St Leonard’s tower is the oldest part of the church and the oldest structure in Streatham, dating from Sir John Ward’s rebuilding of the church in 1350. It is built of Surrey flint and carries a brick spire added during the early 19th century expansion of the building (replacing a slightly earlier one which was struck by lightning).
The earliest references to bells at St Leonard’s are a note in the parish records to the effect that Henry VIII requisitioned the bells for gunmetal and a Surrey county inventory of bells in 1553, which tells us only that there were three. It is likely that by the mid 18th century there were five bells; this was not an uncommon number for a parish church at the time and there was a pub called the Five Bells in Streatham High Road until about 1880. (In 2005 the former Hogshead adopted this name although it is not on the same site as the original.)
In 1785 the church acquired a new ring of six bells in the key of F, cast by Thomas Mears of Whitechapel, the Tenor (14 cwt approx.) being the gift of the Duke of Bedford and the other five funded by public subscription. By the late 19th century the new church of Immanuel, Streatham Common, had a ring of eight, and this probably prompted the augmentation of St Leonard’s bells in 1906. Two new treble bells were cast by John Warner & Co. of Spitalfields and the Tenor recast at the same time.
When the church caught fire on the night of 5th May 1975, the flames, fanned by a strong east wind, swept through the nave and up into the tower where the Victorian wood panelling of the ringing chamber and the two floors beneath the bells added to the conflagration. A combination of intense heat and cold water from the firemen’s hoses caused the bells to crack in pieces and fall from their headstocks.
The present eight in G were cast by the Whitechapel Bell Foundry (still operating on the same site where the old bells were cast two centuries earlier), hung by voluntary labour during the summer of 1981 and dedicated to the Glory of God on 25 October that year. The new Tenor bell was donated by the Surrey Association of Church Bell Ringers to commemorate its centenary in 1980.
Over the years since then it gradually became apparent that the mediaeval flint walls had suffered superficial damage from the fire and, following a couple of incidents when ringers were struck by pieces of falling masonry, the tower was closed on health and safety grounds in October 2009. The ringing chamber walls have now been stabilised and plastered and ringing recommenced in June 2010. At the same time the window between the tower and the narthex, which had been bricked up after the fire, was reinstated and the church clock restored and converted to electric winding.
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Details of the Bells
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The Surrey Association of Church Bell Ringers
Centenary Bell 1880-1980