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Almost any guidebook or website on Wokingham will tell you that it is famous for its bell foundry, which operated for around 300 years from the early 1300s. Around fifty Wokingham bells are still in use in Berkshire and surrounding counties. The nearest to Wokingham is the Treble (lightest) of the six bells at Arborfield, which was cast about 1399. Roger Landen was the earliest known of the Wokingham founders, and two roads are named after him: Landen Close and Landen Grove. Unhelpfully for visitors, they are on opposite sides of the town. Landen Close is to the south off Finchampstead Road, and Landen Grove is to the northwest off Reading Road.
Bells cast by Roger Landen bore this distinctive mark of a stylised lion’s head
Less well known is the location of the foundry. If you have seen Bellfoundry Lane as you approach the town along Twyford Road you might assume it was there, but in the Middle Ages that would have been a long way out of the town. Historic records put the foundry in Smyths Place, and the location became clear when non-ferrous foundry slag was discovered by archaeologists ahead of the development of land behind behind 7/15 Broad Street.
In 1553 All Saints church had four bells. We know that because when King Edward VI sent his agents round parish churches to confiscate silver plate and other metal, as his father Henry VIII had done with the monasteries, they recorded what they took and what they left behind. Here they left four bells and a Sanctus bell. We know nothing about those bells, but it seems likely that they came from the foundry that was just a short walk away.
The oldest surviving bells today were part of a new ring of six installed in 1704 – eighty years after the Wokingham foundry closed. They were cast by Samuel Knight of Reading, who subsequently moved to London and became a major competitor to the Whitechapel Foundry. Around the same time there was probably work done on the tower roof because one of the main beams is inscribed 1702. The other beam is marked 1613, which might indicate an earlier restoration.
In 1814 two of them were replaced with new ones cast by Thomas Mears of Whitechapel, presumably because they were damaged or cracked. In 1903 two more bells were replaced and two extra ones added to make a ring of eight. They were hung in a new iron frame slightly lower in the tower than the old timber six-bell frame had been. A century later, in 2004, four of the bells were replaced with new ones cast by the Whitechapel Bell Foundry – not because they were damaged but because they weren’t sufficiently in tune with the others.
Bells don’t go out of tune like a piano – they had never been completely in tune. The science of bell tuning only developed in the late 19th century and wasn’t widely practised by the time of the 1903 restoration. After the 2004 restoration the bells sounded sweeter and more harmonious than they had done for the previous 300 years. Bells are tuned by removing small amounts of metal from different parts of the bell to bring the different vibrational frequencies into a harmonic relationship. In the spirit of modern conservation all four of the bells that were replaced were found new homes: two in Yorkshire, one in Australia and one in Worcestershire. The bells all carry inscriptions recording the date they were cast, the founder and so on. The oldest bell, cast in 1703. is also decorated with a pattern of acorns and oak leaves.
Decoration of acorns and oak leaves around the waist of the Tenor bell at All Saints, Wokingham
The 1703 Tenor bell, weighing 15½ cwt, after cleaning and being fitted with new headstock, waiting to be rehung
Inside the re-tuned Tenor bell showing cuts from the tuning lathe
The bells of All Saints, Wokingham in the ‘up’ position ready to ring
For most of its history Wokingham only had one church with bells but that changed in 1864 when St Paul’s church was built. From the start it had a fine ring of eight bells cast by John Warner of Cripplegate, London, outshining the mother church of All Saints, which at the time only had six. The bells were retuned in 1987 but destroyed by fire after a lightning strike in January 2004. The current ring of eight was cast by the Whitechapel Bell Foundry in 2005.
John Harrison, September 2016
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