Ringing in the changes at Morpeth’s Clock Tower

30 Nov 2016

Morpeth Clock Tower, one of the town’s most iconic landmarks, has had a modern piece of technology installed in it to keep the  ancient tradition of the evening curfew bells alive.
 
For hundreds of years the bells within the tower have chimed at 8pm each day to mark the end of the day and to tell residents to ‘deaden their fires and retire for the evening’ in readiness for work the next morning.
 
Now, thanks to £25,000 funding from Northumberland County Council,  a new piece of equipment has been fitted to electrify the existing bells and enable them to peal each night, if a bell ringer is unavailable.
 
Significantly, there is  an override function so the bells can still be rung in the traditional way including at special events such as The Northumbrian Gathering, Fair Day,  New Year and on Remembrance and Armistice Days.
 
The upgrade work has also involved the automation of the tower clock  to provide highly accurate timekeeping and save it being wound up manually each week.
 
The move has been welcomed by Matt Cracknell,  Ringing Master of the Morpeth Clock Tower Bellringers’ Society:
 
“ Traditionally the curfew was rung by the young ringers of the society but there are now restrictions on this because of changes in the insurance criteria which means they need to be accompanied by a responsible adult.
 
“The society will always aim to ring the curfew manually. The new system will not replace the bell ringers but will act as a back-up  during periods when ringers are on holiday or unavailable.
 
“ There are eight bells in the tower and for big occasions we need to find eight people which can sometimes be a problem.  The automated system provides us with much greater flexibility.   Each night Morpeth residents will continue to hear the same bells as they have always done, but the peal may be carried out automatically instead of manually.”
 
The Tower is a Grade II Listed Building and a Scheduled Ancient Monument  so  the sympathetic modifications have had  the required Scheduled Monument Consent from Historic England.  The work was carried out by specialist clock makers Smith Of Derby and Gavin Macdonald was the technician working on the job:
 
“It has been a challenging project as to  ensure  the bell ringers could still play the bells we did not want to obstruct the swing of the bells and space was very tight.
 
“ Each bell now has within it a bespoke modified hammer  linked to an electronic controller which tells  the hammer when to hit the bell.  It is a fantastic system that is also programmed to play Christmas carols, hymns, wedding peals and change ringing.”
 
The 60 foot Clock Tower is one of only eight free-standing secular bell towers in Great Britain and contains the oldest original peal of civic bells in the United Kingdom.  
 
Over the years it  has served many functions for the town including a gaol until 1802 and a meat store.
 
Northumberland County Councillor, Ian Swithenbank, cabinet  member for Local Services said:

“Ringing the curfew from Morpeth Clock Tower dates back hundreds of years  and it was probably done with a hand bell before that.
 
“ The tradition is so highly valued that  we wanted to ensure it is kept alive for centuries to come.  The installation of this automated equipment provides the best of both worlds.  It will ensure the continuation of the evening peal, whilst still enabling the bell ringers  the flexibility to ring in the  the traditional way  on big occasions and whenever  it is convenient for them. ”