The Bells of St Peter’s Church
Martley has a historic ring of bells, reputed to be the oldest ‘maiden ring’ in the country and therefore probably in the world. St. Peter’s Church, Martley, was one of the first churches in the county to have as many as six bells. Apart from Worcester Cathedral and the monastic churches at Evesham, Malvern and Pershore, few churches possessed more than three or four bells at the beginning of the eighteenth century. There is no record of the bells that were in the tower before 1674, but in 1673 a completely new ring of six bells was made. It is believed that Martley church had five bells before 1673 and it is possible these were melted done to make the new ones. This was possibly done for ‘one upmanship’ on other local villages like Clifton and Shelsley whose bells were supplemented from five to six at later dates.
The peal of six bells at St. Swithun’s Church in Worcester was completed in 1654 by the addition of three new bells to the three ancient bells that had hung in the tower since about 1400. The St. Swithun’s bells remain a mixture of Mediaeval and 17th century bells but Martley takes pride of place as the oldest set of bells, cast together as a ring, in the county. Of the ten churches that are known to have had six bells in 1700, only the Martley bells remain as they were cast. The 1676 peal at Grafton Flyford is no longer complete; one bell having been stolen in about 1830 and recasting of various bells has taken place at Ombersley (1682), Kempsey and Oldswinford (1686), and Hanley Castle (1699). The 1690 six at Bishampton had one bell recast in 1705 and has remained untouched since then, and, although Elmley Lovett retains the six bells cast in 1696/7 one of them is now cracked.
The Martley bells were all cast at the same time, some say in the church, but more likely outside. They were cast by Richard Keane, who was known to the rector of the time, and who had just moved to Martley from Woodstock in Oxfordshire. Keane was given the job despite the fact that there was a bellfoundry in Worcester run by John Martin. No-one knows why Keane was selcted: it may be because he was cheaper, Keane bells are certainly less ornate; it may be because the new rector was a sponsor of Keane.
Martin had started his business, in 1644 and by 1673 was at the height of his career. He had made peals of five bells for Crowle in 1667 and for Clun and Clifton-on-Teme in 1668 and it is surprising that he was not chosen to perform the work at Martley. Perhaps the Rector and Wardens had been able to hear some of Keene’s bells and had formed a better opinion of them than of Martin’s products. There is little doubt that they made a wise choice! Keene is known to have been friendly with two early exponents of the art of change-ringing, Fabian Stedman and Richard Duckworth, and for this reason may have advised a ring of six in preference to the more normal ring of five. It would be interesting to know whether the casting of the six bells for Grafton Flyford in 1676 was in any way an attempt by Martin to produce something bigger and better than his rivals work. He proudly inscribed the fourth bell of his ring “WE WISH IN HEVEN THEER SOVILS MAY SING THAT GAVST VS SIX HERE FOR TO RING”.
Richard Keene was an itinerant founder who set up foundries in various parts of the country at different stages of his career and the bells for Martley would have been cast locally. Keene would have begun by taking down the old bells from the tower and breaking them up in order to reuse the metal. Bell metal was a heavy and valuable commodity and it is unlikely that very much extra metal would have been added. A furnace was set up on a piece of ground near the tower and pits were dug for the casting of the new bells. A new bellcage was constructed in the tower and the bells hung in it ready for ringing. The names of the 1673 Churchwardens, William Browning and John Gyles, were inscribed on the tenor bell and number five bears the legend “RICH KEENE CAST THIS RINGE 1673″. The bells are a ‘Maiden Ring” that is a ring of bells that came from their moulds sounding the correct notes and thus needing no tuning. The tenor bell weighs 14 cwt. and sounds E natural, a surprisingly deep note for such a weight.
In 1894 the bells were rehung on the old frame by Messrs Blackbourn of Salisbury and since that time no major work on the bells has been undertaken.
There also hangs in the tower a small bell inscribed:
“I0S : BRACE : THO :ANDREWS : CHVRCHWARDENS . 1721 :B :GREEN :FECIT”
This bell is the only known example of the work of B. Green and was possibly a recasting of an older sanctus bell.
Martley’s is the only set of Keane bells still in existence !! .
There are individual bells in various churches but many developed cracks and were melted down.
MSH June 2011