Blackmore Area Local History

Blackmore: The Bell Tower

The Priory Church of St Laurence, Blackmore has one of the finest timber bell towers in England (photographed left). In 2004 work was commissioned to have it tree-ring dated.
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Driving into Blackmore from Kelvedon Hatch ones eye is drawn to the strange pagoda-like village bell tower. Architectural historian Nikolas Pevsner in 1954 described it as "one of the most impressive, if not the most impressive, of all timber towers in England".

The use of timber is very common in churches especially in this part of Essex. Timber towers are numerous. There are some one hundred possess belfries in Essex and nine bell towers: at Mundon (in the east of the county near Maldon), Ramsden Bellhouse, Greensted, Magdalen Laver, Navestock, West Hanningfield, Stock (Harvard), Margaretting and here at Blackmore.

Bell Tower at Blackmore

Unlike any other church in Essex the tower at Blackmore rises in three stages. Inside, the design is similar to the tower at Margaretting and it has been suggested that the same architect was responsible for the construction of both. Also, much of the timber at Blackmore is considered to be original and is of exceptional quality. This suggests that someone of enormous wealth was responsible for the construction of the tower.

Although historians were successfully able to date stone work, all the timber towers of Essex were once assumed to be 15th century.

It was not until the early 1960s that Cecil Hewett, a local enthusiast, single-handedly studied the development of medieval carpentry and concluded, through relative study of Essex timber framed buildings and radiocarbon analysis, dates of construction. He studied the bell tower at Blackmore and dated it to around 1480. Cecil Hewett's work has stood for a generation. More recently it has been challenged by the successful development of a newer technique of tree-ring analysis (known as dendrochronology). Dendrochronology applies the simple fact that all trees grow at different rates year on year, depending on weather conditions. Each year will leave a tree ring and by comparing the greater or lesser growth of trees of samples, by reference to surviving trees and dated timbers it is possible to determine the age of timber used in buildings. This technique excites archaeologists because timber framed buildings were generally constructed, using ‘green’ wood, which means that the age of a building can be determined with some precision, sometimes within a year of felling, provided the sapwood is present. For example, the outer wall of the bell tower at Magdalen Laver church has been dated “Winter 1534-35”.

Archaeologists were keen to use this technique on the church at Navestock because there had always been some debate regarding the date of construction given by Cecil Hewett. It was believed that the date given by Hewett (1190 to 1260) was too early. In 1999, tree-ring analysis concluded that timbers in the bell tower have a felling date range of 1365 to 1391. Navestock’s tower, still appears to be the earliest constructed in Essex. There were a number of theories about the date of Blackmore’s bell tower. Most suggested a date range between 1380 and 1480.

Some enquiries established that it was possible to have the bell tower at Blackmore tree-ring dated, so in March 2004 members of Blackmore Church’s congregation* (St Laurence Blackmore PCC) decided to proceed with a project to determine the age of the bell tower. The work was carried out by Dr. Martin Bridge, a local expert, from the Oxford Dendrochronology Laboratory in May 2004.

Nine samples were taken from the massive bell tower for analysis: seven at floor level and two more from the bell frame. The samples from the bell frame failed to date, as did one sample at floor level. Of the six remaining, three gave precise dates of the felling of the tree. These contained the complete bark edge and sapwood. This meant Dr Bridge was able to accurately date when the trees were felled. One sample was dated 1397/98, another 1398/99, and a third 1399/1400. He concluded that the tower" was probably built in 1400, or within the following two years".

Blackmore's bell tower is the largest of its kind in Essex and the date of 1400 is much earlier than historians and archaeologists have previously thought. The date is a major new discovery and has the effect of rewriting the history of the village. We now know that not only was the Nave roof built by 1397, judging by the sixteen coloured heraldic devices present, but also the north doorway and tower built around the same time. This indicates that the Priory was at its wealthiest at the end of the fourteenth century. Since then Blackmore has not been as rich.

* Andrew Smith, webmaster of this site, was involved in commissioning the work.  St Laurence Blackmore PCC gratefully acknowledge the grant aid given to the project by the Council for British Archaeology and the Essex Heritage Trust which fully paid for the work.

Last updated 29 November 2008