03 December 2018

The Bells of St Nicolas Church Portslade (Restoration)

D. Sharp & Judy Middleton 2018 (revised 2023)

 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 2018, 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.


On the evening of 11 November 2018, 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.

copyright © M. Reeve
From left to right - D. Sharp, R. Reeve & M. Reeve, ringing St Nicolas' bells on the 11 November 2018.

On the 16 April 2019 the Archbishops of Canterbury & York and Prime Minister Theresa May asked for bells at churches and cathedrals across the UK to ring out on Maundy Thursday (18 April) at 7pm, as a mark of solidarity with the people of France following the devastating fire at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. The bells of St Nicolas Portslade were once again rung out to meet this special request (Church bells are not usually rung in Holy Week on Maundy Thursday until the Gloria in the first Mass of Easter during the Easter Saturday Vigil)

The History of St Nicolas’ Bells

No.1 Bell (
Edmund Giles 1613)

 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 (A rare example in England, of a pre-1529 bell dedicated to St Thomas a' Becket to have survived the Reformation)

 copyright © D. Sharp
Two views of the Thomas Lawrence pre-1529 bell, dedicated to St Thomas a' Becket 

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 (Surrey) 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.

copyright © D. Sharp
  The forgotten ancient pilgrimage route -‘The Old Way’, passing 2 miles north of Portslade from which both St Nicolas Church and Portslade’s Norman Manor would have clearly been seen and served as landmarks on the route.
These two prominent 'landmarks' would have drawn pilgrims into Portslade's village looking for overnight accommodation. The pilgrims route wends its way through Sussex from Southampton to St Thomas’ shrine at Canterbury. This view is looking west towards Shoreham Harbour, it is still possible to see the tower of St Nicolas (Patron Saint of Sailors) from Shoreham Beach's Victorian Fort today, the Norman Manor House with its original high appex roof would also have been easily seen from the harbour in medieval times, an entry point into the country for pilgrims en route to 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 (Bryan and William Eldridge 1661)

 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 2 and 1 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 3 and 2 are shown in this photograph 

Bells Update

When you think about it, and leaving aside music, church bells are a precious link to the distant past. We can read about historical events, but we cannot hear the people’s voices, and bells are for everyone, providing a link of continuity to our ancestors. They can signal any mood you like – joy, sorrow, dignity, and remembrance. A peel rings out for a wedding, a single tolling bell marks Remembrance Sunday.

At Portslade, when one of the inhabitants died in the past, the church bell would toll, and thus sent a message that everyone understood to those working on farms or fields. James Godsmark, who was born in Portslade, had a great regard for his sister Sarah. She tried valiantly to try and keep him on the straight and narrow, but the unfortunate girl was sent home from school to die (probably of tuberculosis). She died in March 1825, and James wrote ‘when the village bell tolled her departure to another world, I felt deeply impressed.’

During the Second World War, church bells were going to ring out to warn the populace of an imminent German invasion – an early-warning system if you like. Of course, when the war ended, the bells could peel with joy.

Some Notable Bell-ringing Occasions

The year 2018 marked the centenary of when the First World ended. The guns fell silent on 11 November 1918, and that is why 11 November was chosen to commemorate the event. It was not just St Nicolas ringing its bells – it was a national event co-ordinated under the banner Armistice100. It was an inspirational idea to have bells all across the country ringing at the same time.

Since 2018 the bells at St Nicolas have celebrated Christmas Day and Easter Day, while a single bell tolls for Remembrance Sunday. This practice carried on during pandemic limitations because there could be the correct social distancing.

Since then the tolling bell has worked overtime because of the deaths of the Duke of Edinburgh in 2017, and Queen Elizabeth in 2022; the number of tolls corresponded to the number of years lived, and so there were 99 for the Duke and 96 for the Queen.

Cause for Concern

People have a mental picture of bell-ringers pulling on a rope at ground level in order for the bell to ring far above. But those days are long gone at St Nicolas. While the ancient bells are sound enough, the wooden bell frame, which enabled the bells to swing 360 degrees, has been condemned as unsafe, and indeed continuing use might damage the tower – that certainly would be an issue.

Indeed, in the 1980s there was concern that some of the equipment might make a sudden descent into the church below. It does not bear thinking about. Three church members – Jim and Phil Godfrey, and D. Sharp – set about cutting up old railway sleepers, and laying the parts across the floor underneath the bell frame to forestall such a calamity.

In recent times in order to make the bells sound, three valiant men, R. Reeve, M. Reeve and D. Sharp, climb uncomfortably upwards, having first put on ear defenders, to within 3-ft of the bells. The clapper is then pulled against the bell using a rope, and a 6-bell change can thus be achieved.

The way forward, however unromantic, is electronic. Of course the bell frame could be restored to its original glory but it would cost three times as much as the simpler, and less expensive, course chosen. There will be three electric motors to operate the clappers without anybody being up aloft to supervise. You could initiate a 6-change by merely pushing a button.

December 2022

Anything to do with repair or restoration work on ancient churches is fraught with hurdles. It is only right and proper that due care is taken, but it can be frustrating for those eager to get on with things. For example, a faculty must be applied for, and this can take ages, then there is finding a firm able to undertake the work, various meetings, endless fund-raising – the list goes on.

At last came the welcome news that John Taylor & Co. Foundry had been given the contract to go ahead with the works, hopefully starting in August 2023. The total cost comes to an eye-watering £13,886. Fortunately, a long-standing parishioner paid the deposit of £4,164.

People have rallied around by collecting their loose change in small jam pots to go towards the Bell Fund. It may not produce sums in the grand scale of things, but it is a gratifying way to help. Unfortunately, there are less glamorous bills to be met – like the fees due to the architect and electricians.

At present the Bell Fund stands at £12,436, which is a marvellous feat when you consider that Portslade is not exactly heaving with wealthy patrons. It is more a case of the widow’s mite.

May 2023


The Central Council of Church Bell Ringers
' Coronation Certificate:-


Sources

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

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