The town of Towcester is one of the oldest settlements in Northampton,
having been an important Roman fortified town along the Watling Street.
The church of St Lawrence is built of the local dark-brown ironstone and
dates mainly from the 14th Century; the tower was the last addition, being
completed in 1485.
From early times there have been bells in Towcester's substantial tower,
though there is no description of the four bells that hung in the tower
prior to 1626 when James Keene of Woodstock installed a new ring of five,
with a tenor of about 17cwt in E. Northamptonshire was a very early centre
of change-ringing, as witnessed by the many rings of five it posesses
from such times. Towcester became a six in 1725, and then progress halted.
The bells were rehung in situ at the top of the tower by John Over of
Rugby in 1805, reusing materials from a previous frame, and the tenor
was recast by William Taylor (then of Oxford) in 1830. As an intersting
aside, it seems that Mr Taylor came back with more than he had bargained
from the Towcester contract, for he married a local girl from the neighbouring
village of Abthorpe at about the same time!
Nothing more was done to the bells until the beginning of the 20th Century.
The first peal had been rung here in 1912, and soon afterwards it was
apparent that the frame and fittings were reaching the end of their useful
life. It was Gillett and Johnston who were brought in to inspect the bells.
They had recently completed two jobs in the area (the sixes at Pattishall
and Cold Higham), and the Rector of Cold Higham (who was also the local
branch Chairman) would appear to have acted as an agent for them: Gilletts
promptly condemmed the frame and fittings - and added that the bells should
not be rung as the tower was unsafe! Whether or not this was a ploy to
force the Parish into action is open to speculation. It certainly did
not work: the bells were silenced for nearly 10 years and when interest
was revived in 1935, it was Mears & Stainbank who were invited to
inspect the installation. They simply carried out some remedial work,
recast the treble, replaced the tenor headstock, rehung the bells on ball-bearings,
and retuned the bells; the tenor turned the scales at 14-0-10 in E. They
also gave the tower a clean bill of health, but noted that the frame ideally
needed replacing within a few years.
It was not to be until 1989 that this was reality. Following a period
of silence, a new band had formed in the early 1980s, and quickly progressing
through method ringing, it became clear that not only did the bells require
major attention, but that augmentation was desirable. The existing bells,
though not unpleasant, could hardly be described as a fine toned ring,
nor were befitting of the tower: internally the tower measures 17'6"
square, and is solid from the ground upwards. A better solution ought
to be found.
During the late 1980s, several large rings of bells became redundant.
After a period of fruitless searching, the news came that the fine vintage
Taylor eight from Christ Church, Todmorden, high up in the Pennines, would
become available. The Victorian Christ Church was to close and the parish
was to return to the smaller and older St Mary's church in the town centre.
An elaborate scheme was devised which entailed the bells being bought
from Todmorden in exchange for a new light ring of six to be installed
in St Mary's. Local ringers made this ring up to eight; the Towcester
ringers undertook to remove the bells and build and install a new frame
for the new eight from the H-frame at Christ Church. This phase of the
scheme came to fruition in the autumn of 1989; the Towcester installation
work began immediately afterwards, and the new Towcester frame was built
over the Christmas of 1989 and installed in the early part of 1990.
The augmentation to twelve was almost an accident. A ring of ten was
planned, to be housed in a twelve-bell frame. However, the ring from Christ
Church came with extra chiming bells, one of which would be the second
of a ten. Two donors were already in place, thus eleven bells would be
returned. Another donor came forward and the twelve were set to be complete.
Attention then turned to the extra chiming bell. It had been cast to Taylor's
"B Gauges", which are long-waisted chiming profiles. Though
the bell was tonally fine, the different geometry would cause a difference
in handling characteristics that would alays make the bell more difficult
to ring as part of the instrument. Fortunately another donor came forward
to pay for the recasting of this bell, thus four trebles were cast.
The twelve were created in close conjunction with the founders. The internal
accoustics were carefully planned - all flooring is made from loose-fitted
NON-tounge-and-grooved timber, and the bells have been hung lower in the
tower to provide a large accoustic "box" in which they can resonate.
The new trebles were cast to match the 1897 Taylor back eight, and many
will agree that they form one of the finest instruments in terms of clarity
of sound, ease of ringing and all-round tone.
For a small town, the band may be viewed as something of a miracle. Ever
since the installation, and to this day, the Towcester band has taught
and developed a Surprise Maximus band that now achieves methods such as
Bristol and Ariel Surprise Maximus with ringers who live within the town,
many of whom learned to handle a bell at Towcester. The message should
be one of encouragement: by setting out a stall to teach people to ring
on twelve from the outset, many perceived difficulties with twelve-bell
ringing are bypassed. Indeed, if a town with 5,000 inhabitants can sustain
such a band, this should instill confidence in other towers in larger
towns to build twelve-bell bands.