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03 December 2018

The Bells of St Nicolas Church Portslade

Judy Middleton & D. Sharp 2018

 copyright © D. Sharp
St Nicolas Church, South Street, Portslade

Besides the Church of St Nicolas itself, the venerable bells must be the most ancient artefacts still extant in Portslade today. The earliest bell was cast before 1529, created by London bell-founder Thomas Lawrence; the second oldest bell is inscribed Edmund Giles belfounder 1613 Thomas Luce warden. Giles was a Sussex bell-founder and it was perhaps the last bell he worked on because he died in 1614. The third bell is inscribed Bryan and William Eldridge made mee 1661 RBIS – the men being brothers and bell-founders of Chertsey.

While the bells are still sound, the same cannot be said for the corroded iron work which attaches the bells to the carved and moulded wooden frame that contains them. Indeed, in the 1980s it was deemed prudent to install four old railway sleepers underneath to prevent them from falling out of the tower. In 1986 it was estimated that to restore the bells and organ would cost around £27,500. Thus there has been no peal of bells since then, much to the regret of parishioners – it was lovely to hear the bells ringing out on a Sunday, or after a wedding.

In 2014 a second quote for restoration of the bells only was obtained, which was in the region of £10,000.

In October 2018 one of the congregation of St Nicolas had the inspiration of going up into the tower to check on the bells, after reading an article that all churches in the UK would ring their bells in the morning and at 7.05 p.m. on the forthcoming special Armistice Day of 11 November 2018. On investigating the three bells he found they could easily be ‘clocked’ (pulling the clapper with a rope) for the special commemoration of the ending of the Great War 1914-18.

copyright © J.Middleton
Local uniformed groups marching up Locks Hill to Easthill Park to the sound of St Nicolas' tolling bell

On Armistice Day, the large St Nicolas tenor bell was tolled as the procession of Portslade Royal British Legion, 176 (Hove) Squadron Air Training Corps, Scouting Association and members of the public marched from St Nicolas CE School in Locks Hill to Easthill Park. After the service was over in Easthill Park, a trio of men from St Nicolas Church congregation rang all three bells in various combinations. Many people commented on how delighted they were to hear the bells again (the first time since the early 1980s) and at once a bell restoration campaign was set up to try and raise enough money so that the bells could be rung again in the time-honoured manner. (Please see the Bell Fundraising Appeal Notice at the end of this article)

On the evening of 11 November, the intrepid trio did a repeat performance with the three bells, starting at 7.05 p.m. and lasting for 20 minutes, along with countless bells ringing out across the entire kingdom.

The History of St Nicolas’ Bells

No.1 Bell

 copyright © D. Sharp
Two views of  Edmund Giles 1613 bell

This bell, a treble measuring 30 inches (76 cm) and weighs 5 cwt (254 kg) the bell’s inscription reads, Edmund Giles belfounder 1613 Thomas Luce Warden. Edmund Giles was a Sussex bell-founder who ran his business from premises within the parish of St Michael, Lewes.

This must have been one of the last bells he made because he was buried on 27th February 1614. It is probable that Giles did other founding work too because only twenty-one of his bells are known, which would not have been a great output; and at Portslade the bell is marked with the insignia of iron-founding such as pincers, horse-shoe, axe-head and hammer.
No.2 Bell

 copyright © D. Sharp
Two views of the Thomas Lawrence 1529 bell

This bell measures 32.5 inches (83 cm) and weighs 6.5 cwt (330 kg)

This is the earliest of the three bells and by far the most interesting being a Pre-Reformation bell cast before 1529. Thomas Lawrence, a London bell-founder made it and eleven of his bells are known. The bell is inscribed STOPN, which stands for ‘Sancte Thoma Ora Pro Nobis’. The bell is also inscribed with a rosette, fleur-de-lys and a gridiron, the latter being a personal trademark because of St Lawrence’s martyrdom on a gridiron. This bell is dedicated to St Thomas a' Becket with its inscription - STOPN - ‘Saint Thomas Pray For Us’.

Henry VIII's proclamation of 1538 ordered the obliteration of St Thomas a' Becket’s name and image from liturgical books and all ecclesiastical buildings, St Nicolas’ bell somehow escaped destruction. Locally in the church of St Peter, Preston (Brighton) there is a wall painting depicting Becket’s murder and it is considered to be one of the earliest representations of the saint which also survived Henry VIII’s attempted purge of the saint from English history.

Interestingly the Church of St Bartholomew, Burstow (London) was on the pilgrimage route to the shrine of St Thomas of Canterbury, and like St Nicolas was under the patronage of the Priory of St Pancras Lewes and also has a bell with the inscription Sancte Thoma Ora Pro Nobis.

There are only three other examples of pre-Reformation 'Sancte Thoma Ora Pro Nobis' bells in Sussex apart from Portslade, which are at Brede, Clayton and Fittleworth.

St Nicolas Church Portslade is on the ancient Roman Road 'Portus Ladus' (the way of the port) which ran from Clayton (like Portslade, also has a ‘St Thomas bell’ and under the patronage of St Pancras) to the Portslade/Southwick coastal area, the entry to Shoreham Harbour in medieval times. This ancient road and port was one of the many entry harbours for pilgrims on their way to Canterbury. This 'Ports Road' connected to the pilgrims road on the Downs to Canterbury.

In August 2018 new research carried out on the 14th century Gough Map held at the Bodleian Library has revealed a forgotten ancient pilgrimage route -‘The Old Way’, passing 2 miles north of St Nicolas Church from where its Tower can be seen. The route wends its way through Sussex to Canterbury from Southampton. This route passes by Clayton, to which Portslade was connected by the ‘Ports Road’. It is not unreasonable to surmise that pilgrims passed by St Nicolas from the coast to connect to the Gough’s pilgrimage route which would have taken the pilgrims onto St Pancras Lewes, a stopping point on their way to the St Thomas’ shrine at Canterbury.

In Chaucer's Canterbury Tales it is mentioned that small 'St Thomas bells' are hung around the neck to prove a pilgrim has visited St Thomas' shrine.

The St Nicolas' No.1 bell (treble) and No.2 bell are listed for preservation by the Church Buildings Council.

No.3 Bell

 copyright © D. Sharp
Two views of the Bryan and William Eldridge 1661 bell
This bell, a tenor, measures 35 inches (89 cm) and weighs 8 cwt (406 kg) and is inscribed Bryan and William Eldridge made mee 1661 RBIS – the men being brothers and bell-founders of Chertsey.

Wooden Framework

 copyright © D. Sharp
This is a substantial structure of oak (‘Pickford’ type 6A) and probably late 18c or early 19c, 
Bell numbers 1 and 2 are shown in this photograph

The bells are hung from elm headstocks with driven in gudgeons running in plain bearings. The bells are hung from the headstocks by iron straps with securing ties on keys. The straps on the treble and tenor are probably 17c with iron wedges through an eye in the top of the strap to tighten and support the bell. The second bell appears to have a newer headstock with fairly primitive threaded ends to the straps and securing nuts, possibly fitted in 1856 when the ‘new’ wheels were made.

 copyright © D. Sharp
Bell Numbers 2 and 3 are shown in this photograph 


Daniel-Tyssen A, The Church Bells Of Sussex (1864)

Elphick, G.P, Sussex Bells and Belfries (1970)

Rix, G.C, Report for Chichester DAC (2014)

Shields G, The Roman roads of the Portslade/Aldrington area in relation to a possible Roman port at Copperas Gap (2005)

The British Pilgrimage Trust ‘The Old Way’

The Parish of Portslade & Mile Oak

The Sussex Archaeological Collection

Walters H.B, The Church Bells of England (1912)

See also the History of St Nicolas Church Portslade


A Notice from The Parish of Portslade and Mile Oak:-

We are currently raising funds to be able to 1) restore and repair the bells, 2) to make all three bells sound again with the attachment of an electronic chiming device to all three bells.

We hope to start the work in early 2019, but we require £10,000 to fund the project.

As mentioned previously we are now fundraising to get this work completed. We would therefore be very grateful for your support of whatever donation you feel appropriate.

There are many ways in which you can donate to the restoration and reordering of the Church of St Nicolas and in particular the Bells Project.

You can write a cheque made payable to: “The Development of St Nicolas, Portslade”
and send to The Revd David Swyer, The Parish Centre, South Street, Portslade, East Sussex BN41 2LE
via BACS to Sort Code 20-88-13 Account Number 33146693
The Development of St Nicolas, Portslade
(please use ‘Bells’ as your reference in BACS payment)

There is a facebook - Fundraisers- St Nicolas Bell Restoration page for further information on donating to this project through facebook.

and also the Parish of Portslade & Mile Oak facebook page for news of forthcoming events etc

and lastly  The Parish of Portslade & Mile Oak website

or email the above address for further information.

Thank You.

Copyright © J.Middleton 2018 
page layout by D. Sharp