conventions of the tuning of individual bells derive from work done in the period after about 1890. There is no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’”.

    Though certainly not an inaccurate statement of the position, I thought this was a slightly odd feature of the judgment. The purpose of temperament is to dispose of the Pythagorean comma in the most acceptable way in order to enable one to play chords on a keyboard instrument without producing offensively ill-tuned intervals – particularly major thirds. However, string players (for example) tend to sharpen the leading-note slightly in an ascending scale and flatten it slightly in a descending one because the scale sounds better in tune that way.

    Since one doesn’t ring chords on tower bells, it’s difficult to see in what way temperament is relevant: the issue of tuning tower bells is surely about the tuning of the harmonics of the individual bells, not about how they might sound when rung in major thirds!

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