Henry Thomas Ellacombe, M.A., F.S.A. [Obituary]


Rev. W. Harpley

Trans. Devon. Assoc., 1886, Vol XVIII, p.61-63.

Prepared by Michael Steer

Rev Ellacombe, or Ellicombe, was both a divine and antiquary. Bristol Archives holds 17 volumes of manuscripts, newspaper extracts, transcripts, antiquarian memoranda, drawings and correspondence mainly relating to the ancient parish of Bitton, to the east of Bristol, brought together by Rev. Ellacombe, (Ref. 44786) (online catalogue). Records relating to Henry Thomas Ellacombe can also be found at the British Library Manuscript Collections, Bristol Reference Library, Bodleian Library and Newcastle University Library. Ellacombe was a great authority on church bells.  He invented a device, now known as an Ellacombe apparatus, with chiming hammers, to enable one person to chime all the bells in a tower. However, in reality, it required very advanced and rare expertise for one person to ring changes on multiple bells, and the apparatus fell out of fashion. Consequently, the Ellacombe apparatus has been removed from many towers, In towers where the apparatus remains intact, it is generally used rather like a Carillon, but to play simple tunes. The article, from a copy of a rare and much sought-after journal can be downloaded from the Internet Archive. Google has sponsored the digitisation of books from several libraries. These books, on which copyright has expired, are available for free educational and research use, both as individual books and as full collections to aid researchers.

Henry Thomas Ellacombe, M.A., F.S.A, was born in May, 1790, and matriculated at Oriel College, then under the provostship of Dr. Eveleigh, in 1808, taking his B.A. degree in 1812. In 1816 he graduated m.a. For three years after taking his degree, he studied engineering in the workshops and under the instruction of Sir Isambard Brunel, and then developed a taste for engineering and building, which to the very last remained keen as ever. Entertaining, however, a strong desire for the church, he was ordained deacon in 1816 by the Bishop of Exeter, and priest the year following by the Bishop of Gloucester. He was therefore in holy orders sixty-nine years, and besides being the father of the University of Oxford, was one of the oldest, if not the oldest, clergyman in the Church of England. He was curate of Cricklade from 1816 to 1817, and then became curate of Bitton, in Gloucestershire, until 1835, when he became vicar of the same place until 1850. In that year he was appointed rector of Clyst St. George, where he worked earnestly almost to the day of his death. His church, which is one of the most beautiful and certainly the most ornate in all Devonshire, was restored under his own supervision, and to a great extent by his own hands, the work having commenced in 1851 and being completed in 1862. His singular mechanical and artistic skill were altogether unique in the history of clergymen, and these powers and gifts he retained until the last; indeed, only a month or so before his death he personally superintended the introduction of some mural paintings into the soffits of the church windows. Plants and flowers formed his chief hobby at home; and his gardens, which absorbed a great part of his spare hours, were the wonder and delight of the neighbourhood. He was elected a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries 22nd March, 1827.

Mr. Ellacombe was a great writer, and on church bells was the greatest living authority. During his walks abroad he collected, with all the enthusiasm of a nature constitutionally ardent, every scrap of information which he could procure on bells and bell-ringers. In this pursuit he mounted at one time or other every belfiy and church tower in Devonshire (1), except two, and many in Somersetshire, making drawings of and careful notes upon each individual belL Amongst his books on this subject are: The Bells of a Church (1864), The Bells of Devonshire (1867), Practical Remarks on Belfries and Ringers (1871), Bells of Exeter Cathedral (1874), Bells of Somerset (1874), Church Bells (1875). He also wrote The History of the Manor of Bitton (1867) and The History of the Parish of St. George Clyst (1862). He read well-nigh innumerable papers from time to time, which are published in the Transactions of the Exeter Diocesan Architectural Society, of which he was one of the earliest members; and despite his great age, to the last he edited the columns on "Bells and Bell-ringing," in the periodical Church Bells, which he was the means of starting in 1870. He was also a constant and observant correspondent of the Builder, Notes and Queries, and numerous scientific and technical journals. The well-known chiming apparatus, enabling a boy to chime all the bells in a tower, was invented by him, and bears his name. His services on campanology were ever in request, and ever given without stint. To his great energy and ability, more or less directly, all the County and Diocesan Associations owe their birth. At his death many a muffled peal was rung throughout the country, as a tribute of respect to his memory. He joined the Association in 1873. He died July 30th, 1885, aged 95 years.


“I have, with my own hands and my own eyes, examined and copied every bell except Sheepstor, which I visited twice, but by some misunderstanding the keys of the staircase were not forthcoming; and Heanton Punchardon, where an ill-mannered churchwarden threw difficulties in the way." - Trans. Exeter Dioc, Archit. Society, vol. i. New Series (1867), p. 285.