One of a series of articles on Ringing and Money by Steve Coleman 

Can you help me with a really tricky problem? We’re thinking of rehanging our bells, and the one remaining old-band member keeps telling me that a lady parishioner who died twelve years ago, left more than £20,000 for the bells but the vicar spent it on the roof. Can we get it back, and if so, how?


Golly! This is the stuff of ongoing bitterness and no mistake. Tales of dark doings and righteous indignation are great for a racy paperback on a beach holiday, but they do no good at all to local bands and congregations. Still, since you’re by no means the first person to ask me this, let’s look at it.

The Truth

And first, do make absolutely sure that the story’s true – because I can’t emphasise too strongly that it most probably isn’t.

Quite likely the long deceased parishioner left nothing at all – or she left only £50 and it got spent on a rope. Equally likely, she left several thousand but just to the church with no suggestion at all that it be spent on the bells.

Fully fledged but entirely false rumours about legacies – and suppressed and altered wills – spring into existence with the most extraordinary vitality. Often they have such vitality that they quickly become modern myths and legends. At the same time they create enormous bitterness, and it’s a bitterness that gets passed down through the generations.

So find out the parishioner’s full name and the approximate year of her death, and then – without getting anyone in the least bit excited by telling them what you’re going to do – go quietly down to the Probate Office and read the Will. It will only cost you a fiver – including a copy – and you’ll find the whole process very interesting. The web reference will help. Then, if the Will doesn’t include a bell legacy, that’s the end of that, and you can let the whole band know.

But if you can’t find out the name of the parishioner, what then?

Well, nothing could be clearer evidence that another urban myth has sprung fully fledged into existence, and that the lady never even existed. No doubt your fellow ringer genuinely believes the story because he was told it by someone whom he trusted, who was told it by someone whom he trusted, who was told it … etc, etc. That’s just the way these things happen, I’m afraid.

PCC Relations

But supposing you find there was a legacy to the church and specifically for the bells?

Well, your friend’s story may still not be true because the church treasurer may have quite properly set it aside in a separate fund with the result that it hasn’t been used on the church roof at all. And this is an important point because from your email it seems clear that your band feels very separate from the PCC if not from the whole congregation.

Of course, there are all sorts of ways this can happen nowadays. The realities of modern ringing and service patterns mean that even active church goers often attend services in one church and ring in another, and non church goers have a bigger problem still.

But when it comes to matters of finance and organisation, it doesn’t half help if one or more of your band are on good terms with at least one of the vicar, churchwardens or treasurer, and hopefully all four. If you chat to them regularly, and you genuinely get on well, you can simply ask them about the lady’s legacy.

Broaching a Rehang

And although I’ll be writing about organising a rehang in a later article, I can’t stress strongly enough that since the bells belong to the church and not the band, the decision to rehang is one for the PCC alone – albeit subject to the permission of the Chancellor of the Diocese and various other bodies.

So at some time you have to persuade the PCC and vicar that a rehang is a good idea, and if you add in the helpful point that the lady’s £20,000 legacy will be a major chunk, you’ve opened the discussions about where that money is now.

The Technicalities

And as we looked at last time, if a particular sum is given to a charity for a particular purpose, then – subject to various long-stop getouts – it can only be used for that purpose. The accounts of the charity – and your local church is a charity – should show that sum as a restricted fund in its accounts. What’s more, all the interest earned on the sum should be added to the restricted fund.

The money itself does not need to be kept in a separate account – although it often is – but if it isn’t, a proper proportion of the interest in the account in which it is held, should be calculated and added on.

So if everything has been done according to the book, your PCC’s latest annual accounts will include a restricted fund for the bells which is at least as big as the original legacy, and most probably a great deal bigger. If they don’t, it’s time to ask some tactfully expressed questions.

The Realities

And do be tactful. If you get right up everyone’s noses at the outset, your rehang won’t be going anywhere whatever you establish. Being a church treasurer is a hard and thankless job because virtually no one in the congregation is interested in what he or she does except to ask footling questions about matters of no importance.

Church treasurers are all unpaid volunteers with a strong sense of duty who only take on the job because no one else will. So although they’re overwhelmingly honest, they often struggle with the technicalities of accounts. And since the Independent Examiner – what we used to call the Auditor – is also a volunteer and often struggles too, the accounts may be completely honest but not in the correct form.

And that means that the legacy may well be being kept scrupulously separate without the accounts saying so.

If It’s Gone

But suppose the money has been spent?

Well, if it’s been spent on the tower roof, that may have been within the terms of the legacy. Indeed, other tower work might be too. Quite possibly the relevant clause of the will is sufficiently ambiguous that no one can be completely confident what it means.

The Solicitor drawing up the will might not have been too good at listening to what was required, or the lady may not have clearly explained what she wanted. Like most people she could have signed her will on the assumption that her solicitor had got it right even though she didn’t understand it.

But supposing the will was entirely clear and yet the money was nonetheless spent on something else entirely?

Well, in that case I recommend starting with the most tactful discussions. Sometimes money is wilfully misspent, but not often. Maybe the PCC were genuinely confused, or maybe they really knew what was right but were simply desperate. If they needed £12,000 to stop the roof collapsing and the church closing – and the legacy was all there was available – you can understand why they bent the rules.

Getting it Back?

So can you get it back? Can you get an equivalent amount of money transferred from the general fund to a restricted fund?

Well, if the money’s there in the general fund, the PCC should happily – or, at least, fairly happily – correct their mistake. You’ll just need to persuade them, and you’ll need to do it tactfully because any chance of a rehang afterwards depends on their goodwill and support. You could raise it with the Diocese direct but that doesn’t come under the heading of being tactful.

And if there’s no money in the general fund, your best chance is to convince the PCC that in these very unfortunate circumstances the only proper thing for them to do is to give their all out enthusiasm support to your rehang plans. There are legal steps that you could take but they’d be stressful, costly, time consuming and likely to thoroughly demoralise, if not destroy, both the entire PCC and the band. And even if – with blood all over the floor – you succeeded, so what? The PCC would never agree to a rehang then anyway.

So instead, be tactful, gentle, sympathetic, understanding and kind – but behind it all, persistent and pushy too – and you’ll likely achieve what you really want. What’s more, you’ll keep everyone else happy too.

In General

But whatever the outcome, when you’re telling your friends about it all, do make one thing absolutely clear. There is absolutely no substitute for looking at the church accounts carefully and thoroughly every year, and for being on close and friendly terms with the vicar, churchwardens and treasurer. Read the parish magazine regularly too. Put simply, become involved and you’ll likely never have the slightest problem.

BB BellBoard
Central Council of Church Bell Ringers