Five Hundred Years of Church Bells in Ermington

During the thirteenth and fourteenth century there was a great surge in bell founding and also in bell tower building to churches throughout Devon. St Peter & St Paul, Ermington is amongst a group of churches in the South Hams which built towers with broach spires to house their new church bells. The era also saw the first bell foundry built in Exeter and at the time most of Devon’s church bells were cast either there, or in Lezant or Stoke Climsland in Cornwall.

Bells have been rung in St Peter & St Paul, Ermington for nearly half a millennium. We know this for certain, as four bells are listed in the church inventory of 1553. Although these bells have since gone, the current ring of six bells also has an historical value and they are also part of Ermington’s heritage. The bells are installed over two stages in the bell chamber, which sits at the top of the west tower. The 3rd, 5th and tenor bell are all dated 1748 and are all attributed to Christopher III and John III Pennington of Lezant and Exeter. The 4th bell is dated 1799 and is attributed to Thomas Bilbie III of Cullompton. By 1600 medals were being used for bell decoration. One of Ermington’s bells has a medal commemorating Admiral Vernon’s capture of Portobello in 1747.

Around the figure of the Admiral is the inscription ‘The British Glory restor’d by Admiral Vernon’. In addition to having a church bell dedicated to him, Admiral Vernon was nicknamed “Old Grog” and also had the Navy’s “grog” (or watered down rum) named after him.

The remaining two bells date from the Victorian era. The treble bell dates from 1889 and is attributed to Llewellins & James of Bristol. This date coincides with the refurbishment and reordering of the church by the Victorian architect JD Sedding, when Violet Pinwill was also just embarking on her wood carving career in the church. Finally, the second bell dates from 1904 and is attributed to Mears and Stainwick of Whitechapel.

Full details of all the bells are set out in the table below:

By 1963 the bells, which were relatively heavy for the tower, had become un-ringable and were rehung on a two tier cast iron “H” & low side frame by John Taylor & Co of Loughborough. Now that the bell frame is over fifty years old, it is starting to show signs of corrosion and it needs cleaning and repainting. The overall cost of the works is approximately £10,000. The Church has been advised by the Devon Church Bell Restoration Fund that if the bell frame is not restored within the next few years the bell frame will corrode beyond the point of repair. At that point the bell frame would have to be completely replaced, which would involve the whole bell installation being removed from the tower.

The scope of work required is as follows:

  • Dismantle the fittings, but not the bell frame, to allow the best possible access.

  • Chip back the material of the wall around the foundation joists where they enter the tower walls. Clean back all corrosion discovered to the joists and carefully inspect all, reporting to the parish any problems discovered.

  • Thoroughly clean down and descale all the ironwork to the bell frame and ringing fittings. Prime all with Rustoleum primer and paint all with two coats of top-quality enamel.

  • Where parts of the steel foundation grillage cannot be accessed for cleaning and painting, spray with Waxoyl.

  • Reassemble the dismantled parts of the fittings.

  • Point up and build back into the walls those areas around the foundation joists which were cut back for inspection, ensuring that no air gaps are left.

  • Clear all dust and rubbish from the bell chamber, finishing off with a vacuum cleaner.

Ermington Parochial Church Council is starting to raise monies and apply for grants for these essential restoration works to the bell frame. 2053 will be the 500th anniversary of bell ringing in Ermington and it would be some achievement if the Parish could give the bells the care and attention they need now, so they will be in good shape for this historic anniversary and for the future generations in Ermington.

Ref: Scott J, Mack F, Clarke J, Towers & Bells of Devon, Mint Press & Devon County Council (2007)


Many thanks to Grant Elliott RIBA, who has provided the excellent blog article above. Grant is a Chartered Architect, Associate at LHC Design

Grant is admitted on the RIBA Conservation Register and is an Inspector authorised to carry out Quinquennial Inspections by the Diocese of Exeter and the Diocese of Bath & Wells

Grant is also a member of the pool of volunteer experts on The Design Review Panel, attending Design Review Panels across the South West; in Cornwall, Devon (both Plymouth & Exeter), Somerset, Dorset, Wiltshire and Swindon.

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