It was March. The country was facing a crisis like no one has ever seen before. As millions of Britons were advised to stay home to save lives during the Coronavirus, a chiming was heard throughout Shrivenham that puzzled residents.
The source of this melodic sound originated with a 393kg bell recently installed outside of Beckett House as part of the relocation of the Armed Forces Chaplain Centre (AFCC) to Shrivenham. The inscription on the bell led to the investigation of its origins to uncover its rather fascinating history.
The bell was first heard on Christmas Day in 1922 in Westcroft Park, Chobham, where it formed part of an 18-bell carillon, a set of fixed chromatically tuned bells sounded by hammers controlled from a fixed point. The bells were housed in a clock tower built by Henry Oberlin Serpell, a biscuit manufacturer, in memory of his son who lost his life during WWI.
In 1932, the 18 bells were melted down, another two tons of bronze added and a much grander carillon of 23 bells was cast. In 1945 after the death of Serpell, 18 of the bells were sold back to Gillett and Johnson, five remained as the clock chime, including no. 21 (the AFCC bell) until 1950, when a further four were sold, leaving just the heaviest (no. 23) in the clock house today.
In March 1950, the bell was installed in Bagshot Parkland with the AFCC and has continued to follow it to this day every time AFCC finds a new home. In 1997, the bell was moved once again, this time to Amport House by 4 General Support Regt RLC.
But 70 years after it was first housed in AFCC, the bell moved to its current location at the Defence Academy site in Shrivenham on 3 March 2020. Although currently silent while public worship is suspended during COVID-19, we at the Defence Academy eagerly await it to ring again for the 8am and 5pm services held at Beckett House, the new home of religious study and belief for defence.