During the mid 1990s there was a growing awareness within the Guild of the need to take a more pro-active stance in fostering the restoration, repair and maintenance of the bells and belfries within the Guild’s area of operation. While focusing primarily on bells hung for change ringing, there was also a recognition that the Guild’s influence could, and should encompass all of the bells within the two Dioceses of Winchester and Portsmouth that we, together with our fellow Church members hold in trust for current and future generations. This new thinking focused both on a new and more positive approach to raising funds for the Guild Bell Restoration Fund, and also towards the practical elements of care and maintenance of bells – leading to the formation in 1994 of the Belfry Stewardship Committee.
The Belfry Stewardship Committee developed policies to support the BRF Trustees, Parishes and Ringers with advice and guidance on belfry maintenance and restoration matters; to support the Guild Education Committee (and through them Guild members) in providing training in belfry maintenance skills, and to develop relationships with Diocesan Bell Advisers and others to enhance common purpose and best practice.
Early in the deliberations of both the BSC and the BRF Trustees was the need for a clearer view of the condition of the heritage of bell installations around the Guild (the Bell Stock) to inform the likely requirement for BRF grant support into the future, and to assist in gauging the sort of practical advice and assistance that would be required around the two dioceses. A key factor contributing to the lack of knowledge was the state of the only documentary record of bells and belfries in Hampshire – Hampshire Church Bells. This is a slim volume, compiled in 1920 by Rev W E Colchester, from various sources dating back over the previous 30 years, and notoriously inaccurate and incomplete. It soon became clear that better data was required, and when in 1995 the BSC was asked separately to offer input to an attempt to build a national inventory of historic Peal Records and Peal Boards, and also co-ordinate a response to a Central Council nationwide survey of three-bell towers, this led to the concept of a Guild-wide bell stock survey embracing all aspects of the bell content of each church in the area covered by the Guild.
The concept evolved into a “self-completion” questionnaire supported by detailed notes for guidance, with the intention that members of the local towers/parishes would provide the data to compile the survey. A pilot scheme was run in the Deanery of Petersfield (Diocese of Portsmouth) which was sufficiently successful to warrant a Guild-wide implementation in those towers with three or more bells believed to be hung for ringing. The survey forms and notes for guidance were distributed for manuscript completion during 1998. During the ensuing eighteen months over 55 towers responded, the volume falling away towards the end of this period. In only one occasion was the response a flat refusal to contribute! On the contrary despite some supposed misgivings that tower members were capable of making a satisfactory response the overall standard of returned forms was excellent, with some outstanding examples of quality of information and presentation provided.