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The bells of Westminster Abbey are much-loved, often heard ringing out across the city to mark church festivals and significant events in the life of the nation. In November 2021, we celebrate 50 years since the present bells were dedicated, and 100 years since the Abbey’s Company of Ringers was founded. To mark the occasion, David Dearnley, Secretary of the Company, tells the fascinating story of bell ringing at the Abbey.
Westminster Abbey is one of the United Kingdom's most notable and famous buildings. It has been the coronation church since 1066 and the setting for countless state occasions. From coronations and royal weddings to times of mourning, the Abbey bells have for centuries been an integral part of these events.
It is probable that the Abbey built by Edward the Confessor, dedicated in 1065 and which had a central tower and two western towers, was furnished with bells. The first recorded information concerning Abbey bells, however, is found in the Close Rolls of Henry III where an instruction in 1250 to Edward of Westminster required that he make for the Abbey a bigger bell than any of those he had made previously. In the following year Edward was commissioned to make a small bell ‘that shall be in tune with the great bell’. The chronicler Matthew Paris in 1255 noted that five bells were in use.
Edward the Confessor’s Abbey survived for two centuries until the middle of the 13th century when Henry III rebuilt it in the new Gothic style of architecture. This church was consecrated on 13th October 1269. A separate bell tower - or campanile - was erected on the north side of the Abbey and bells rang out from here for 300 years. The remains of this structure were demolished in 1750, and the Supreme Court now stands on the site.
During the 16th century, six bells were installed in the incomplete north-west tower of the Abbey, the height of which was then lower than the nave roof. By the early 18th century, the Abbey’s Surveyor of the Fabric, Sir Christopher Wren, proposed the completion of the towers and the work was later undertaken by Nicholas Hawksmoor and his successor John James. Five centuries after the building of Henry's Abbey had begun, the task was completed. The two towers were raised to their present height and the bells moved to a higher belfry in the north-west tower.
The ring of six bells had been cast between about 1320 and 1738 by four different founders and hung in a very tall timber frame high up in the belfry. In 1882 an article in Bell News complained about the state of the bells, and 14 years later an article in Campanology criticised the bells and the ‘filthy ringing room’. So precarious had the installation become that during the first two decades of the 20th century the bells were only rung four times: for Edward VII’s coronation in 1902, George V’s coronation in 1911, the return of George V and Queen Mary from India the following year, and for the signing of the Armistice on 11th November 1918, by which time the bells were in a such a poor state of repair that the ringers were unable to keep the back two going and had to be content with chiming them.
The publicity which the Armistice ringing gave to the state of the bells resulted in two anonymous benefactors undertaking to bear the cost of the complete restoration and augmentation of the ring to eight.
The old oak frame was replaced with a steel frame, one of the bells was recast, another replaced and two new ones added to make a ring of eight. The casting at the Whitechapel Bell Foundry took place in the presence of King George V and Queen Mary. The tenor of the six had been reputed to be 36 cwt but was found to weigh 28½ cwt in D flat. The four new bells were designed to match the four older bells which meant that the ring of eight was at best a compromise. Also, the new frame was only slightly lower in the tower than the old timber structure so there was still a certain amount of sway, making them more difficult to ring than might have been expected. The new ring was dedicated on 3rd June 1919 and continued in use for 52 years ringing out for, among many other occasions, the coronation of King George VI in 1937, the coronation of HM The Queen in 1953 and on 8th May 1945 for VE Day.
In 1970 the Abbey received a bequest from Dr Eric Perkins, the brother of the Reverend Dr Jocelyn Perkins, Abbey Sacrist from 1899 to 1958. The will specified exactly what the legacy was to be used for: ‘To the Dean and Chapter of Westminster Abbey for the recasting of existing bells and the addition of two new bells’. Things moved quickly. Plans drawn up by Whitechapel were agreed and the old eight were rung for the last time on 11th February 1971. The bells were removed, successfully avoiding the many large monuments at ground level beneath the tower, and the splendid new ring of ten (tenor 30-1-15 in D) was delivered to the Abbey in early October. Members of the Abbey band had visited the foundry in August to watch four of the bells being cast.
The bells were not hung straight away as a special ceremony of dedication in the presence of HM The Queen had been arranged for 9th November. For this ceremony the bells were placed mouth upwards in the North aisle. While they were there a foundry worker was cleaning one of the bells when a visitor asked him how often the bells had to be taken down for dusting and polishing! At the dedication ceremony, attended by some 500 invited guests, The Queen sounded the new 7th (the Elizabeth bell) by striking it with a special gold and ebony mallet, declaring the bell ‘sound and clear and of good workmanship’.
By the evening of 12th November, the bells had been hoisted into the tower. They are hung 30ft lower than the old ring, in what had been the ringing room, to increase stability. The two oldest bells from the eight, the 5th cast in 1583 and the 7th cast in 1598, were retained and are hung above the ring of ten. They are chimed for daily services. The first official ringing on the new bells was on 10th December for a service to mark the 25th anniversary of UNICEF. They were not silent for long as the next ringing occasion was the following day for a special Festival of Carols.
One consequence of the bells being lower in the tower was that the sound did not travel as far. To solve this problem, Alan Frost, a ringer at the Abbey and a well-known architect, designed a large pyramid which was hung inverted over the bells to deflect the sound up and out of the top louvres, thus restoring the volume of sound at a distance.
The ringing arrangements at the Abbey after the new bells were installed in 1919 seem to have been somewhat haphazard. However, on 7th January 1921 the following announcement appeared in the Belfry Gossip column of The Ringing World:
A Guild of Ringers has been formally inaugurated at Westminster Abbey, and a list of some five and twenty ringing days has been drawn up. The Sunday evening service ringing has been discontinued.
This Guild was the Westminster Abbey Company of Ringers which had been founded by the Dean, Herbert Edward Ryle, following what was believed to be the spirit of the Brethren of the Guild of Westminster. That Guild had been established in 1255 and its members were charged with the duty of ringing the bells for an annual fee of one-hundred shillings. The eight Principal Members of the new Company were admitted to their office by Dean Ryle at a ceremony in St Faith’s Chapel on 14th May 1921. The Company has, of course, evolved to reflect changing times but, essentially, its remit has always been and, 100 years later, remains:
to ensure that the bells are rung on all occasions requested or required by the Dean and Chapter.
Today, members of Company are drawn from experienced and capable ringers who live or work in or near London and who can commit the necessary time. The majority of ringing takes place midweek and often in the middle of the day. There are ten Principal Members whose duty is to attend in person on each ringing occasion or to arrange for a Supernumerary Member, of whom there are currently 11, to take their place. Principals and long-serving Supernumeraries become Honorary Members when they retire. The ringers enjoy excellent relations with the clergy and staff of the Abbey, who regard the bells as an important part of the life of the Abbey.
The ringing pattern at the Abbey differs markedly from that at other towers. Instead of Sunday service ringing and practices, there is a schedule of regular ringing dates each year for major church festivals, certain saints’ days, royal anniversaries, significant dates in the history of the Abbey, and some civic occasions. Then of course there are the one-off specials such as grand state occasions, services to mark significant anniversaries of events and organisations, and services of thanksgiving for the lives of eminent people. On each occasion, ringing normally lasts about 45 minutes and consists of one or two touches.
Another unusual feature of Abbey ringing is that the bells are rung after services only. The exception is on those occasions several times each year when HM The Queen attends, and then the bells are rung before the service ‘to welcome the Visitor’, as well as afterwards.
Every ringing occasion at the Abbey is, by definition, ‘special’ and a public performance. The bells are loud and clear and are heard by a great many people. The audience is even larger, and often international, if a service is being broadcast. Posts of the bells on the Abbey’s social media channels regularly attract tens of thousands of views. It is a privilege and pleasure to be involved but no matter how experienced a ringer you are or how often you have rung at the Abbey before you always feel nervous.
As we celebrate the centenary of the Company, we remember former members and Abbey colleagues and look back on great occasions from the past. And, just as importantly, we look forward to many more years of ringing at a place with such a significant role in the life of the nation.
A version of this article was originally published in The Ringing World in November 2021
You are surrounded by history at the Abbey, not like a museum where it’s just displayed, but here you are standing where history has happened.