Ellacombe chimes

What is an Ellacombe?

When Covid-19 restrictions put a stop to full circle bell ringing, some towers made use of an often forgotten bell ringing system called an Ellacombe apparatus.

Many of us will know the story of Ellacombe inventing this way of chiming the bells to get rid of the service of his discourteous ringer, and may have the view that chiming, the Ellacombes poses a the serious risks to bells. However, the Ellacombes made a huge contribution in the Belfry Reform movement and, of course, the wealth of published material on bells and bell ringing that they generated. The vilification of Ellacombe's invention has little relevance today due to vast improvements in bell hanging having made most bells from that time much easier to ring.

Playing the chimes

During the periods of lockdown, those churches which have a set of Ellacombe chimes have had the availability of an alternative to full-circle ringing. Whilst we all hope that 'normal' ringing will return soon, it might be helpful to have a few thoughts on getting the best out of your chiming apparatus.

First, if we are honest, many chimes are rarely used and may not be in the best of order, some dating back to the 19th Century. If you have not used them for some time the following checks are desirable:

  • Check all the chiming ropes, they may be frayed, particularly where they pass over pulleys. The last thing you want is to be half way through a piece and have a rope break. Small gauge ropes can always be replaced by nylon-based alternatives.
  • Are the ropes securely attached at the chiming hammer end and also threaded through the ratchet mechanism in the ringing room?
  • Check that the levers to the hammers are moving freely.
  • Check that pulleys where ropes change direction are running freely.
  • Before starting chiming adjust the tension on each rope by winding the ratchet to just the right tension. This can be tested by trying each bell in turn. If the tension is too much the hammer may not even sound and has possibly been wound almost touching the bell. Conversely, if the tension is too slack it will require a long pull on the rope pulling it out of the frame before the bell will sound – tighten the ratchet.
  • Have your music ready and preferably on some board or stand leaving your hands free to pull the ropes.
  • Most importantly at the end of chiming, even if no full-circle ringing is anticipated. ALWAYS SLACKEN OFF THE ROPES COMPLETELY. This will avoid any danger of hammers fouling the bells or indeed interfering with clock chimes which may operate separately.

The foregoing advice is based on experience and does not seek to be technical. In terms of what to play it is entirely up to the individual and what is available. There are hymn tunes, carols and classical music pieces available but it must always be remembered that, like handbell tune ringing, what you can do relies on the number of bells and notes available. Sometimes even with 10 or 12 bells they can sound quite “wrong”.

Examples we use are: Ode to joy; Home sweet home; Swing low sweet chariot and When the saints go marching in. Carols, popular at Advent and Christmas, include O Little town of Bethlehem; Silent Night; The First Noel; God Rest You Merry Gentlemen; Jingle Bells; Deck the Halls; Joy to the World and Good King Wenceslas.

If you are brilliant with numbers you might even tap out a course of Plain Bob or Grandsire. However, Queens, Whittingtons, Tittums and your own selection is good enough. Contact your local Association or Guild of you want advice.

The introduction of Ellacombe chimes celebrates its 200th Anniversary in June this year and it still has its uses. Above all in these difficult times it keeps communities aware of the continuing presence of bells.

Bringing Ellacombe chimes back into use

Chiming frames vary greatly from one tower to the next. This means that it’s very easy to prattle on about things in general about things which may not be directly relevant to a particular tower. Mike Shelley of Clapham is a very experienced bell ringer with a great knowledge of Ellacombes and chiming apparatus in general. Here are some of his ideas about bringing a chiming system back into use. It appears that even if an installation hasn't been used for many decades it may actually only need some "Tender Loving Care" from someone with basic DIY skills and a small tool kit.

Taking a bit of time to generally spring clean all components helps build familiarity with an installation, learning the purposes of the components, and allows for an assessment of underlying maintenance requirements. However, if you are uncertain about the apparatus or how to use it, it is best to get professional help from one of the bell founding or bell hanging companies. To start with you can just send some photos of what you find up the tower.

Bringing a chime back into use may require replacing missing or failing chiming ropes which will involve re-threading through little pulley wheels at high level and that requires caution. Other than that, you may only need to get to grips with the knack of correctly adjusting rope tension to achieve comfortably efficient use – the less satisfactory the adjustment the more fatiguing and less satisfying the chiming.

It’s best if you have someone who is willing and able to chime on a moderately regular basis, especially if the tower regularly rings the bells full-circle. Chiming has a habit of turning into a very solitary affair and is often done by a person who has been directly involved in maintaining a chiming frame or bringing one back into use. It’s a good idea to get everyone who has a hand in bringing a frame back into use to learn how to chime a few basic bits and pieces.

If it’s only 20-30 years since the frame was last used regularly then it may not need more than TLC by volunteers with basic DIY skills. If, however, if it’s never been used for longer than that a bit more work will be required.

The Clapham refurbishment

The Clapham Ellacombe frame was completely refurbished, modernised and re-rigged for just under £8,000 in 2016. A lot of the work could have been done by volunteers but Mike didn’t realise that at the time, e.g. checking the pulleys, replacing where necessary – they have 32 in total.

  • The eight pulley wheels in/on the top rail of the chiming frame only needed a bit of a clean to get rid of more than 60 years of grime and a little rust. In use, these wheels only move a small amount but they’re pressed quite hard against their axles when the ropes are pulled because the ropes must remain vertical above the pulleys.
  • There were eight more where the ropes come up through the Intermediate Chamber floor. These were quite manky but they only act as a rope guide to keep the ropes vertical and they’re barely touched by the ropes during chiming. These almost superfluous ground pulleys had a light brush, but weren't properly cleaned – a job for another day?
  • Another eight were where the ropes reach the underside of the Bell Chamber floor and have to change from vertical to horizontal across and under that floor. These are over 14 feet up and inaccessible for normal maintenance purposes. There is a little trap sawn in the Bell Chamber floor in this corner but the pulleys are still impossible to work on.
  • The final set of pulleys are under the floor of each bell pit, where the ropes finally go vertical again to the hammers. These are also inaccessible for normal maintenance, but, fortunately, these are the same vintage as the main full-circle bell rope pulleys and although all wood apart from the axles they need little attention. A couple of these were installed slightly out of alignment back around 1900 and the ropes rub slightly on the cheeks. This had to be monitored as a broken rope would be hard to replace.

Do all ropes need replacing?

First, be sure you record how long the rope are for each bell! You will need a tad more for each chiming rope than just the total of the straight-line distances from the hammers to the bottom of the chiming frame via all the pulleys. You will probably find it more economical to get a drum rather than buying by the metre.

If practicable, rig each separate chiming rope from top to bottom, tie off with a bit of spare at the bottom, pull enough off the drum to allow for tying or clipping to the hammer and only then cut it from the drum. Each will end up an appropriate but different length. The downside of this way is there is a lot of climbing up and down to the pulleys at high level eight times to thread each rope through – be safety conscious. Tape all cut ends to make this easier and stop the ropes unravelling. When you know where to cut the rope, tape it twice and cut between the tapes so neither cut end can even start to unravel.

The rope size should be that which comfortably fits the pulleys. If you don’t honestly have to replace any pulleys then hold the old rope against a pulley to see the fit. It should almost, but not quite, be in full contact around the whole of the curve – imagine the diameter of the rope being only just above the rims. A slightly larger diameter rope would comfortably rest in contact with the whole of the cross-section of the groove and, technically, would be the correct size when using ropes and pulleys for most purposes. For a chiming installation, where the ropes only contact less than a third of the circumference of the pulley, the slightly smaller rope is easier to rig and moves nicely.

Hemp would be nice for historical continuity but isn’t essential. It also has all the usual issues that arise when using natural fibre bell ropes. In view of the issues regarding difficulty of re-rigging if a rope should ever break then I would recommend man-made fibre. Polypropylene is cheap but too elastic for chiming.Terylene is readily available in suitable sizes, is very durable, doesn’t suffer much at sudden changes of direction over pulleys, is colour-fast and looks quite smart. Other man-made fibres are available and some have equivalent properties. Cable-laid (“normal rope”) is cheapest and standard for chiming. Braided-sheathed ropes are preferred for many more specialist uses but the additional cost is unwarranted for a chiming frame with a reasonable drop from the bells.

The foundry rigged our frame with a man-made fibre “hemp look-alike” rope. This wasn’t asked for – I didn’t know it existed at the time. Having put up with it for the last four years I would probably not recommend it unless there are particular aesthetic reasons for using it. Yes, it looks and feels like new hemp – it's hairy and coarse to the touch – and it appears to have been constructed in the same way as real hemp ropes rather than using long continuous strands that are normal for man-made fibre ropes.

In most towers dust and humidity are often a problem and adversely affect hemp – and this is more so with smaller diameter ropes. Hemp would tend to remain dimensionally stable if kept under modest tension – such as leaving old-fashioned chiming hammers “raised”. However, this is a dangerous practice in towers where full circle ringing also takes place. Towers that have chiming only – for example but not exclusively where the bells are mounted directly on the beams (“hung dead”) – can leave their hammers up indefinitely so hemp ropes remain dimensionally stable. Such towers often also have the luxury of mini-sallies on their chiming ropes. If you have to raise and lower the hammers regularly because of full circle ringing such sallies get jammed in the pulleys and ruined.

Rubber sleeves

Some of the traditional frames had purpose-made sleeves, in an age when hot-forming rubber products was more readily available. If you wish to re-use your existing ones you could check them for wear, cracking or perishing as they may now be fragile or brittle.

In Clapham, they only had lengths of readily available tubing like hose pipe. The latter comes in various internal diameters so you should choose your rope first then get some tubing that will slide freely on the rope.

The tubing is only for comfort during chiming. Some towers don’t have them and a few of those find it better to wear gloves. Sore finger tips will tell you that you need to change something. You see you sort of pluck the rope – pulling with your fingers but trying to release it as soon as you’ve pulled it back far enough – don’t try to firmly grasp the rope each time as that makes for very hard work.

Hammer to bell distance

This is a tricky one.

With regard to audibility, bells hung dead for chiming (and full circle bells “down “so that they can be chimed), sound with their mouths pointing straight downwards whereas bells being rung full-circle are always struck while the mouth is pointing pretty much horizontally towards the windows and louvres. The latter invariably sound much louder outside.

The audibility of chimed bells can be adjusted, a bit, if the distance of travel of the hammers is adjusted. As a rule of thumb, the distance between the bell and the hammer at rest in its “up” position ready for chiming, is about two fingers, say 4cms, but the optimum distance is down to local circumstances.

Once all your ropes are rigged, you can try my method of adjustment, This will get you to a reasonable workable geometry and should be comfortable to chime. You’re then up to your own devices if you wish to tweak the adjustments here and there to suit your comfort.

  • Starting at one side of the frame, gently pull the chiming rope steadily until either hammer is in contact with the bell, (with old-style hammers), or the hammer sits on the ‘stop-bolt’ (with newer, articulated trigger action hammers). Mark the rope with a felt tip pen or similar at a suitable fixed point above your hand – I marked the rope alongside the rim of the pulley wheel. Allow the hammer to lower to its fully “down” position. Keep just enough tension of the rope to ensure no sagging and mark the rope again. The difference between the two marks is the amount that the rope must be drawn down to cause the hammer to strike the bell. Repeat for all the ropes.
  • With the hammers all “down”, tie the tail of each rope to the bottom fixing – you may have just a bar or a plank with holes in or a set of little windlasses.Starting at one side of the frame, as if chiming, pull the rope away from the wall. You will find your own preference regarding this adjustment, but initially you want to be able to get the hammer to the bell (or the stop-bolt) when your hand has moved about three inches horizontally. You will have to re-tie the bottom fixing if either the hammer touched before your hand moved three inches or it hadn’t touched yet.

Once you’ve done all eight, pull them all out in pairs to see if they’re all actually moving roughly the same distance. It doesn’t have to be exactly three inches, but chiming is far less fatiguing if the hands move about the same distance irrespective of which rope you’re pulling, and your chiming tempo will be more consistent. That’s the chiming equivalent of well struck rounds in full circle ringing.

Safety in use

If there is full circle ringing at your tower you MUST develop good practices amongst the chimers and the bell ringers so that both pay adequate attention to the position of the chiming hammers and the bells:

  • Before attempting to raise any bell
  • Before raising any hammers

Any bell ringer who attempts a raise and any chimer who raises hammers when they’re not certain of the relative positions of the bells and hammers will damage the chime and the bells. Ensure that:

  • The hammers are raised before chiming and lowered again afterwards
  • When the hammers are down the ropes are slackened off completely and crossed in the chiming frame
  • A safety notice is bulldog-clipped across the centre four ropes until next time.

Safety notices

You are advised to display a safety notice about current local circumstances, for example detailing safe practices for:

  • chiming and regular full-circle ringing if both are taking place;
  • chiming while full-circle ringing suspended for protracted period;
  • chiming where full-circle ringing embargoed indefinitely for technical reasons;
  • chiming where bells can swing but no full-circle equipment is currently, or has ever been fitted;
  • chiming where bells are virtually immobile;
  • frame-chiming and for clock chime equipment.

» Ellacombe Chimes support

» The Ellacombe Chimes Community Facebook group

200 Years of Ellacombe Chimes

26th June 2021 marks the 200th Anniversary of the invention of the Ellacombe Chimes by Revd. Henry Thomas Ellacombe while curate at St Mary’s Church, Bitton. The Ellacombe apparatus is a device that enables one person to ring all the bells in the tower using a rope which is connected to a series of hammers which strike the bells. Each of the bells is struck while the bell is static instead of the bells being rotated and was devised so that all the bells could be rung by one person without involving a band of ringers.

» Find out more about the anniversary celebrations

An event has been set up on Bellboard to link performances at https://bb.ringingworld.co.uk/event.php?id=13534

At Bath Abbey

The bells of Bath Abbey were still able to ring out on Easter morning thanks to two of the Abbey’s bell ringers being given special permission to use the Ellacombe Chime which enables all the bells to be chimed by a single person.

Matthew and fellow Abbey ringer Tom Wareing (who are members of the same household) played rounds, changes and some Easter hymns including "Jesus Christ is Risen Today" on the Abbey bells.

Judging by the comments on social media, their efforts were greatly appreciated. Many who lived in the vicinity appreciated hearing the bells in celebration of Easter. Matthew and Tom Wareing were also interviewed on BBC Radio Somerset the next day.

Remembrance Sunday 2020

Captain Sir Tom Moore's funeral

Patriotic tunes on Ascension Day