South Gloucestershire church leads worldwide celebration of unique invention


First published 20th May 2021

Image of St Mary's Church in Bitton

This June, churches around the world will mark the 200th anniversary of the Ellacombe Chimes, invented at St Mary's Church in Bitton.

When Revd Henry Thomas Ellacombe took up his post as curate at St Mary’s Church in the South Gloucestershire village of Bitton in 1817, he decided he needed an alternative to the local bell ringers due to their wayward behaviour.

He created the ‘Ellacombe Chimes’ which meant that, for the first time, the bells could be operated by only one trusted person. In 1821, he outwitted his bell ringers by installing apparatus at St Mary’s that enabled all of the bells to be chimed by a single person, using a set of pulleys in the church porch.

His invention was subsequently adopted by churches around the world. Although the apparatus later fell out of fashion, there are still known to be over 400 Ellacombe chimes in working order in the UK and at least 40 in the other parts of the world. In some places the chimes have come into their own in the past year due to Covid-19 restrictions, or when it has not been permitted to swing the bells or insufficient full circle ringers are available.

The 200th anniversary celebrations held this summer will involve an international Chime around the World event on 26 June. This will involve bells chiming at noon local time in each of the world’s major time zones, beginning with Timaru in New Zealand (11pm BST on 25 June).

Over the next 17 hours, the bells will work their way across the world, arriving at their birthplace at Bitton, South Gloucestershire, at noon BST on 26 June. The event will then cross the Atlantic and be heard across the Americas, finishing in Vancouver, British Columbia.

More than 50 churches and towers that have an installed and working chiming device will take part and will be joined by other churches and towers with normal bell ringing. The full list of participating churches can be found here.

The bicentennial celebrations are being co-ordinated jointly by St Mary’s Church and Bitton Parish History Group. Mike Gates, secretary of the Bitton Parish History Group said: “Across the world we will be coming together to celebrate a remarkable man and his machine. What better way than to use bells of all types and sizes that were Ellacombe’s passion.”

Further information can be found on the Bitton Parish History Group website.

Diagram of Ellacombe Chimes

Notes

  • The Ellacombe apparatus is a device that enables one person to ring all the bells of a church. Each of the bells is struck while the bell is static instead of the bells being rotated. Full details about how it works can be found here. Ellacombe’s set of rules remain posted to the walls of the ringing chamber of St Mary’s Church in Bitton to this day, and the ancient Grade I listed church attracts visitors from around the world.
  • Henry Thomas Ellacombe (1790 – 1885) had a natural talent for mechanical and technical workings and had previously worked for the great engineer Marc Brunel, the inventor of machinery to make pulleys, at his engineering works at Chatham Dockyard in Kent. Find out more about Revd Ellacombe here.
  • A full list of participating churches can be found here.

Images: Main - St Mary's, Bitton. Bottom image - Diagram of the apparatus