The Music of Bells is Sweet

Thomas Lewis was born on 28th December 1845 in Church Street, Old Town, Eastbourne, the son of Thomas Lewis (1805-1883) and Elizabeth Miller (1804-1871) originally from Ringmer.  Living so close to the Parish Church it is no wonder that the Lewis family were all bell-ringers. Tom had six brothers who all became bell-ringers at St Mary’s and Tom himself first climbed up into the ringing chamber of St Mary’s Church in December 1859.  He was just 14-years-old but the joy of bell-ringing obviously captivated him as he was still ringing the same bells over 70 years later!

16-year-old Tom was still living with his parents in Church Street for the census of April 1861 when his occupation was described as a Labourer and ‘Coast Volunteer’.  The Royal Navy Coast Volunteers (RNCV) was a reserve force of the Royal Navy between 1853 and 1873. 

On 10th March 1863 Tom, still a teenager, was one of the bell-ringers at St Mary’s Church who pealed the bells to celebrate the marriage of the Prince of Wales (later King Edward VII) and Alexandra of Denmark. He continued to ring the bells of St Mary’s throughout his life and on one occasion in 1894 a peal of bells was rung at St Mary’s with a team entirely comprised of Lewis family members – five brothers, one cousin, one son and a nephew.  Along with Tom were Amos, Charles, Joseph, Alfred, Ernest, Samuel and William – all with the surname Lewis! The oldest was 59 and the youngest 18 years-old. 

Tom married Maria Chapman in Eastbourne in 1866 and the couple settled down at 2, Sparrows Lane which was an unmade road off Watts Lane, Old Town.  They were to have four sons and four daughters. The 1881 census shows the family had moved to Bay Pond Cottages, a row of terraced houses that formerly stood at the end of Bay Pond Road which were demolished in the 1930.  

In July 1885 Tom was one of the bell ringers who (according to the Eastbourne Gazette) ‘manipulated the bells of Old Town Church’ in order to commemorate the marriage of HRH Princess Beatrice (youngest daughter of Queen Victoria) to Prince Henry of Battenberg. They had been playing a ‘grandsire-triple’ for two hours and 20 minutes when the conductor, Mr Harding had a mis-call.  A few weeks later Tom was one of the St Mary’s bell-ringers invited to ring at All Saints Church in Grange Road one evening. A full peal was suggested but there was concern that, at over three hours, this would interfere with a concert in the nearby Devonshire Park, so a shorter peal of just 1,540 was played. 

Tom’s wife Maria, died in 1888 and three years later, now a widower he was living at 7, Artisans Dwellings. (now 24, Green Street.) 

Church bells are rung for a variety of reasons and as well as for religious purposes they are rung to commemorate royal occasions and other events. In September 1890, Tom was one of the team who rang a full grandsire-triple peal to commemorate the new vicar, the Reverend Henry Bickersteth Ottley. The good reverend sat in the ringing-chamber to listen to the peal and accepted the title of Honorary President of the St Mary’s Society of Ringers.  Another full peal (but with muffled bells) was completed in March 1892 for the memory of Thomas Hart one of Tom’s fellow bell-ringers who had died.  During his long ringing career Tom completed about 30 full peals (each of which last nearly 3 hours)

Bell-ringers enjoy ringing bells at other churches and in his time Tom travelled across the county to participate. When asked in which churches he had rung bells he said that he couldn’t remember all of them but they included Henfield, Steyning, Brighton, Arundel, Horley, Crawley, Mayfield, Heathfield, Westham, Pevensey, Willingdon, Chiddingly, Seaford and Alfriston. In March 1890 he was asked to attend Hailsham Church to ring a full grandsire-triple peal – the first one done at the church. Unfortunately he had been laid up with sciatica and could hardly put one foot in front of the other, however he managed to get to the church and after the full peal (2 hours 47 minutes) found his sciatica had completely gone. Tom said “Bell-ringing is beneficial to the health – people laugh at that but no one is more pleased than me!”

In 1892 Tom took another wife and married Celia Bond of East Dean. Tom had other interests outside the ringing chamber – in August 1894 he was elected to the committee of the Eastbourne Horticultural Society maybe as a result of winning two prizes at the local vegetable competition. 

Tom was a member of the Sussex County Association of Bell Ringers and the Cumberland Youths. The Society of Royal Cumberland Youths is an international society of bell-ringers established in 1747.

In March 1901 Celia and Tom were living at 101 Church Street, although shortly afterwards he moved to 24 Parsonage Road where he was to live for the next 20 years.  (He later lived across the road at 31 Parsonage Road).  In 1910 Tom started to work at Compton Estate as a sawyer.  He once said that “When the King and Queen visit Compton Place it’s the logs I saw that keep them warm

In 1923 Tom rang the bells of St Mary’s to celebrate the marriage of the Duke of York (later George VI) and Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon (known to us now as the Queen Mother). As a result he was thrilled to receive a letter from Buckingham Palace thanking him of his many years of loyal bell-ringing.  Tom had the letter framed and it took pride of place on the wall of his sitting-room.  The letter today can still be seen at St Mary’s Church. 

Tom had his 85th birthday in December 1929 and as a present a quarter-peal was conducted (45 minutes) to celebrate the event by his fellow ringers.  Two years later, on Christmas Day  1931, Tom fell down the steep belfry steps at St Mary’s and, although his health prevented him for regular ringing, on 6th May 1935 he took ‘fifth bell’ to commemorate the Silver Jubilee of George V. 

Tom once said “The music of bells is sweet, sweeter than most other sounds. I do not like wireless music – I would sooner listen to a good ringing any day – that or the sound of carpenters at work”  

Thomas Lewis died on 29th August 1935. Hiss passing was recorded on the front page of the local paper. You will not be surprised to discover that the muffled bells of St Marys Church could be heard as he was buried at Ocklynge cemetery. 

  • My thanks to Alan Smith and the Bell Ringers of St Marys Church

One Comment Add yours

  1. Ian White says:

    Good afternoon Kevin Gordon.
    I am a great grandson of Thomas Lewis b.1843 – d.1935, bellringer. I was most interested to read your article which contained some information of which I was not aware. According to my cousin who has looked in to the family history and got back to a John Lewis b about 1676 (I do not know whether there were any Eastbourne or Sussex connections) Thomas was one of eight brothers (no sisters) birth years from before 1828 with a couple of birth years unknown.
    The following is a family belief but we think that he was the oldest bellringer in Sussex. He is said to have treasured a piece of wood he kept from a log he cut that was used to make a fire for the King or King to be when visiting the Duke of Devonshire. Sadly nothing was ever found.
    The remnants of his set of hand bells were in St Mary’s Church tower in 1975. It is not known if they are still there.
    Also his son Harry was of the sailors who took over the pulling of the gun carriage upon which the Queen Victoria’s coffin was placed after a frolicking Army horse had to be removed from duty. The coffin was expect to be hauled by the army. Reports of this seem somewhat vague presumably to prevent Army embarrassment.


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