The bell at Christ Church

The bell at Christ Church

  • Posted by Stefan
  • On 13. April 2021


Visitors to the BWC website may have seen (and heard) the video of the Christ Church bell being rung daily up until Easter during the Coronavirus crisis. Religious services are suspended under the current restrictions and the daily ringing of the bell in the evening throughout Lent has been one way for the Church to show solidarity with other Churches and Christians across the city and call people to pray together each evening during the crisis. Now, after Easter, the bell is still being rung regularly on Sundays to remind people that the Church is still there and call them to prayer, even if services are still temporarily suspended. If you enjoyed listening to the bell, it occurred to me that BWC members might also be interested in its history.

I have been attending Christ Church for many years but had never given the bell a second thought until November last year when a letter arrived from the Central Office of the Evangelical Church in Germany asking us to confirm that we still had in our possession a 104.5 kg bell with a bell tone in A-flat. The letter referred to this as a „Patenglocke“ or „Leihglocke“, cast in 1593, which used to hang in Lohbrück, a suburb of Breslau (now Wroclav in Poland). One look at the bell confirmed that it looked pretty heavy and no doubt could weigh over 100 kg but there were absolutely no distinguishing marks on the bell and the note it plays when rung is not something you can easily determine without a good musical ear or some scientific equipment.  So, what is a „Leihglocke“ and how did it come to Christ Church, a Church of England Church built in 1951?

A little research led back to 1941 when the War Ministry under Hermann Göring ordered the removal of church bells across the whole German Reich to be melted down for the war effort. The officials responsible for collecting the bells categorised them according to how useful or valuable they might be – some of them thought likely to be of historic interest were held back in reserve and not sent to the iron foundries or steel-works immediately.  Indeed, an awful lot of them never got melted down at all. At the end of the war, the victorious allies confiscated all materials held by the German war ministry – and among these were around 14,000 church bells held in various stores – the largest one being in the British zone on the docks in Hamburg. Newspaper stories at the time referred to the „Glockenfriedhof“ on the Hamburg docks and pictures show acres of rusting hulks of bells, many of them badly damaged by stray bombs.  Needless to say, the churches petitioned for their return – which turned out to involve some tricky legal questions. After various negotiations, initially with the British Control Commission and later, the Federal Government, the Government agreed that bells belonging to West German churches could be handed back to them „on loan“ – the legal ownership of the bells is a vexed question which has never been decided and this is the origin of the term „Leihglocke“.

A special commission was established to research the identity and origin of each of the bells and arrange for their distribution to churches across Germany.  This organisation, „Ausschuss für die Rückführung der Glocken e.V.“ was staffed with expert „Glockenhistoriker“ or „Glockenarchivisten“ who carried out painstaking work over many years up until the 1970’s.

One of the biggest problems they had to deal with was what to do with over 1.300 bells found in the „Glockenfriedhof“ which were determined to have originated from the „ehemaligen Ost-Gebiete“, former German territories now under Russian, Polish or Czech control.  Following the Potsdam conference and the redrawing of German frontiers, the former German populations had mostly been expelled or had fled to the West.

Silesia, which had had a German population in excess of 4.5 million before the war, hardly has any German inhabitants today. Around 3.5 million people had either fled or been expelled by 1950 – most of them to Austria or areas of Germany occupied by the Western allies.  Many more came across in the 1960’s and 1970’s as successive West German governments negotiated rights for Germans to emigrate from behind the iron curtain. One of the first acts of the post-war communist government in Poland had been to seize all former German property – including churches and there were no parishes or congregations to which bells could be returned in the early 1950’s.

Shortly after the end of the war, the Polish government made a claim to the British Military Authorities in Hamburg for the return of „Polish“ bells – a claim which was summarily turned down – but the future of the bells remained caught up in legal and political wrangles for a number of years.  These were finally resolved by the new Federal Government who decided in late 1950, firstly to stand by the legality of the 1941 war-time requisition and treat the bells as state property (now of the Federal Republic), and, secondly, to allow the Evangelical and Catholic Churches in West Germany to distribute these „Ost-Glocken“ on loan to „needy“ congregations in the West.

The „Ausschuss für die Rückführung der Glocken e.V.“ first determined whether the bells were „protestant“ or „catholic“ (!) before allowing the churches to distribute the relevant bells.  Initially, efforts were made to identify churches and parishes in West Germany with a high concentration of refugees from the relevant parishes in the East – and to allocate the bells to those parishes.  But many were left over and this is how we believe Christ Church ended up with a large cast-iron bell from the former German protestant Church of Breslau-Lohbrück.  Our records sadly do not record quite what happened back in 1951 but we assume that the Evangelical Church needed to find homes for hundreds of protestant bells and decided the newly-built C. of E. church would make a suitable home for a refugee bell from the East.

The bell was originally installed with an electric motor and rung regularly on Sunday mornings until about 1990 when serious cracks were noticed in the bell tower. Consultant bell engineers (yes, there is a whole sector of the economy devoted to bells) reported that the tower needed to be strengthened, a new „yoke“ or „cradle“ installed and strongly recommended replacing the old cast-iron bell with a new brass bell. The costs of this work (a snip at 7,500 Dutch Florins back in 1994) was unfortunately too much for the congregation and the bell remained silent for the best part of next 20 years.

Until one of our church members (a Romanian ex-army colonel and, more importantly, a mechanical engineer) did some calculations of the vibrations and stresses and worked out that it was „probably“ safe to ring the bell provided you just swung the clapper inside the bell and did not try to swing the whole bell. He also fitted some „high-tech“ pieces of old car engine mountings to absorb excess vibrations and attached an even more hi-tech washing-line to the clapper which runs through a series of pulleys down the outside of the building to the ground. Tugging the washing line does not produce quite the same „Doppler effect“ characteristic of a swinging bell which strikes the clapper twice in close succession, but it does save the brickwork and still allows the bell to be heard on a Sunday morning.

Knowing, as we now do, that the bell does not actually belong to Christ Church but is state property of historic interest („Deutsches Kulturgut“), we can be extremely thankful that the church did not agree to its illegal destruction and replacement by a new brass bell back in 1994!