Bilbie Bell Founders
The Bilbie Family of Chewstoke, Bellfounders and Clockmakers
By Roy Rice (Co author, Bilbie and The Chew Valley Clock Makers)
How the Bilbies of Chew Stoke became bellfounders and clockmakers we do not know, but we know that in 1698 Edward Bilbie cast a bell for Chewstoke church. There were about fifty bells cast by Edward listed in an 1870's survey of bells in Somerset Church Towers.
He was very proud of his work and said so on his bells, as at Somerton where the tenor inscription says: I SOUND TO BID THE SICK REPENT AS THAYE MAYE LIVE WHEN BREATH IS SPENT BILBIE 1714 FRIND WROTH AND NIGHT FOR ALL YOUR SPIT OVLD ED BILBIE HATH ME ROUND AND HEARE ME SOUND FRIND SVCH WORK YOV NEVER DON"
When Edward died, in his will he left "To son Thomas all working tools in said house necessary for making clocks" etc. "To sons Edward and Thomas all tools used in bellfounding" he also left Thomas New Foundry House and Edward Old Foundry House, so the business must have been doing well.
After 1724 we find only bells by Thomas, not Edward. To find the reason we turn to the Chewstoke register "Edward Bilbie Junr was buried Feb 24 1724" five entries below his father. So Thomas had to take over the bellfounding and this he seems to have done with vigour as some of his early bell inscriptions show. On the tenor at Yeovil, which weighs 2 tons and is the heaviest bell that we know a Bilbie cast, the inscription says :-
kKE AND WEIGH ME RIGHT FOR I AM NEAR FIVE THOUSAND WEIGHT SING PRAISE TO GOD T B F MR ANDREW EVERTON AND MR GEORGE BUTCHER CHURCHWARDENS WHEN I WAS CAST SEPTEMBER 26 THE YEAR 1728 STEPHEN HOOPER AND HIS WIFE IOANE WAS THE DONER ALONE COME LET US SOUND OUT ILE KEEP MY PLACE NO DOUBT YOU WRATH AND WRIGHT PRAY SPEAK THE RIGHT COME SEE HOW I AM RUN TWAS YOUNG BILBIE THAT CAST ME SUCRE WORK YOU NEVER DONE"
Thomas "The Great" reigned for forty years or more as the bellfounder and cast all around the county of Somerset and the edges of neighbouring counties. When he had a number of bells to cast for a church far from home, he seems to have turned itinerant. In 1746 he cast eight bells for Cullompton in Devon. According to the vestry minute book of that time, he had the use of part of the alms houses to cast the bells "in lieu of the expense of carrying the bells". In this modern day we tend to forget what it must have been like to transport heavy bells in Bilbie's time. You had to choose the right weather to do it as is mentioned in the churchwardens book for Weston Next Bath: "Be it remembered in November 1739 Weston six old bells were taken down and caryed to Chewstoke and new cast by Thomas Bilbie for forty pounds. He added 1001bs of new metal for five pounds. The new bells was fetched in February 1740 in two wagons by men and boys it being a hard frost".
In 1754, his son Thomas Bilbie (Junr) went to Cullompton to open the "West of England Church Bell F ,ndry", which I believe to be the same place his father had cast bells some years before. He cast many bells in Devon, first as Thomas Bilbie Junr and later as Thomas Bilbie of Cullompton. His will was proved in 1798 and the foundry went to his son Thomas Castleman Bilbie. There is a tale that one of the Bilbie's of Cullompton committed suicide when he could not get Cullompton bells in tune, but I have not found any proof of it yet.
By the end of the 1760's Thomas The Great seems to have given over his foundry to Abraham. I am not sure how this Abraham fits in, but I think he must have been a brother. Abraham's bells date from 1770 to 1775.
In 1775, William, a son of "Thomas the Great" was casting bells, which he continued to do until 1790. When he died, besides leaving various properties to sons and daughters, including ground at Chilly Hill Batch, Chew Stoke, left by their great great grandfather "John The Weaver", he left "To wife Martha and two sons Thos Webb Bilbie and James Fear Bilbie all stock in hand and they carry on the business"
Only a few years later, the business was finished and the family was destitute. Thomas and James had failed to adapt to the changing circumstances of industrial life, and had acquired a reputation for being wild, reckless and heavy drinkers. In 1830, Reverend Skinner noted :- On our return from Pagans Hill, we passed an old building going rapidly to decay, which was occupied within these twenty years, by two singular personages, reputed to have been the best bellfounders in the Kingdom, who had inherited the mysteries of the art from their ancestors and might have done extremely well on their vocation had it not been for scottish intemperance which reduced them to extreme poverty and when they died their knowledge of the art went with them. Their memorial will soon pass away, as well as that of the edifice they inhabited”. That same year, the Bristol Mercury contained an advert that ran, “THE ONLY BELL FOUNDRY IN BRISTOL” Nathaniel Rees Westcott No 64 Redcliffe Street Bristol, respectfully informs clergymen, churchwardens, and the public generally, that he has succeeded to the business and purchased the patterns and utensils of the late Messrs Thomas and James Bilbie Founders of Chew Stoke Somerset and has perfect knowledge of that superior method of mixing and casting metal which has rendered their name so famous for two centuries past and solicits their kind support which it shall be his study to merit. At the same time he takes this opportunity of returning thanks to those friends who have honoured him with their commands and derives great pleasure from the general satisfaction the bells he has already cast has given.”
There is much folklore attached to the Bilbies, of them being weird looking, of standing up to their necks in water (usually the village pond) to hear the notes of a bell to be tuned much clearer across the water, of breaking a new cast bell that was cast be a female member of their family while the men were down the inn and the molten metal at the foundry was ready to be cast, of a Bilbie saying a new cast bell by another founder was cracked, and being proved right many years later when that bell was looked at again. It all adds a bit of colour to the stories that might have a bit of truth in them. Folklore also has it that the Bilbies cast their bells at midnight with a full moon. So I checked with the National Maritime Museum where the moon was for two bells with their casting dates on them. One for Newton St Loe was cast 4th May, 1741 when the moon was between full and third quarter so this was nearly right, but the other, for Ilminster, was cast on 28th October 1732, when the phase was two days after the first quarter, so a bit out.
Well, their memorials are still with us for there were over three hundred bells by the Bilbies in Somerset towers alone and a lot of them are still there.