We can trace the foundry back to the late 17th century, when the Corr family were gunsmiths in Aldbourne, formerly renting then owning the Court House, just to the north of the church. Following the end of the Civil War, the demand for guns dropped off considerably, and with a skilled workforce and furnace and forge in place, the family looked to other avenues of production to keep the business running.
The 17th century was a very religious time, and there had become a terrific demand across the country for more bells to be installed in churches, and the Corr family was very well placed to change their type of business to accommodate this. They already had a regular supply of copper, tin and zinc (gun metal comprises 88% copper, 10% tin, 2% zinc) from established supply routes from the West Country for their gunsmithing business, and they were also by now casting horse brasses as well. Bells needed to be harder, and so by changing the composition to 78% copper, 20% tin, and 2% zinc and lead, they were ready for business!
Their first excursion into bell founding was to experiment with handle bells during the 1670’s, and in doing so the Corrs discovered that bells could be made into musical sets by adding bushes for controlling the swing of the clapper and leather clapper ends, plus leather straps for holding the bells in the hand. They are credited with producing the first tuned hand bells in this country and possibly the world!
They also made crotal bells, as there was a demand for good quality sheep bells on the downs where sheep were the main meat and wool source.
The first church bell is recorded as being cast in 1694, and from then on with different members of the Corr family in charge, including Joan Corr – who married into the family, the foundry produced nearly 150 church bells, the last recorded in 1741, covering much of central southern England, and beyond. This was remarkable considering there were no roads, canals or railways to transport the bells, and horse & cart was the only way.
Family squabbles and financial problems dogged the Corrs’ final days as a serious bell foundry, and in 1743 John Stares, a wealthy farmer took over the business, and his son followed him until 1751, casting 16 church bells, plus many crotal bells. They were followed by Edward and John Read, who cast at least 10 church bells, and many crotal bells. However, they struggled financially, and Edward went bankrupt in 1762. Edward had taken a mortgage out on Court House in 1743, so may have been involved with John Stares earlier.
During this period, two of the former Corr employees, William Rose and Edward Plumer started their own small bell foundries. William Rose had a family blacksmith business in Lambourn, and from there, produced many hand bells and crotal bells. Edward Plumer lived in Ramsbury, and also turned to hand bell and crotal bell founding at his blacksmith’s business.
In 1755 William Wells, a farmer at North Farm, and his son Robert Wells was in partnership with John Looker at Pond House with a blacksmith’s business known as Smith’s Forge. William and John developed and improved ways of casting and and crotal bells. It is not known how many small bells he cast, but Robert Wells took over Read’s Court House business and from 1760 to 1780 produced at least 86 church bells, as well as hundreds of hand bells and crotal bells. He is credited with producing the diatonic scale for hand bells that was used worldwide until recently. At some point he vacated Court House and continued a foundry at Bell Court on The Green. Robert became very well-known and also bought old bells, which were cheaper to melt down than using raw materials. Indeed he purchased the Salisbury Cathedral campanile in 1777, possibly using some of the metal to cast two bells at the Aldbourne tower.
This is a picture of the logo of Robert Wells on a crotal bell.
This advert (in original grammar), from The Marlborough Journal 6th June 1772 shows how the business was flourishing:
“At the BELLFOUNDERY at Aldbourne, Wilts, CHURCH BELLS are cast in a more elegant, and as mufical a Manner, as in any Part of The Kingdom, the Founder having made the Theory of Sounds, as well as the Nature of Metal his chief Study; also hangs the fame, finding all materials in the most complete and concise manner. And also. Hand-Bells prepared strictly in Tune, in any Key, Horse Bells, Clock and Room Bells, the neatest of their several kinds. Likewise Mill Brasses cast, and sold at the loest Prices.
All orders will be punctually observed by
ROB. WELLS, Founder.
He gives Ready Money and the best Prices for Bell Metal.”
In 1777 Wells purchased the whole of the Salisbury Cathedral campanile for £434, and quite possibly used the metal when casting two bells for Aldbourne church (one of which he donated) in 1787. The inscriptions read:-
First bell (Treble) (on Sound bow)
*THE GIFT OF ROBT. WELLS BELL FOUNDER. 1787. * (* = 6 roses)
Second bell (on Sound bow)
* * THE GIFT OF JOS PIZZIE &WM GWYNNE OF ALDBOURN * *
ROBERT WELLS OF ALDBOURNE FECIT 1787
* MUSIC AND RINGING WE LIKE SO WELL
* AND FOR THAT REASON WE GAVE THIS BELL
(* = a half rosette)
Robert Wells was a very prominent member of the community, and following a disastrous village fire in 1760, in which he and many others suffered financially, and then again following a further huge fire in 1777, became treasurer of a national appeal for money to help alleviate the huge losses incurred, which was quite successful. All the while he continued to cast tuned hand bells, as well as church bells, and he became well known for perfecting the casting of the crotal bell (or rumbler) with the pea inside, and we have two of his original patterns and a diagram of the casting method in the Heritege Centre .Robert 1 took over the Court House in Aldbourne as a foundry, and then developed a foundry at Bell Court (on The Green), whilst also using the blacksmith’s at Pond House, which later became the main foundry, boasting two furnaces. Most notable rings cast by Robert 1 were seven bells at St Thomas Salisbury, and eight for Deritend, Birmingham (long since removed and recast elsewhere).
During this period, 2 other men were casting small bells, namely Edne Witts (between 1760 – 1777), and William Gwynn (between 1770 – 1813). They may well have been sub-contracting for the Wells, but were certainly not in competition in a big way.
The bell foundry was now flourishing, and on his death in 1781, the business passed to Robert 1’s son, Robert Wells 2, who was then joined by younger brother James. Between them they produced at least 84 bells, until the business passed entirely to James in 1799. There followed the “golden age” of the foundry, and it was now operating from what is now Pond House, where 2 furnaces were operational. At least a further 125 church bells were cast during this period, and the Wells family between them produced thousands of hand bells and crotal bells, making them the country leaders in their field.
However, in 1825 with a full order book, the company went into liquidation. Although the foundry was thriving, James was a big landowner, and had built up huge debts to finance his farming interests which had largely failed, due in part to the end of the Napoleonic Wars. The bell foundry was sold to the Whitechapel Bell Foundry of Thomas Mears.
Mears took not only all of the machinery and patterns to London, but also many of the Wells employees. Most settled in, but one family could not get on with the East End and returned to Aldbourne. This was the Bridgman family, and James worked locally for Whitechapel as a bell hanger. He also commenced casting hand bells and crotal bells at Hightown, on The Green, eventually retiring in 1851. The business then went to his apprentice Henry Bond, who moved to his own home town of Burford. His family continued casting hand bells and church bells until 1947.
Wells hand bells and crotal bells are now known the world over, are always the most sought after, and if any come up for sale, command high prices. There is a display cabinet in the Swan Tower at Perth, Australia, showing a collection of Wells bells. Meta detectorists frequently did up old crotal bells, often in good condition.
A set of eight Wells hand bells was donated to the ringers in 1889, now housed in the church tower, and are still occasionally used today, on special occasions. Also in the tower is a carillon made by William Lawrence aged 21 in 1879, a coin in the slot mechanism which plays hymns, and was used at fetes to raise money.
In the Heritage Centre we have many examples of Aldbourne Foundry hand bells and crotal bells, and holding pride of place a Wells No 28 crotal bell, which is one of the largest that would have been cast in Aldbourne. This magnificent crotal was purchased by our members and the good people of
Aldbourne in February 2018, against strong competition, and proves that our bell foundry has an affectionate place in the hearts of Aldbourne people. There is also on display the old Marlborough Grammar School bell, cast by James Wells in 1803. Alongside the cabinet you will see two of the Wells crotal bell patterns, together with a diagram of how they were cast.
“The mighty tower o’erlooks The Green,
Its industrious ringers, to most unseen,
Ring out the bells – some locally cast –
And remind us of our illustrious past.”
From Terry Gilligan’s book “Aldbourne – the Home of the Hand Bell and Crotal Bell” 2013