The Bells of North Bovey

Devon & Cornwall Notes & Queries VII, (1912-1913), Exeter: James G. Commin. 1913. pp. 118-120.


W.H. Thornton

Prepared by Michael Steer

The Note’s author, Rev William Henry Thornton  was initially Vicar of Simonsbath, until 1861, when he was appointed Vicar of Dunsford, holding that living until 1866, when owing to the climate not suiting him or his wife, he exchanged livings with the Rev G Arden, Rector of North Bovey, where he remained for fifty year. He was a frequent contributor to D&CN&Q, dying in 1916. 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.

Note 93. THE BELLS OF NORTH BOVEY. - The parish church of North Bovey is an old granite structure which affords ample evidence, internal and external, of having been erected on the site of an earlier edifice in or about the year A.D. 1453. It still retains some few relics of the church which it superseded. Standing conspicuous on the hill above the brook, it flanks the village of North Bovey on the western side, and it is surmounted by a tower which (as some of my architectural friends inform me) probably belonged to its predecessor. This tower is constructed of massive granite blocks, capped, after the old moorland Devonshire fashion, above the string course with a coating of cement to enable the tower to encounter successfully the assaults of the heavy rains which frequently beat against it particularly from the south and west. This tower is about 70 feet in height, and was originally provided with a peal of four bells.

Some time ago, as I have already recorded in Vol. IV., p. 186, of Devon Notes and Queries, I obtained from the recorded Chancery Proceedings in the Public Record Office (Bundle 170, No. 25) an account of a lawsuit which occurred in the year a.d. 1500. Sir Robert Butler, rector, William Tapper and John Smyth, churchwardens, of North Bovey, were sued by a bellfounder of Exeter, named Robert Russell, for the sum of £21, which sum, he alleged, was due to him for a bell which he had supplied to the church at North Bovey under a personal covenant, by which the said rector and churchwardens had bound themselves in the sum of 40 marks to pay the said Robert Russell the sum of £21 on certain specified days. As I have already recorded the story, I will only here say that the defendants had paid £20 3s. to Mr. Russell, but had failed to find the balance of 17s. at the time when the last instalment became due.

Mr. Russell appears to have, under these circumstances, claimed and obtained judgment for the 40 marks, and the debtors appealed in piteous terms to the then Archbishop of Canterbury to induce him to interfere, so as to enable them to obtain a full discharge of their obligation to Mr. Russell by payment of the 17s. which were overdue.

How they fared in the transaction is not known, for there is a gap in the Chancery Records between the years 1500 and 1503; but two facts became apparent from what is recorded, namely, that after fifty years of usage one of the original four bells had become disabled, and that the petitioners declared that in the year 1500 the payment of a fine of 40 marks would utterly ruin them and, indeed, the parishioners of North Bovey in their collective capacity.

After the year 1500, so far as I am informed, the bells of North Bovey were silent, at least where the outer world was concerned. No doubt they continued to call the people of the place to prayer, and sounded merrily* at their weddings, and tolled out their funeral knells as one and another of our stout old forefathers took possession of his narrow bed in the old churchyard, but of these performances there is naturally no record preserved.

And so we pass on to the year A.D. 1813, when Mr. Napleton was rector, and Mr. Sawdye and Mr. Dicker were churchwardens, and it occurred to the minds of the parishioners of North Bovey that they would like to have a peal of six bells instead of a peal of four. I write only from parish tradition, but I have personally known some of those who took an active part in the transactions of the time now referred to, and I have heard the tale at first hand. A vestry meeting was called, a rate was agreed to, and the four bells were sent to a Mr. Bilbie, of Collumpton, to be melted down and converted into six of lighter calibre than the four. When the new bells came back from Collumpton they did not afford general satisfaction to the parishioners, who refused to pay for them until they had been recast and amended, and a lawsuit again occurred. The bellmaker was victorious, and then some of the parishioners refused to pay their share of the church rate to which they had consented, and being prosecuted by the rector and churchwardens, they failed in their attempt at resistance, and were compelled to contribute to the rate. Parochial harmony thus restored, the bells again did their duty until my appointment to the living in 1865, when I was informed that one of the six was cracked. I made my appeal to my parishioners, and as these were more prosperous then than now, I collected from them £40, and personally contributing £32, we again put our bells into satisfactory action, and Messrs. Mears, of London, recast the cracked bell.

Now again in 1912 one of our bells has been in London to be recast by Messrs. Taylor, and the mechanism in the bell chamber has also been renewed with modern and improved fittings at a cost of £72. The work of restoration has been executed by Messrs. Aggett and Sons, of Chagford, who carried out the work in 1870, and the new bell is of heavier metal than before. This is as it should be, for our sexton informs me that our neighbours at Moreton Hampstead are in the habit of declaring that the bells of North Bovey are " naught but tanket.”

When I heard his report I felt much aggrieved, partly because I consider the remark to be intended to belittle our bells, but more because I thought I was well acquainted with the dialect of Devonshire, and I never heard the expression made use of until Mr. Waldron repeated it. Can any learned Devonian explain the meaning of the word and trace its source and origin?             W. H. THORNTON.