For whom the bells toll

This appeared in the Ely Ensign in January 2005 on page 10

One of my publishing team, and my successor as editor in 2006, Pat Kilbey, put together this article about Dorothy L. Sayers.  My press release can still be found online.

The ringing of St Mary’s Church bells this Christmas was a cause for celebration in Bluntisham. As Pat Kilbey found out, it was the first time they had been rung in 154 years – and it was partly thanks to author Dorothy L. Sayers.

Bluntisham bellringers had been limited to chiming the bells rather than ringing them until three years ago, when a report showed there was danger of a bell falling to the ground and recommended that they should be lowered for safety.

The only other option was restoration work on the fourteenth-century bell tower, which would cost £90,000 – a seemingly impossible figure for a parish with a relatively small congregation.

Yet today the bells rest in their new position, just below their original stage in the church tower, because, 45 years after her death, Dorothy L. Sayers has given Bluntisham the recognition it needs to gain funding for the project – with a bit of help from the Rector of St Mary’s, Colin Backhouse.

The writer, famous for her Lord Peter Wimsey series of murder mysteries, lived at Bluntisham Rectory as a child and always had a fascination for the bells of St Mary’s.

Her father, the Revd Henry Sayers, was the Rector there and it was he who first began the restoration of the bells in 1910. The young Dorothy wrote a letter at the time saying that she was “most excited about the bells” and she took a keen interest in bell-ringing.

It is not surprising, then, that one of her most famous mysteries, ‘The Nine Tailors’, is based around the ringing of bells in a Fenland church. Many of the characters in the book have the same names as people who lived in Bluntisham at the time and whose descendants are still there today. The term ‘Nine Tailors’ refers to the traditional ring of nine tellers or tollers for the funeral or death of a man.

Dorothy left Bluntisham for school in Salisbury and then Somerville College, Oxford. She graduated with first-class honours in modern languages and in 1926 married Arthur Fleming. They bought a cottage at Witham, Essex, where Dorothy worked until her sudden death from heart failure in 1958.

Henry Sayers’ attempts to restore Bluntisham’s bells were only partly successful. He repaired the bells themselves, adding new ones and providing chiming mechanism, but he was not able to restore or replace the wooden frame which supported them.

The present-day solution was to rehang the bells in a cast iron and steel frame lower in the tower, and replace the bell fittings and ropes so that the could be rung from the ground.

Colin Backhouse took up the challenge and a restoration fund was started by the Parochial Church Council. By then it was clear that local fundraising events would not be enough. And that is when Dorothy L. Sayers became instrumental in saving the bells that inspired her as a girl.

Members of the Dorothy L. Sayers Society visited the church and learned about the plight of the bells. They immediately agreed to help. A celebration was planned for the 70th anniversary of the publication of ‘The Nine Tailors’ in 2004. The restoration project became part of the event.

The literary connection prompted the Heritage Lottery Fund to approve a grant of £50,000. With further funds from the sale of church land behind the Rectory, the bells and their fittings could finally be restored.

On Sunday 5 December, Bluntisham celebrated the completion of the work by holding a special service with guest preacher Bishop John Taylor. This was followed by a hot-roast lunch, and a performance of readings and music about the life of Dorothy L. Sayers. The production ‘Excited about the Bells’ was written and produced by Christopher Dean, chairman of the DLS Society.

A new commemorative bell now hangs in the tower at St Mary’s. On it is the inscription which appears on the bell, called Tailor Paul, in ‘The Nine Tailors: “NINE TAYLERS MAKE A MANNE – IN CHRIST IS DETH ATT END IN ADAM YAT BEGANNE.”