LOCATION OF ST. STEPHEN’S CHURCH
WELCOME TO THE ANTIENT SOCIETY OF ST. STEPHEN’S RINGERS
The Antient Society of St. Stephen’s Ringers is believed to be more than four hundred years old. Today its principal purpose is to maintain the fabric of this important church, successive generations of Ringers having ensured that it is enjoyed by many people for aesthetic as well as religious purposes.
Please do explore the rest of this site to learn more about the Society and its role. If you would like to learn more about the Church itself, please click here to visit the St. Stephen’s dedicated website (opens in a new window).
We believe that the Society was formed long before 1620, the date of our earliest surviving Ordinance. The historian, John Latimer, has written that “It is clear from the tenor of some of the rules that the Society was even then an ancient institution. Like the fraternity of St. Mary of the Bell House, who had a chapel and a chantry priest in St. Peter’s Church, the Ringers had been probably a pre-Reformation guild for religious, benevolent and social purposes”.
Beyond our crucial help with the maintenance of the fabric of St Stephen’s, the Society’s role in the day-to-day life of the Church is limited, but it meets in the Church for two main events a year.
On May Day at 7 a.m. a short service takes place at the top of the tower. There are several hundred steps to the top of the bell tower and it is quite a sight to see the Vestry and twenty or thirty members of the Society singing hymns in this magical location! – quite apart from the service, the views over the City are spectacular!
The other main event in the Church is the Annual Service which is held on the Sunday nearest to the Accession Day of Queen Elizabeth 1 (17th November 1558). The church is packed and there is always a thought-provoking sermon from a visiting preacher. Following the Service a Drinks Party is attended by the Ringers and their families.
The Annual Dinner is held on the Monday evening after the Annual Service. It is no longer an occasion for the excesses which certainly characterised it in the past, but it does retain some interesting customs such as handbell ringing, personal toasting of friends, the singing of old songs, and the reading of the Ordinances, which make for an interesting and lively evening. The Dinner is held at the Red Lodge by kind permission of the Bristol Savages (www.bristol-savages.org).
In 1931 the membership was restructured and sub-divided into Ringers and Colts (Apprentices) and the Ordnances were amended accordingly. As a result of the changes the objectives of the Society were re-stated: a Court comprising the Master, Wardens and Past Masters constituted as the governing body; the Learned Clerk appointed; and a register of Members prepared. Arising from these reforms the number of Ringers is limited to 100 (exclusive of members of the Court and Past Masters), and the number of Colts is limited to 40. The membership of the Society is made up from a cross-section of the business community in the greater Bristol area. Many of the senior members are now retired but were prominent and successful practitioners in their chosen fields.
The Court changes on an annual basis with a new Warden being elected at the Annual Meeting - the Michaelmas Court – which takes place on Michaelmas Day, 29th September, each year. The Warden Elect holds this position until the Annual Dinner, when he will become Junior Warden as the Master retires, and the Senior Warden becomes the new Master.
With a name such as ours you would have thought that the Society would be a collection of campanologists. Sadly, this is not the case, although this is almost certainly the origins of the Society. The link to campanology today is maintained by the St. Stephen’s Hand Bell Ringers, who have close links to the Society and play at both the Annual Service and the Annual Dinner.
The following is a brief record of the chief work with which the Society has been associated in the restoration and enrichment of St. Stephen’s Church.
2020 Various works recommended in the Quinquennial Review
2019 Renovated cafe floor and some asbestos removal
2017 Drainage, beadwork and roof repairs
2015 Various internal renovations
2014 Renovation of parts of the Tower
2010-11 Restoration of the South porch
2007 Restoration of the porch gates
2005 Restoration of the roof
2002-03 Restoration of the Organ and repairs to the electric lighting
2000-01 Installation of Tower floodlighting
1998-99 Restoration and enlargement of Common Room
1994 Remedial work to the bell frame
1990 Restoration of Snygge Memorial
1989. Re-wiring and Pelham Memorial
1988. Restoration of Pring and Peloquin Monuments.
1987. Restoration of Ringers Court.
1985. Interior decorations and restoration of Blanket Tomb.
1981. Restoration to South Porch.
1979. Restoration work to Tower.
1964. Interior decorations.
1963. Grant towards cost of new Altar.
1958. Interior restoration.
1956-57. Repairs to north and east walls.
1951. New Great West Window.
1948-50. Restoration of War damage and repairs to Belfry.
1945-46. Re-erection and restoration of Organ.
1940. Removal of Organ to place of safety.
1939. Memorial gateway to Past Master James Fuller Eberle.
1934. Restoration of North Clerestory.
1933. Restoration of South Porch.
1932. Improvements to churchyard.
1931. New heating installation.
1930. Repairs to Organ
1926. Complete restoration of roof.
1923. Repairs to interior of Church and Organ.
1918. Repairs to roof and Organ.
1914-17. Restoration of the Tower -
“one of the most stately gems of ecclesiastical art” – RUSKIN.
1906. Bells re-cast and re-hung, with addition of two new bells.
1903. New Clerestory windows.
1902. New Baptistery windows.
1900. Repair to Belfry.
1899. Electric lighting installed in Church.
1898. Five stained-glass windows in North Aisle.
1895. Erection of Chancel screen
1892. Belfry refitted, two new bells added.
1891. New marble Pulpit
1886. Re-seating of Church in carved oak.
1885. Memorial window to Past Master F. J. Fargus (Hugh Conway)
1883. Restoration of Baptistery and new Font.
1881. East window fitted with stained glass.
1876. Chancel repaved and new marble steps.
1875. Restoration of East end – new Reredos.
New oak Chancel and choir stalls.
The Ringers’ Chair was made up in about 1890 from the mahogany parts remaining from the 1730’s pulpit, which was said to have been rotten and a danger to the preacher. The pulpit and the magnificent classical reredos were carved by Edward Hippesley and Stephen Britten and probably designed by James Paty.
HISTORY OF THE SOCIETY
No definite evidence exists as to when the Society was formed, but local historians think that it originated in pre-Reformation days as a Guild of Bellringers, dedicated to their craft and to the religious, benevolent and social matters connected with it. It seems likely that its formation coincided with the building of John Shipward’s Tower in circa 1470. The long-term practice of placing “1620” upon the Society’s publications is misleading. Apart from the fact that this is the date of the earliest Ordinances extant, it was mistakenly thought that in this year James 1 had redeemed a promise on the part of Elizabeth 1 to grant the Society a Charter.
Past Master H. E. Roslyn, (Master 1932) whose History of the Society refers to the promise of the grant of a Charter which Queen Elizabeth 1 is said to have made when visiting Bristol.
The tradition is that she was pleased with the music of the bells and with the skill of the ringers. There is nothing surprising about this because in the course of a progress to Wales in 1574 the Queen established her Court nearby at the residence of Sir John Young, which was The Great House, St. Augustine’s (the city’s main concert venue stands on this site today) from the 14th to 20th August. As Bristol was en fete for the Queen, her only State Visit, it would have been strange if the ringers had not made themselves heard at this short distance. Sir John, whose dower house was The Red Lodge, received a knighthood in recognition of his hospitality, but the promised Charter was never granted. How the story that the promise was redeemed in 1620 originated, no one knows, but it is quite untrue. This inaccuracy is repeated in the inscription upon the reverse of the Master’s badge, which is of comparatively recent origin, having been anonymously presented in 1885.
If the Society had remained as a conventional Guild of Bellringers, the probability is that it would have perished as time progressed and fashions changed. A notable example of this is St. Mary of the Bellhouse, a similar but even more strongly established Society associated with St. Peter’s (City), an even older Church which possessed its own Chapel and Chantry Priest. In the case of the Society, however, as interest in the actual ringing of bells diminished and as social activities increased, it seems that by the end of the 17th Century the Society had become a “mixed’ Society, i.e. composed of men who actually rang the bells and of others who did not do so. There is evidence that people who lived outside the parish were granted membership. This change was not very commendable as during the 18th and for much of the 19th centuries the Society degenerated into what Past Master Roslyn described as “a mere convivial company who, beyond observing various old customs at their gatherings, showed little concern either for the bells reverently rung by their predecessors or the Church from which they derived their name”.
However, the conviviality and revelry which attended the annual festivities held on the 17th November (The Accession Day of Elizabeth 1) generated sufficient interest to keep the Society alive, and prepared for the major change in its activities which was made in 1873, and maintained ever since. At the Annual Dinner that year the Rector, The Reverend F. F. Wayet, rebuked the company for the degeneration of the Society, and on the strength of this it was decided that the Society should dedicate itself to the preservation of the Church and its precincts by way of an Annual Collection made by the Master.
The Society has been responsible for meeting the cost of many major works and very few have been undertaken without a substantial contribution from the Ringers. As the Church is, in comparison with other city churches in Bristol, poorly endowed, the assistance of the Society has been invaluable.
Notwithstanding this important reform, the Society lacked any administrative structure for many years beyond that provided by its ancient Ordinances. Whilst the Master, Wardens and Warden Elect continued to be elected on 29th September every year (though “not between five and eight of the clock in the morning” as prescribed) there was little else in the Ordinances which was not completely archaic. There was no Clerk, and no register of Members, and the fact that the Society survived and prospered from 1873 to 1931 without a proper structure is a fitting testimonial to the diligence and devotion of Alderman James Fuller Eberle (Master 1887) who was the mainspring of the Society during this long period. The fine gateway giving access to the west door of the Church was erected by the Society as a memorial to this greatly loved and respected man.
In 1931 the absence of an administrative structure was remedied by the Master that year, Mr. J. H. H. Perks. After consulting Past Master James Fuller Eberle, he submitted proposals for a register of the membership and its sub-division into Ringers and Colts, and for the amendment of the Ordinances. These were warmly welcomed, and as a result the objectives of the Society were restated, a Court comprising the Master, Wardens and Past Masters constituted as the governing body, a Clerk appointed, and a register of members prepared. These were important reforms particularly as they did nothing to impair the Ancient Ordinances and the interest they invariably create. Arising from these reforms the number of Ringers is limited to 100, exclusive of members of the Court, and the number of Colts is limited to 40.
The Society’s Annual Dinner held at The Red Lodge on the Monday closest to the Accession Day of Queen Elizabeth 1 (17th November). The attendance is limited to 109 for reasons of space, and many interesting customs have been retained, such as handbell ringing, personal toasting of friends, the singing of old songs – sometimes impromptu – the reading of the Ordinances and the Procession of the Don, which make it an interesting and lively occasion.
Note 1. “The History of the Antient Society of St. Stephen’s Ringers Bristol) by H. E. Roslyn (Master 1932) was published privately by subscription in 1929. The author was a well-known Bristol journalist who was a recognised authority of Bristol history. In an author’s note he acknowledges that he was encouraged to embark upon this task by Past Master James Fuller Eberle, whose long and invaluable service to the Society has already been mentioned.
This book is beautifully printed on hand-made paper and is bound in vellum.
Copies are not readily obtainable but may sometimes be found in Bristol book sales.
HISTORY OF THE ST. STEPHEN’S CHURCH
The original Church of St. Stephen (City) Bristol was probably a wooden building, which must have been built between 1247 and 1291 to serve the new parish outside the original City wall created as a result of the construction of the Great Quay (now Broad Quay) during that period. The emergence of Bristol as the second greatest port in England commenced at this time and resulted from this major civil engineering work. This may explain why the Church’s jurisdiction extends to the waters of the Port of Bristol as well as to its “land” parish.
The Church was extensively rebuilt in the 15th Century. The Abbey of Glastonbury, which is credited with its building and with a share, at least, in its reconstruction, exercised the right of patronage until the dissolution of the Abbey and the “liquidation” of its Abbot by Henry VIII after which the advowson became Crown property. Until the unification of benefices in central Bristol took place following the conclusion of the 1939/45 War, the right to present was exercised by the Crown alone, acting through the Lord Chancellor, but since then, the right has been shared with the other patrons involved.
The Tower and the Great West Window were built at the sole cost of John Shipward in or about 1470. He was a wealthy merchant, whose mansion adjoined the Church. He is notable for having been twice Mayor of Bristol and its Member of Parliament in 1460 and also for involvement in the “Battle” of Nibley Green, fought on 20th March, 1470, and the last “private” battle recorded in England. He and his wife, Katherine, are buried in the Chancel before the High Altar. The West Window suffered severe War damage in 1940 and was repaired and reglazed at the joint cost of the Society and of the Society of Merchant Venturers. The Coats of Arms of both Societies and portraits of their Patroness and Patron respectively (Elizabeth I and Edward VI) are incorporated in the glazing.
Shipward’s fine tower has been the subject of major repairs on at least four occasions. It was badly damaged (as was Bristol Cathedral) in the great storm of November, 1703, the same that destroyed the Eddystone Lighthouse and its builder Winstanley. It was repaired in 1862 having, according to Latimer, “suffered much from natural decay but more from the hands of ignorant Churchwardens.” From 1914 to 1916 the Tower was completely scaffolded and its crumbling stonework restored mainly at the expense of the Society but with assistance from the Society of Merchant Venturers. From 1970 - 1972 a comprehensive restoration of the Tower, the tracery surmounting it and the belfry was carried out and the whole is now in excellent condition. The raising of the considerable sum involved was organised by the Society, the appeal receiving widespread support from benefactors both inside and outside the Society.
The excellent condition of the elegant interior is due to the comprehensive restoration and redecoration carried out following the presentation of the Rev. S.M.F. Woodhouse to the living in 1957. Features of particular interest which were restored at this time were the Memorial Tablet (1626) to Martin Pring, Navigator and Explorer, and the Tomb (1380) ascribed to Edmund Blanket, cloth weaver and his wife. The antique brass lectern and wrought iron sword rest and gates which survived the War Damage at St. Nicholas were given to the Church at this time and the Chapel in the North Aisle, dedicated to St. Nicolas and St. Leonard, constructed. In this instance also, the Society contributed to the cost of these works, substantial contributions also being made by the Vestries of Churches whose benefices has been incorporated with that of St. Stephen and by many private benefactors. Also during this period the organ was rebuilt and a new high alter installed.
The full style of the Church is currently St. Stephen’s with St. Nicolas and St. Leonard and All Saints although this is the subject of leave to appeal to the Privy Council in respect of further aspects to the Benefice.