William Bartlett Hambling, bellfounder

One of the first things I learnt when I started researching my family history was from a great aunt who claimed “great grandfather’s brother was a bell founder”. The great grandfather she was referring to was my 3x great grandfather, James Hambling, born Blackawton c. 1814. He had 6 brothers, so which was the bell founder? Actually, although one styled himself bell founder the main bell founder in the family turns out to be not James’ brother but his father, William.

This page looks at the varied working life of William Bartlett Hambling, and in particular his involvement with bell founding. It is of particular interest to me as knowing of this bell founding ancestor led me to respond to the “we teach beginners” sign on the Society of Change Ringers stall at freshers fair when I went up to University in 1981, and I have continued to ring ever since.

Hamblings before William: blacksmiths to gunsmiths

I do not know how long my Hambling ancestors were metal workers, but in 1760 my 6 x great grandfather, one James Hambling, appears in the Blackawton Parish Registers when he married what I believe was the second of three wives, my 6 x great grandmother Anne Bartlett. He had 2 children (Anne and James) with Anne but unfortunately the PR gives no clue as to his occupation. However, in the baptism entries for his four daughters with his first wife Mary, baptised 1746 – 1751, his occupation was recorded: blacksmith.

His son followed in his footsteps, though I have found very few references to his occupation. The first is an unusual one. He was not the only blacksmith in the village and another, one John Bickford, had clearly slandered him. Fearing being taken to court by James, John Bickford had placed a notice in the Sherborne Mercury in July 1789 where he admitted “I have maliciously (and without any cause or provocation) slandered James Hambling, of the said parish and county, blacksmith, with bad actions and things of dishonesty, which I cannot prove”. James had said he would not proceed if this withdrawal of the accusations was published. (Full transcript of the item on James’ page).

James was a young man at this time, aged just 27. A John Bickford had children baptised in Blackawton 1799 – 1807 so it may well be that John was young too, possibly younger than James and trying to find business by maligning the competition.  Or maybe the slanderer was an older John Bickford, fearing the competition from James – who may have been a better blacksmith, or have had more energy and so able to accomplish more and charge less? Was he disgruntled because some who had formerly taken work to him were now turning to James? Did he suspect James of behaving unfairly in persuading them to use him? Whilst I will do more research to try to find out who the John Bickford probably was I doubt we shall ever know the full story.

The only other references I have to this James’ occupation are in the year of his death nearly fifty years later in 1837. In his will, written in February, James describes himself not as a blacksmith but a gunsmith. Perhaps it was competition for work between too many blacksmiths in the area that led to James moving into this specialization? His death certificate, though, that July, still described him as a blacksmith.

Whatever the reason, his son William Bartlett clearly followed in his footsteps, with the vast majority of references to his occupation describing his as a gunsmith, from the baptism of his second son in 1814 (occupations were not being recorded in Blackawton when his first was baptised) through to his death certificate half a century later (see his page for more details). I know of just two references to him as blacksmith, the baptism of son number 3 (John), in 1815 and in a book written in 1867 (see below). It seems reasonable to suppose, therefore, that gun making was the main part of William’s work, although it is possible that there wasn’t a sufficient demand for guns and that he had to do some ordinary blacksmith’s work as well.

William’s other occupations

Being a smith was not William’s only source of income. He was also the village Post Master – officially at least, though it wouldn’t surprise me if most of this work had actually been carried out by Elizabeth, his wife. Obviously not until 1837 but after that he would have earned some money as Registrar, and extra in census years when he was an ennumerator and the burial register shows that for 34 years he was Parish Clerk and he would have been paid for this.

The work of a Parish Clerk was not as it sounds to us now, for the term clerk here does not refer to secretarial / writing but from the origins of the word – cleric. Clerics were originally lay as well as ordained church workers, and Parish Clerks existed in the early church. Unlike Churchwardens the Parish Clerk was not appointed annually, but could remain in their office for life, and were appointed by the incumbent. Some of their duties had disappeared at the reformation, but one important role was to lead the responses of the laity in church services, so clearly they had to be able to read. In some churches this had evolved to be saying or singing the responses on behalf of the laity. Whilst some words were the same week after week, the laity also had a part in saying or singing the psalms, quite a challenge to those who couldn’t read and it may have been this and / or the prohibitive cost of books for many that led to the clerk alone responding arose.

The clerk would also assist the priest at baptisms, weddings and funerals, and if a priest had more than one parish or was absent for some reason he would have needed to communicate with him or another priest, probably from a neighbouring parish, who could assist. Although there was a free church in Blackawton this involvement with baptisms and funerals must have fitted well with his role as Registrar.

I haven’t yet checked the handwriting, so I don’t know if William did this at all, but although the keeping of the Parish Registers was the duty of the priest, in some cases this was delegated to the Parish Clerk.

“Ingenious blacksmith”: bell founder

Post Master, Registrar and Parish Clerk are unrelated to William’s work as a smith, but he did find one other area of work that meant working with metal: he was, albeit on a small scale, a bell founder.

In the early 1860s the Revd. Henry Thomas Ellacombe visited all but 2 Devon Churches and recorded the bells then there and their inscriptions. He recorded thirteen made by William, apparently failing to notice the brass plate at South Pool which shows that the tenor was a Hambling bell, and recording Denbury’s tenorl as such when describing Denbury’s bells, but missing it off the list of bells by William on p.166 so that only shows twelve.   with a further bell by him being made for East Looe in Cornwall. Ellacombe first read the results of his investigations to the Exeter Architectural Society in 1866 and it was published in theur Transactions in 1867, subsequently being published as a book in its own right, “Church Bells of Devon”. (Details in an essay by John Eisel The Revd H T Ellacombe and his Campanological Works”)

Before his listing of Devon bells Ellacombe wrote about Devon’s bell founders. Of William he wrote:

“At Blackawton, an ingenious blacksmith, by the name of William Hambling, who had seen how the work was done by those itinerant founders from Lezant, Cornwall [the Penningtons], succeded in casting twelve bells for different Churches in his vicinity from 1823 to 1845. He was much patronized by the late Archdeacon Froude. He is the last of our native founders” (p.61)

Ellacombe recorded in Church Bells of Devon the dates of his visit to each church; this shows that he collected the bell details between 1863 and 1866. Thus he started in William’s lifetime and it is possible that he met William and learnt at first hand how he learnt the trade. However, the date of his visit to Blackawton, and to those neighbouring parishes which I have checked, are all in 1865, after William’s death, so I think it more likely that he met Henry or his sister Sarah Ann, who still resided in Blackawton (the only two of William’s children to remain there all / most of their lives). Alternatively, he may have met Hiram when he visisted Dodbrooke; surely Hiram’s interest in bell founding would have made him want to meet Ellacombe if he knew he was visiting the area. Of course Ellacombe’s description of William may not have come from the family. With William having been the Parish Clerk the priest in Blackawton must have known him well; Ellacombe may have met him when requesting access to the tower. And it is just possible that the information came from Archdeacon Froude. As a fellow clergyman in the Diocese of Exeter with an interest in bells he was probably known to Ellacombe, and although he died in 1859, before Ellacombe started collecting the bell details, Ellacombe had had an interest in bells since he was a young man.

Bells made by William:

those surviving (not recast) shown in bold

Tower Bell Inscription Date Notes
South Pool Tenor (of 6) None on the bell; the usual information is on a brass plate on the headstock:Rev. W. Forster Rector
M. Luscombe & W. Elliot
Hambling Blackauton
Fecit 1821
Weight 1238lbs.
1821 John Scott notes that “They are not a very good six, the tenor being particularly poor”. He also notes that the cannons on the tenor were poor, one had broken and been repaired prior to removal in 1984. According to Scott they were formerly a ring of 6 by Penningtons, so William was recasting the tenor.
Halwell 4th (of 6) 1823
Malborough Treble (of 6) 1823
Dartington Treble of 5 1827
2nd of 6
East Ogwell 1828
St. Martin by Looe (Cornwall) The whole ring was replaced
Stokenham William was recasting the tenor which had been made by the Penningtons in 1776. Recast by Taylors in 1889; Hambling inscription not replicated.
Dean Prior
Stoke Gabriel

table to be completed!

Notes on the table:

Bells are numbered from the highest note – usually the lightest – which is rung first through to the deepest note, hence usually the heaviest, which rings last in ’rounds’, but the 1st bell is referred to as the treble and the last in the ring as the tenor.

As can be seen, there are a number of minor differences between inscriptions as recorded by Scott and by Ellacombe. This is not that surprising; belfries are usually poorly lit, and it must have been especially difficult in Ellacombe’s day when the wasn’t the possibility of taking a powerful torch up. Bells often close to the wall, with the only access the frame around and between the bells. A good look at parts of bells close to the wall may not be possible, and looking at an angle words may be misread. It should also be borne in mind that Ellacombe was in his 70s when collecting the data, so probably not as supple as he might have been.

There are 2 discrepancies which are of particular interest from a family history point of view; these are discussed below.

Thanks to the late Prebendary John Scott for sending me information about William’s bells; the information here also contains some additional details from his “Tower and Bells of Devon” and from Ellacombe’s “Church Bells of Devon” – ?? full refs and sources to be added.

A recast bell is effectively a new bell; it owes nothing to the one it is replacing in terms of quality, tone, shape etc. Even the metal may not be the same for although the term recast implies that it is in practice a number of bells may have gone into the melting pot together. And with older bells it may not be obvious from looking at the bells whether the bells were being augmented with a new bell or having a faulty (possibly cracked) bell replaced. More recently, though, it has become the practice to copy the old inscriptions when recasting bells – hence the inscription on the bell at Buckfastleigh.

Quality – apparently Williams bells are not good tonally. I definitely don’t have the best ear, but while I certainly notice some poor bells his weren’t so bad that I noticed the poor tone when I rung at 3 of the towers where his bell survives and has not been recast (Halwell, East Ogwell and Denbury). I did only hear them as part of the ring – I may have noticed if I had heard them rung alone, when a poor tone becomes more obvious.

The patronage of Archdeacon Froude

Robert Hurrell Froude was the Archdeacon of Totnes from 1820 to 1859, i.e. very close to the years during which William cast church bells for rings. Nine of the 13 churches for which William cast bells for rings were in the Archdeaconry of Totnes (judging by the data given on the LDS Historical Maps webpage), and of the other 4 three were within or neighbouring the Archdeaconry area. I do not know the extent of Froude’s influence in encouraging those who had bells needing attention to take their business to William but as an Archdeacon he would have been in the position of giving the go-ahead for any work needed, so was clearly in a position to recommend those who might do the work. To have his support must have been valuable. The biggest puzzle has to be East Looe. Cornwall was then in Exeter Diocese, though, so perhaps a cleric from East Looe happened to have a conversation with Archdeacon Froude at a Diocesan function and the latter recommended William.

It would be interesting to see how much work involving the casting of bells was done in the Archdeaconry during the period in which William was active which went to others.

Did William work alone?

Clearly not, as some of his bells include “and Son” or possibly “and Sons”. But it is not entirely clear who was the father and who the son(s). Both of the bells cast in 1823 include “and Son” or possibly “and Sons”. If the latter is correct it would seem to refer to William (as father) and sons of his, as I believe William was James’ only son. Given that in 1823 William’s eldest was aged about 11 and his second son only 9 a reference to them might be considered surprising, and indicate that “Hambling” meant William’s father James, and William was the son. But “sons” is only found in Scott’s recording of the inscription on the recast bell at Malborough, where he notes the copy of the inscription is not a facsimile. There is therefore the potential for an extra ‘s’ to have crept in when the bell was recast, when the inscription was recorded or when the book went to press! Ellacombe recorded the inscription before the bell was recast as saying “Hambling & son”.

My hunch is that the inscription would not have read “& son” to refer to an 11 year old giving his Dad a hand, and that initially the bell founding was done by William and his father, with one or more sons assisting as they grew older and as his father James became too old, although James may have been fit enough to continue working until his death. James wrote his will a few months before his death in 1837, which could suggest he was ailing – unfortunately it lack the “perfect memory but weak of body” type statement generally found in earlier wills, so we can’t be sure. But he was considerate enough to delay dying until registration had started in July of that year and so we learn that his death was sudden, both from the cause given: “visitation of God” and from the fact a coroner’s inquest was deemed necessary. This rather suggests that he was fit and well up until his death, and may simply have written his will because he was conscious of his age and the resutling likelihood that death wasn’t so far off.

Scott records the Denbury tenor as including the words “Hambling & Nott, Blackauton”. Ellacombe records this as “Hambling Fecit Blackawton”. I haven’t seen the bell myself so can make no comment from that angle, but Fecit seems far more likely than “& Nott”. Not only is there no reference to a Nott on any other bell, but there were no Notts living in Blackawton at the time of the 1841 census, and no PR entries for any Notts are to be found there. (details of years / sources checked to be added). Whilst an & isn’t much like an F, it is easy to see how ECIT does have many similarities to NOTT. And whilst Scott should have been able to see the bell with better lighting, he saw it in 1983 when the bell would have had accumulated over 150 years’ worth of grime; it was only 35 years old when Ellacombe saw it. ?? I need to chk if all other inscriptions of William’s include the word Fecit

Other bells

All of the bells for which details are given above are part of rings of bells, i.e. bells hung for full circle ringing. Most rings of bells are found in Anglican Churches. Most churches of other denominations have a single bell, although there are a Roman Cathlolic Churches with rings and there are rare examples in other denominations. Schools also often had a bell. The single church bells and school bells are usually much smaller and presumably easier to make. I do not know to what extent William may have made such bells. It seems that Blackawton Church once had a bell by William on display but it appears to have been stolen. ?? add more info re this bell

Hiram’s involvement

Although 4 of William’s seven sons were, like him, to become gunsmiths, there is only one who seems to have had any involvement with bell founding beyond any possible assistance given during their youth, and that was Hiram.

In about 1890 he had a trade card in which he not only advertises for bell work but lists what he has done. (A rough date can be guessed because it lists a project he was involved with in 1889 and he died in 1897). This card is not entirely clear! His reference to “Church Bells cast by my late Father and self” may seem to refer to bells in whose casting he played a part, but actually it includes some in which no doubt his father played a or the main part, but which were cast when Hiram was far too young to have done much if anything. Five of the bells listed were cast when he was no more than seven, one possibly before he was even born! And although he refers to the list as being “a few of the many church bells cast …” the list only lacks two of the church bells his father is known to have cast. It may be, though, that the many refers to the smaller single church or school bells already mentioned.

Following the list of bells cast by himself and his father, he continues “And restored a great number of Peals”. He lists 6, dating from 1876 to 1889. Quite a gap, then, between the last known bell of his father’s with which he may have assisted, in 1852, and the first listed restoration project by Hiram, but he may have only listed the more recent projects and not had room for all. Six would hardly seem to be  “a great many”; whether this too is exaggeration is not known. Scott accuses him of “acting as agent for a founder and claiming the bells as his own.” Even if he was prone to exaggeration I am not sure this is fair; the words Hiram used on his trade card are “Added a new bell … “, “Put one new bell …”, “Placed a peal of six new bells …”. To me these descriptions, especially the “put” and “placed” seem to refer to hanging rather than casting. It is certainly vague and I can see how someone might have misread it and assumed he had cast the bells he was placing in the tower, but I prefer to give him the benefit of the doubt, and suggest it was not his intention to claim these bells as of his own making.

It is interesting that Hiram choose to advertise in this way and one wonders how he would have coped if asked to cast a large church bell, since he never seems to have cast one by himself (i.e. without his father). Perhaps he would have passed the work on to Warners, the company for whom he seems to have been a middle man, and who were responsible for casting bells in the projects listed on his card. The big foundries had by then come to dominate bell founding, as so much else.

Blackawton and bellringing

In most towers in England methods are rung i.e. a band will ring the bells in a pattern they have learnt in advance. Call changes are also rung (i.e. from rounds instead of the name of a method being called out a pair of bells are switched by being instructed to switch places), but but usually only when there are learners in the tower who have not made sufficient progress in learning to ring methods. In Devon and Cornwall though, many towers only ring call changes – but without the distraction of a method to recall they generally ring the bells to a far higher level of accuracy in striking than method ringers of the same level of experience could achieve. (This means accuracy in timing when the clapper strikes the bell and hence when the bell sounds; all the gaps between the bells are supposed to be equal). An old tradition of competition persists to a far greater extent, too, although this is declining as many villages now struggle to maintain a band. In the South Hams “Devon style” call change ringing still dominates, and in the C19th century it is unlikely that local ringers rang anything else. And then they certainly could find ringers to compete.

One of the successful bands for a while was the Blackawton Youths. We can learn about the competitions and the success of different teams from newspaper reports.

It seems probable that William and some at least of his sons were ringers, it is hard to imagine a founder who is not a ringer, though I have no evidence to confirm that they were. I think it quite likely that being part of enthusiastic prize winning band gave William or his father the interest to diverge into bell founding.

To be added to this page: somewhere amongst all the photos etc inherited from my parents I have a cutting from a newspaper describing the rededication of Stokenham bells following the recasting of treble and tenor in 1889, also a photo of the 6th bell of Buckfastleigh, when it was being stored in Buckfast Abbey following the fire in the church. I also have in a notebook somewhere what I found in Churchwardens accounts (from memory, I think from Dartington – but it’s over 20 years since I made the notes so I could well be misremembering)

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