It is undeniable that the Parish Church bell tower in Llantrisant has dominated the sky line, particularly from the south since it was built in the 1490s.
Those who have climbed the hill from Talbot Green will be all too familiar with the ascent that is required to reach it. Views from the top of the tower are breathtaking. Of its contents however there is scant information, save the speculation that any bells contained there were removed during the 16th Century Reformation to Tewkesbury Abbey.
1718 was the year the printing press came to Wales. Evans Bellfounders in Chepstow were commissioned to provide a ring of 6 bells for Llantrisant. In those days the arch at the west end of the church was bricked up, and the bells were rung from the ground floor, with the Treble (smallest) bell positioned where the 6th is rung from today in an anticlockwise circle. The Evans business dated back to Elizabethan times, but Evan Evans started casting behind a house near the Portwall in Chepstow in 1686. His sons Evan Jnr and William joined the business in 1710 and they went on to cast hundreds of bells, including the 1 ½ ton tenth bell at Exeter Cathedral in 1729 and the only surviving ring of 8 from that foundry at Cowbridge in 1722.
In the 1870s J P Seddon, Architect was commissioned to “restore the tower”. This included the unbricking of the arch. The bells had received little attention during the intervening years, so much so that a visit of the Penarth ringers in 1892 caused them to write of the situation: "On Saturday December 26th 1892 the Penarth ringers journeyed to the above place to have a pull on the bells, and also to try and introduce change-ringing amongst the local men. On nearing the church, they heard the bells going merrily in rounds by the local band, who at once lowered them and placed them at the disposal of the visitors, who at once commenced to raise them, but found it a very hard job, the bells going as bad as it is possible for bells to go, but by a lot of hard pulling they managed to raise them, and on the word “go” several 6-scores of Grandsire Doubles were rung. On “stand” being called, the band adjourned to the house of host Mr Thomas, and after doing justice to the repast kindly provided by the local band, and indulging in a few 6-scores on the handbells, they started again for the belfry, and after a few more 6-scores the bells were lowered in peal.
"They would like to suggest that this would be a good opportunity to have the bells thoroughly overhauled, it being the native place of the present Lord Mayor of London, his lordship’s mother having been buried there recently. The local men are anxious to learn the art of change-ringing, but it is impossible to do it in the condition the bells are now in. The third is cracked, and they have not been touched since they were placed there in 1718. The visitors wish to heartily thank the Vicar and Churchwarden for the use of the bells, and also the local ringers for their kind hospitality on this occasion.”
Back in 1870 David Evans of Llantrisant followed the tradition of his ancestry and was inaugurated into the Freeman of Llantrisant at the annual Court Leet. He went on to become Lord Mayor of London in 1891. He willingly got involved in helping to raise money for the restoration of the bells at that time. It is said that “hundreds of townsfolk lined the streets of Llantrisant as the local band marched to the Bull Ring on a hot July afternoon in 1892. It was a memorable chapter in the history of the town, as an open carriage carried a very special son of Llantrisant. His name was David Evans and he had become the Lord Mayor of the greatest city in the world”.
Rev. J Pritchard Hughes, Vicar, said that Llantrisant was proud of him and rejoiced in the fact that one of their sons would: 'take part in building up and maintaining the fabric of the great Empire to which they were proud to belong.' Following a visit to the National Eisteddfod in Bridgend, and before an important engagement in Pontypridd he went to Llantrisant. The occasion was to open a bazaar in aid of Llantrisant Church restoration fund to help refurbish the tower and rehang the bells. It was a special event indeed, since it raised £400 and in the shadow of the tower itself his parents were buried. Travelling in an open carriage, friends and former neighbours rushed out to shake his hand before he arrived at the Bull Ring to loud cheers.
In 1892 the floor was excavated to reveal a bell foundry in situ, where the 1718 bells had been cast. A Western Mail journalist who visited the site wrote enthusiastically about the find but was completely incorrect in his assumptions. The discovery was of the Evans foundry NOT earlier as he suggested!
“EXCAVATION IN THE CHURCH BELFRY AT LLANTRISANT. An interesting discovery has just been made beneath the floor of the belfry of Llantrisant church, which is a pre-Norman sacred site. A correspondent of The Western Mail says: “I have just visited the spot, and it seems to me the workmen have uncovered a small portion of the Llantrisant which existed before the destruction of the old town, formerly called Llan Cawr Dav, at the time of the Norman invasion of Glamorgan, in the summer of a .d . 1093. It appears probable that the bell-shaped mound of earth discovered entire beneath the floor, with flues leading from it in the directions of outlets no longer to be seen, relates to a period antecedent to the terrible conflict between the men of Glamorgan and the Normans on this spot soon after AD 1093.
"The model for the bell below the floor of Llantrisant belfry is for a bell much larger in size than any of the six bells suspended there until they were taken down for restoration purposes. Therefore, it seems as if this model is that of bells cast here at some remote period, prior to the Normans coming into Glamorgan, just eight hundred years ago. It is very likely the ancient larger bells were conveyed away to Tewkesbury Abbey, and smaller ones substituted for them here. On the south side of the interesting model or large mould was found a human skeleton, lying east and west. There is something deeply significant in the presence of this skeleton under the bells. Is it that of some ancient cymro who long ago dearly loved the sweet music of the bells, and directed that his remains should be entombed beneath the spot from which their music was frequently wafted on the wings of the breeze for miles around? I myself have often heard their chimes o’winter nights at Tonyrefail, five miles away. Judging by the condition of the bones, they had rested there beneath the bells many a century.”
It had been decided that the cracked bell would be replaced and the bells hung in a new frame. The work was given to Charles Carr of Smethwick, who although casting quite a lot in the area such as the ring of six at Pendoylan, did what has since been considered by modern standards a very poor job of frame and bell, leaving it “sharp”of its required note and poor in tone. Carr visited the tower prior to doing the work and wrote the following:
“ I read with much interest the account in “The Bell News’ of the finding of a Bell Foundry in Llantrisant Church tower, especially so, as we have the contract for restoring the bells there, and I have personally seen the place and examined the relics turned up during the excavations. It is indeed a most remarkable sight. There stands the portion of the furnace in which the metal was melted and the foundation of the chimney, but the firing end is gone. They have also very good pieces of the hard loam from off face of bell, and the ornaments are as plain as if these belonged to a new mould, instead of one in which metal had been poured. I carefully measured a plaster cast taken from an outside mould or cope found in one corner, and it tallies exactly with the present fifth bell, whilst a large piece of inside mould found, certainly has been part of a larger mould than for any bell there now. It is worth a journey to see these and other things found, to anyone who is in any way interested in bells.
"On Wednesday, December 27th, 1894 the members of the Penarth branch of the Llandaff Diocesan Association of Church Bellringers held their annual outing, the places chosen being Llantrisant and Peterstone-super-Ely. Arriving at the former place about twelve o’clock they were welcomed by the curate and some of the local band. They lost no time in getting to work, and were most agreeably surprised at the “ go ” of the bells, which is a nice little ring of six, and have lately been rehung and the third recast by Messrs. Carr, of Birmingham , the workmanship and all connected therewith reflecting the greatest credit on the firm. It was soon time to proceed to the station en route for Peterstone, which was reached in a very short time.”
Leading on from the encouragement of the Penarth ringers, by the early 1900s, change ringing had become established at Llantrisant and the period to the 1950s produced some of the best ringing in the towers history. John Evans (1883-1976), a schoolmaster took part in the ringing of 720 Plain Bob Minor with a local band. In 1923 Llantrisant born Royden Davies (1907-1995) learned to ring here, and went on following a move for work to Croydon to become Captain at Croydon Parish Church, President of the Surrey Association of Bellringers and a member of the Westminster Abbey band!
With a strong band of ringers the bells were augmented to eight in 1926 and progress continued to the point where on 24 November 1932 the local band, now well versed in Change Ringing, completed a full peal 5040 Changes of Plain Bob Triples which is commemorated on a plaque in the belfry. This was rung in memory of the late Rev D H Simon, Vicar.
By 1937 there were a good number of locals involved in ringing: Rev A Sturdy, William Huish, Bateman Francis, John A Evans, Robert Rees, John, Reg, William and Gwyn Westcott, Cecil Taylor, William Jeffries, Richard John and Frank Rowsell. Following the War duties were recommenced. The 6th bell was rehung by the locals in the 1940s, and there is a record of ringing for the Queens Coronation on 2 June 1953 by seven of the aforementioned men and additionally Brian Westcott.
This “strong and steadfast band” appears to have dispersed for some reason in the late 50s and it wasn’t until the late 60s that Richard (Ted) Hughes who had learned to ring in the Shrewsbury area, and had come to Wales to work on the railway, was asked to revive ringing. For the last 50 years or so the bells have soldiered on with mixed fortunes. From the heydays of the early 20th Century and the late 1970s to leaner times interspersed. One thing is certain: bells have been an integral part of Church and Town Life for centuries, and the 5 Evans bells will have been continuous in their proclamations for 300 years in 2018. Church, Royal and State occasions, weddings, funerals, the bells sound out.
So, the 300th anniversary of the casting of 5 of the bells under the tower is coming up in 2018. The installation at Llantrisant is now in need of full restoration. An opportunity perhaps for people in the town and further afield with associations to it to get involved in restoring the ring and keeping the bells manned to ensure that the tradition continues for centuries more.
With thanks to Andrew Giles