Belfry News April 2017

In Search of Thomas Osborn

Sometime in 1794 the bells in Gedney tower were recast. What was in the tower prior to this date is at present unknown-certainly four bells or probably five. What is certain is that these were taken down, transported to Downham Market where they were broken up, and the resulting metal used to cast five new bells which remain in the tower , still giving good service some 223 years later. What is indeed remarkable is their surprisingly good tonal qualities-most unusual for the majority of bells cast at this time. So who was the contractor and what do we know about him?

John L'Estrange in his 1874 book, "The Church Bells of Norfolk" tells us that Osborn was born at Downham in 1741, the son of Richard Osborn, a joiner and his wife Sarah. Later in 1773, now apparently a carpenter, he joined the bell founding business of Joseph Eayre at St Neots where he rose to be foreman, though only there until 1778 and initially knowing very little about foundry work. In 1779 he moved to Downham where he commenced casting bells on his own account. As mentioned above his bells were good and so far I have not heard a bad one, so it seems that much thought must have been applied to their design, profiles and proportions etc. Osborn died on December 6th 1806, and is buried in Downham churchyard, his grave marked by a headstone. After his death the business was carried on by William Dobson, his grandson who cast the excellent 10 bells at Wisbech. Finally Dobson sold the foundry in 1833 when unfortunately it closed. That is a brief history of this undertaking but do any relics remain today. I decided to investigate.

On a lovely late March, early Spring morning I visited Downham-was the headstone still there? Unfortunately much has changed over the years-practically all the headstones had eroded, making them impossible to read-others had been moved and I was unsuccessful. However one trace of the site of the foundry remains, the aptly named "Sounding Alley" which crosses from High Street to Church Road. I imagine it did indeed sound when Osborn was testing his bells. Well , that is all I know of this man and his business, He cast some 243 bells and a number of these still exist and give good service, Long may this continue- a lasting legacy to the work of this craftsman.

John Bennett