Kempe’s Bells

By Adrian Barlow / April, 24, 2014 / 0 comments

Kempe Lindfield churchLindfield, in Sussex, was Kempe’s home for much of his life. In 1874 he bought Old Place, a small Elizabethan manor house in the village; this he restored, enlarged and embellished, creating a magnificent garden and a house impressive enough to be featured in Country Life. Inside, he filled the rooms with antique furnishings and artwork and decorated them with rich plasterwork, panelling and, of course, stained glass. Much of this was heraldic, a way of surrounding himself with the arms of his family and friends; in the drawing room, however, he created a series of designs incorporating lines from Walter Scott’s poem The Lay of the Last Minstrel and roundels depicting scenes of family life, friendship and affection.

One of these roundels depicts two children collecting daisies in Lindfield village churchyard; the church itself is carefully painted these roundels are created entirely with silver stain in the background. Kempe was a major benefactor of All Saints, and to this day it contains evidence of his close association with it. He gave no windows (the only Kempe glass in the church was inserted after his death by C.E. Kempe and Co.) but there are Kempe frontals still extant, as well as a screen designed and made for him to present to the church. Also, surprisingly, three bells.

In 1887 Kempe was People’s Warden, one of the church’s two churchwardens, elected by the congregation. As a way of marking Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee, he proposed that the church’s five ancient bells (a remarkable though somewhat random collection dating from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and still hanging in the tower) should be supplemented to create a full peal of eight bells. He had consulted the firm of John Taylor of Loughborough – then, as now, one of the two leading bell foundries in Britain – the other being the Whitechapel foundry in London’s east end – and had established that the bell frame would need to be restored and strengthened to carry the extra weight and stress of a full peal being hung and rung. In a prospectus circulated to the village, he offered to give three bells, if the parish would meet the rest of the cost. The money was duly raised, the bells were commissioned and the framework restored:




 The bells donated by Kempe are marked with his wheatsheaf logo and the following inscription: Felici Anno Lmo Regni Victoriae AD MDCCCLXXXVII Lavs Deo (‘In the Fiftieth Year of the Happy Reign of Victoria AD 1887 Praise be to God’).

The new ring of bells was inaugurated with a full peal of Grandsire Triples.

Bells last a long time: of the earlier Lindfield bells, three date from the reign of Elizabeth I and one each from either side of the Civil War and the Commonwealth. Kempe’s bells, unique among the great range and variety of furnishings the Studios produced or commissioned, are young by comparison. Occasionally a bell may crack or lose its tone but, if so, it can usually be re-cast; you won’t often hear of bells being scrapped unless the tower in which they hang has become structurally unsafe, and they need to be removed.

The Kempe Trust exists of course to protect Kempe’s legacy, to raise awareness of its importance and to assist, where possible, in the preservation and conservation of the glass and furnishings associated with his name and that of C.E. Kempe and Co. The Trustees were surprised, therefore, to read that the Vicar of Lindfield, the Rev. Canon Dr. James Clarke, is about to launch a £200,000 appeal – for what? for an  entirely new set of bells. On Palm Sunday the congregation read the following announcement:

 On 9th September 2015, HM the Queen will become the longest reigning monarch in British history, surpassing the reign of Queen Victoria’s, of 63 years, 7 months and 3 days. In honour of this unique landmark, and as part of our larger ASPIRE project, All Saints is proposing to commission an entire set of new bells, to be known as ‘The Queen Elizabeth II bells’.

 Any donors willing to contribute £20,000 to the Appeal were promised that their names would be inscribed on one of the bells.

On the face of it, this is worrying, indeed astonishing. The Kempe Trustees have written to the Vicar and churchwardens asking for clarification of their intentions and of their plans (if any) for the safe-keeping of the historic bells they apparently intend to replace. Their reply is eagerly awaited.

It must be said that the story of Kempe and the Lindfield bells did not have a happy ending. His scheme for celebrating Victoria’s Golden Jubilee didn’t meet with unanimous approval in the village, even though the money was raised in good time, the bell frame was restored and the new bells were cast and hung within nine months of his original appeal. The Mid-Sussex Times gleefully covered the controversy for a year; but whatever gall Kempe must have felt at voices being raised against his scheme turned to wormwood when he discovered that the man who had now stood against him in the 1888 election for People’s Warden and had won, Mr G. Masters, had lost no time in having his name added to a memorial plaque inside the church listing those who had been responsible for seeing this Jubilee project through to a successful completion. Kempe was incandescent.

He wrote to the Mid-Sussex Times. Everyone knew, he complained, thatMr Masters had played no part in the project whatsoever: indeed, he had campaigned against it. Worse still, though he had originally promised to contribute £20 to the appeal fund, not a penny of that money had actually been paid. ‘May I therefore use your columns,’ Kempe wrote, ‘to tell my friends and neighbours that I have had no part in this somewhat vulgar and ostentatious memorial?’ It was a sad postscript to a generous and unique gesture on Kempe’s part. Within another year, he had transferred his allegiance to Cuckfield Church, and remained happily a member of that congregation for the rest of his life. But his bells still hang in the tower of Lindfield Church, and there surely they should remain.

Adrian Barlow

[illustration: All Saints, Lindfield: a roundel in the Drawing Room window of Old Place. Photo copyright Adrian Barlow and the Kempe Trust.