For one-hundred and ten years the Bells of St. James, Stratford’s only chime of tower bells, have pealed from the tower of St. James’ Anglican Church. The bells have presided over countless weddings and funerals, joyous occasions and somber occasions, civic events and church services; punctuating through the decades life’s memorable moments with their strident peals and solemn tolling.
The story of the Bells dates back to 1870, when the handsome Gothic outline of the new church building rose on the hill. Unable to complete the planned tower at that time the parishioners of the day allowed for at least the base of a square tower to be built at the south-west corner of the new church. The tower proponents had to bide their time, for it would be almost 40 years before the tower could be completed.
In 1906, however, local philanthropist William Battershall died, leaving $500 towards the purchase of a chime of bells. This sparked the completion of the tower by September of 1909 and a chime of eleven bells, complete with a tower clock, was installed. On Sunday September 26th, 1909 the Bishop of Huron, David Williams, dedicated them. He observed in his sermon: “The tower will remain a silent beauty…forever a silent unchanging joy. But the bells are different: they will compel your attention; they will not allow you to pass them; they will ring with you in sorrow and in joy.”
The St. James’ Church bell chime of 11 bells was cast in 1909 by the Meneely & Company Bell Foundry in West Troy, New York. The Meneely foundry was considered to be “the Tiffany” of the bell trade, installing 179 chimes in the 19th and 20th centuries. A chime of bells is a North American phenomenon; by definition a chime usually consists of between 8 and 22 cast bronze bells hung dead and played from a standup console or “pump-handle chimestand”. Our chimestand is built of quarter-sawn oak and in its original configuration was connected to the inside bell clappers by a transmission of nickle-plated adjusting bars, wooden rods, leather straps and steel chain. When properly set up the handles required only a light push to ring a note, and moved through a 3 inch stroke before the clapper struck the bell’s sound-bow.
It was, and still is, possible to play changes at a sustained rate of 4 to 5 strokes per second, resulting in a good workout for the chimer! The direct linkage allowed the chimer to play with considerable expression and infinite control over the dynamics of the music. In 1909 eleven bells was the standard for a new chime, which allowed for a reasonable variety of music to be performed. The Meneely foundry considered that our chime was in the key of “E”; thus the notes available were: E, F#, G#, A, A#, B, C#, D, D# E and F#. All of the bells were “doubly-attuned” at the foundry on a vertical lathe by grinding the outer surfaces of each bell.
In 2007 a “Save The Bells” committee of clergy, wardens, parishioners & chimers was formed with the purpose of considering ways & means of restoring the chime, particularly the bell frame from which the bells hang. The century-old wooden frame had performed well, but it was determined upon inspection that there was considerable rot throughout the structure. Replacing the wood frame with a new steel frame seemed to be the only practical solution. Removing the bells to accomplish this would provide the opportunity to refurbish and tune them as well, thus improving their musicality. The addition of four new high bells, increasing the total to 15, would further enhance the chime’s capabilities.
A campaign to raise the estimated $200,000 needed was begun, and proved to be so successful that in January 2010 a contract was signed with Meeks, Watson & Co. of Georgetown, Ohio to perform the work. Meeks, Watson was eminently suitable for the task as they were the only North American firm equipped to cast new bells that would match the profiles of the existing Meneely bells, thus ensuring a consistent overall sound to the renovated chime.
At 2 pm, May 8, 2010, a cold, blustery spring day if there ever was one, one last hour long concert was played on the old 11 bell chime. At 3 pm the task of disassembling the chime was begun. On May 25/26 a crew from Meeks, Watson removed the chime with the help of a crane, leaving an empty belfry. Building what is virtually a brand new chime from scratch, retaining only the bell shells from the old chime, is an exacting and time consuming task, and it would be December before the chime would be ready to return to Stratford.
Monday, December 6, 2010 proved to be the day that winter came in earnest to South-Western Ontario. Two heavy pickup trucks towing trailers loaded with bells, bell-frame and everything else needed to assemble the chime left Georgetown, Ohio in good weather and arrived in Stratford in the early morning hours of Tuesday, having fought their way through heavy lake effect snow from Sarnia on. The reinstallation proceeded on schedule, with first the bell frame components, then the bells themselves being craned back into the belfry. By Sunday December 12 five bells were playable, enough to permit the Bells of St. James to help in the CBC reading of “A Christmas Carol”. The first two tunes played were the Westminster Quarters and Mary Had A Little Lamb; the latter for a young bell fan visiting during intermission! The installation was complete noontime Tuesday, December 14, and was celebrated by the playing of “O Canada”, “God Save the Queen” and “The Star Spangled Banner” by Richard Watson; the tunes in honour of the home country of the Bells and the country of their origin and restoration.
While the majority of the chime components have been replaced with modern hardware and materials, Meeks, Watson have successfully retained the 1909 “flavour” of the chime in its most visible component: the pump-handle chimestand. The appearance and feel of the original chimestand has been retained in spite of the addition of four new handles, ten new foot pedals and all new bearings and connections to the bells. George Money, our first chimer in 1909 would feel right at home playing it, even if he would probably be marvelling at all the extra bells!
Upstairs the big E. Howard & Co. tower clock ticks on, ringing the hours and quarter hours each day. It is powered by 948 lbs. of weights which descend in shafts to the bottom of the tower. Each evening a timed device stops the pendulum for exactly 12 hours, silencing the clock and bells for the night. The clock is still original and unmodified and is still hand-wound: a rarity in this automated, electronic age. Meeks & Watson have fabricated five new gravity bell hammers and have installed completely new connections between the clock and the bells. The St. James’ Tower Clock is presently the only such installation in Stratford that rings bells on the quarter-hours. The quarter hour chime notes have been moved a major fifth up the scale in the new setup to take advantage of the extended range of the 15 bell chime. In years past such tower clocks were known as “Everyman’s Watch” in an age when personal timepieces were an expensive rarity. Once again the quarter-hours are ringing melodiously over Stratford every 15 minutes; a pleasant background to a modern fast-paced world, and a reminder of a less hectic past.
Thanks to the financial generosity and encouragement of many people and charitable organizations, in both 1909 and 2009, the Bells of St. James continue their musical journey, intertwined with the life of the parish and the community. They peal and clamour joyously without discrimination from the belfry to the delight of church-goers and casual passers-by alike, continuing their role as ambassadors to the bustling modern world that surrounds the quiet dignity of St. James’ Anglican Church.