Joe Hardcastle, the man behind “the people’s bells”

In April Diane Hadwen from our eduction department was going to speak at the Monday Fellowship about bell-ringer Joe Hardcastle. In lieu of that not happening we sat down with her to find out more about the cathedral’s famous figure.

World War I Memorial Bells

Who was Joe Hardcastle?
He was a bell-ringer and he started here at the cathedral at the end of the 19th century, when he was eighteen years old, in 1888. He may have started even younger than this, but our first photo is 1888. We know about him and the bell ringers, because of his journal that dates from this period. He rang bells at Bradford Cathedral until the 1950s when he had an accident in the bell tower and had to give up ringing. He was nationally, and internationally, famous as a bell-ringer and actually represented Great Britain in Australia on Armistice Day, 1933. He features in a book called ‘Such a Journey’. We know all about him because of his diary, which was found in the bell tower in a plastic bag! Fortunately, we saved it.

He came from a very poor and ordinary family. His father before him was a bell-ringer, called Joe. H. Hardcastle. We have a huge portrait of him hung in the bell tower which was commissioned before he retired as a bell-ringer; he rang here, in Keighley and in a parish church in Halifax.
Joe, the son, worked in a foundry and as a result of that was here during World Wars I and II, because it was a restricted occupation, which meant he could keep the bells working in the Cathedral all the way through if necessary. They rang throughout the First World War, but not the second, apart from a few specific points.

So is Joe Hardcastle a big part of the cathedral’s history because of what he did, or because we know what he did thanks to his diary?
It’s because of what he did. What he did was probably all the more remarkable because he wasn’t one of the wealthy congregation. He wasn’t one of the big businessmen, or independent women in Bradford who put a lot into the cathedral. It’s quite interesting that the memorial bells were entirely his idea and he had to go to the memorial committee, and one of the church wardens, to talk them into trying to raise money for them. But, in all the photos we’ve got of the bells committee, he doesn’t feature and that’s because he’s a Mr. Ordinary.

He was one of the small people who made a huge difference. If it wasn’t for him, we probably wouldn’t have the bell tower it is now and we certainly wouldn’t have the bells.

Does Joe Hardcastle still have family in the area?
Not as far as we know. He does still have people who remember him in the area, because that’s how we discovered the book. ‘Such a Journey’, as it was in someone’s father’s collection. As far as we know he was last living to the South of Bradford, Wibsey way, which meant he’d really gone up in the world as he’d started life with his parents in a little back-to-back in Thornton. Slowly, but surely, he’d moved up Great Horton Road, from poorer housing to better housing, but then ended up in the suburbs as an old man.

We have a letter he sent, as an older man, where he’d sent a donation to Westminster Abbey for their restoration and sadly by this point he was disabled, so he actually signed off this letter saying ‘from a cripple’. He seemed to have been an amazing man and when you see pictures of him you can tell he’s not the wealthiest person, but he certainly had a big personality. His journal, which goes from the late 1800s to the 1950s (its then taken up by his successor as secretary of the bell ringers), it’s fascinating as you can see his hand-writing changes as he grows older and its content chronicles the changes in the cathedral.

How can people find out more about Joe Hardcastle when the cathedral is back open?
You can see his pictures in the exhibition near the font and if you’re fit enough, on the open days, you can go up to the bell chamber. You can of course often hear the bells. As as far as I’m concerned they’re Joe Hardcastle’s bells!

So he was an integral part of what makes Bradford Cathedral today?
Yes, absolutely and it’s the message that it might be the great and the good that had the money, but it is often somebody ordinary that makes the biggest impact, as he galvanized people into giving money, most of which came from the ordinary people of Bradford, particularly women. They really are the people’s bells.

You can find out more information on our website, including about the World War I memorial bells project and the bells and bell tower.

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