Birmingham Cathedral Bells

Picture of Church

Bell Details

Number of bells:
12
Tenor weight:
31cwt 0qrs 21lbs in D

Ringing Times

Sunday Ringing:
8.30 - 9am, and 10.15-11am (2nd and 4th)
Practice Night:
None

Contact Information

Ringing Master:
Susan Healy and Victoria Wilby (joint)
Tower Secretary:
Gill Postill

About the ringing

Sunday ringing at the Cathedral ranges from rounds and call-changes on 12 up to Stedman Cinques and Cambridge Surprise Maximus. Despite the early start, Sunday mornings at the Cathedral provide an ideal opportunity for ringers to take their early steps in 12-bell ringing and develop their skills on the higher numbers. Visitors are always welcome.

On most Monday evenings a 12-bell peal is attempted, either of Stedman Cinques or Maximus in methods ranging from the simple Surprise through to complex multi-spliced. Mainly comprised of ringers from Birmingham, these peals are important for the improvement of individual skills and enhancement of ringing in general: many cutting-edge developments in ringing have been premiered at the Cathedral since the start of the evening peals in 1949, and literally hundreds of up-and-coming ringers have benefitted from the experiences they have gained here. At the beginning of 2009 the number of peals rung here stood at 1752.

About the bells

St Philip's was built on the hill above the ancient parish church of St Martin in response to the rapidly expanding population of early 18th-century Birmingham. In 1708 an act of Parliament was passed to carve out the separate parish and build the new church; the design was by Thomas Archer and the Italian Baroque style building was erected by Joseph Pedley,a stonemason from Warwick, from 1711 to 1715. The church was consecrated on October 4th 1715, though it was not until 1725 that the building was completed with the distinctive tower and cupola. It became the Cathedral of the new Birmingham Diocese in 1905, and is widely regarded as one of the finest churches of its period in the country.

From the construction accounts of 1711-15 it is known that a small bell - possibly weighing about 2cwt - was cast for the church by Joseph Smith of Edgbaston, and was probably hung in a temporary belfry until the completion of the tower in 1725; a second larger bell "of Twenty hundred weight" was purchased in 1725/6.

In 1727, the vestry gave various orders regarding bells for the church. On 3 April "it was agreed that Joseph Smith shall receive the mettle from Mr. Bradburne in order to Cast a Bell for the parish church of St.Phillips in Birmingham to be done with all expedition". On 13 June it was "ordered that a Frame of good Timber be erected & fixed in the Steeple of the New Church for Hanging of Eight Bells, & that the Two Bells already made be hung there with all convenient speed".

In the absence of further information, it is unclear exactly what was done and when each stage of the work was completed. What is clear is that there were rings of bells at the two churches by March 1737/8 when the vestry ruled that public ringing should take place at St.Martin's and St.Philip's alternately "as great ill Conveniences have attended the Ringing of State days & Holydays at Both Churches" and that by 1750 there were ten bells at St.Philip's. Joseph Smith was evidently the founder but the dates of the bells are not known. The sizes of the original ring is also uncertain, but if 12 cwt of metal was added when the bells were later recast then this suggests a total weight of 114 cwt and a tenor of about 26 cwt.

Evidently the first ring of 10 was not satisfactory, for a vestry resolution of 1750/51 reads:

"Order'd and agreed That the ten Bells now being in the said Church of St.Philip all of which are untuneable and some unfit for use, shall be taken down and sold, and ten other new bells shall be purchased by ye Church wardens and hung up in the said Church."

This work was entrusted to Thomas Lester of the Whitechapel foundry in London at a cost £360. The bells were hung on one level in a wooden frame, the base of which was situated approximately half way up the large belfry louvre windows. The installation of the new ring of ten in 1751 was reported in Aris's Birmingham Gazette of 12 August 1751:

"We hear from Birmingham, that a new Peal of Ten Bells, (cast by. Mr. Thomas Lester, Bell-Founder in London) have lately been put up at St.Philip's Church in that Town, by Mr. William Lawrance, Bell-Hanger at Thame in Oxfordshire; which by all Judges is thought to be as compleat a Piece of Work as any in England"

Several bells were subsequently recast, and details of the bells were described by Tilley & Walters (1937) as follows:

Bell Inscription
Treble THOMAS LESTER OF LONDINI FECIT 1750
2nd THOMAS LESTER OF LONDON FECIT 1751 (border)
3rd AT PROPER TIMES MY VOICE ILL RAISE AND SOUND TO MY SUBSCRIBERS PRAISE (border) / T : LESTER FECIT 1750
4th THOMAS LESTER OF LONDON FECIT 1751
5th Pack& Chapman of London Fecit 1772 (border)
6th Messrs Claud Johnson & George Stubbs Church Wardens 1796. Thomas Mears of London Fecit (border)
7th THOMAS LESTER OF LONDINI FECIT 1750
8th T. MEARS OF LONDON FECIT 1823 (border)
9th THOMAS LESTER FECIT 1750
Tenor In Wedlock Bands all Ye Who Join With Hands your Hearts Unite so shall our tunefull Tongues Combine to Laud the Nuptial Rite (border) / Pack& Chapman of London Fecit 1772 (border)

 

Bell Founder & Date
Dia.

Weight

Treble Thomas Lester, 1750 29" 5-3-22
2nd Thomas Lester, 1751 30¼" 6 cwt
3rd Thomas Lester, 1750 31¾" 7-0-10
4th Thomas Lester, 1751 32¾" 7-2-13
5th Pack & Chapman, 1772 36¼" 9 cwt
6th Thomas Mears, 1796 39" 11 cwt
7th Thomas Lester, 1750 41¼" 13-2-18
8th Thomas Mears II, 1823 43½" 16½ cwt
9th Thomas Lester, 1750 48½" 20½ cwt
Tenor Pack & Chapman, 1772 55¾" 29 cwt in D-flat


The canons had been removed from the 2nd and 9th, and others recast at various dates. Unfortunately, when recast in 1937 Gillett & Johnson did not record the scrapping weights for these bells. The 2nd, 5th, 6th, 8th, 9th and Tenor bells were originally supplied thus:


2nd

Thomas Lester, 1751

30"

6-1-14
5th Thomas Lester, 1750 35½" 9-0-13
6th Thomas Lester, 1750 38¼" 11-0-11
8th Thomas Lester, 1750 44.5" 16-2-9
9th Thomas Lester, 1750 48¾" 21-0-13
Tenor Thomas Lester, 1750 54¾" 29-0-18

 

The frame was described as "oak, but of very slight construction". Taylors visited the belfry on August 7th 1936 and made the following sketch of the frame. It suggests that it was originally built for eight bells but later adapted to take ten:

 

taylor_sketch_old_frame_1936
Drawing made by Taylors following a site visit, August 7th 1936.

 

In 1893 the bells were rehung "with entirely new fittings" in the old frame by James Barwell of Great Hampton Street, Birmingham. They had been in a poor condition for some time, and the restoration was followed by a revival of ringing at St.Philips until the tower was declared unsafe by the City Surveyor in 1906. A letter dated March 1907 refers to the use of "the old ringing chamber" as a choir practice room. Writing in 1908 H.B. Walters noted "the tower is said to be in an unsafe condition and the bells are no longer used for ringing". He also described the bells as "very grimy and encrusted with accumulated deposits which largely obscure the lettering".

In April 1921 the bells were open for ringing "after many years' silence" - though they had been rung twice by special permission in 1914 - and new ropes were provided. But there was little enthusiasm for ringing at St.Philip's as the bells were thought to be of inferior quality. "It was no pleasure to ring there", commented one writer in 1937 when the bells were again described as having been unringable for several years. Notes made during Taylors' visit in 1936 suggest that the bells were not well in tune. The Coronation in 1937 provided the impetus for a complete restoration.

As indicated in the inscription of the present tenor, the recasting of the bells in 1937 was made possible largely through the generosity of Sir Charles Hyde, Bart, a newspaper proprietor. The original bell chamber floor was removed and a new single-tier cast iron bell frame was situated some ten feet lower in the tower; the base of which is now level with the bottom of the belfry louvre windows. Augmentation to twelve in 1949 necessitated the provision of additional lowside framework above the main frame - at a similar level to the 1750 ring, and this now contains bells 7, 8 and 9 in lowside pits. There is an empty pit in the lower frame. The bells are all fitted with standard ringing fittings including cast iron stocks and ball bearings. The four trebles have button heads or flange tops.

 

birmingham_cath_gillett_postcard
Birmingham Cathedral bells at Gillett & Johnson's works, 1937

 

The report of the augmentation in the Ringing World of 4 March 1949 described the work to the frame and fittings as follows:

"For the sake of audibility, and to allow the ropes to fall in a good circle, it was decided to hang the seventh, eight and ninth (of the twelve) in a separate frame, above the existing one, and to move the smaller bells round so that the new trebles occupy the pits previously filled by the trebles of the ten. This involved considerable work - new headstocks and fittings were required for the bells moved into larger pits"

Taylors rehung bells 7 and 8 and carried out work to stabilise the upper frame in 1985. In 2004 Whitechapel carried out rehanging and refurbishment of the frame and fittings, including further strengthening work to the upper frame and the installation of a viewing gallery, accessed from the original belfry doorway.

Details of the present bells are as follows:

Bell Inscription
Treble (Floral border all round) / 6672
Waist: THIS RING OF BELLS / WAS INCREASED TO 12 BY / THE ADDITION OF TWO TREBLES / THE GIFT OF / FRANK B. YATES, 1949 / 1
Opposite: (Gillett & Johnston shield) / GILLETT & JOHNSTON / FOUNDERS / LONDON
2nd (blank) / 6673
Waist: THE GIFT OF / FRANK B. YATES, 1949 / GEORGE E. FEARN / RINGING MASTER / 2
Opposite: (Gillett & Johnston shield) / GILLETT & JOHNSTON / FOUNDERS / LONDON
3rd THOMAS LESTER OF LONDINI FECIT 1750 / 5750
Waist: RECAST BY GILLETT & JOHNSTON, CROYDON, 1937.
Opposite: (CFJ monogram) / 1
4th THOMAS LESTER OF LONDON FECIT 1750 / 5751
Waist: RECAST BY GILLETT & JOHNSTON, CROYDON, 1937.
Opposite: (CFJ monogram) / 2
5th T. LESTER FECIT 1750 / 5752
Waist: RECAST BY GILLETT & JOHNSTON, CROYDON, 1937.
Opposite: (CFJ monogram) / AT PROPER TIMES MY VOICE ILE RAISE : / AND SOUND TO MY SUBSCRIBERS PRAISE. / 3
6th THOMAS LESTER OF LONDON MADE ME 1750 / 5753
Waist: RECAST BY GILLETT & JOHNSTON, CROYDON, 1937.
Opposite: (CFJ monogram) / 4
7th PACK & CHAPMAN OF LONDON FECIT 1772 / 5754
Waist: RECAST BY GILLETT & JOHNSTON, CROYDON, 1937.
Opposite: (CFJ monogram) / 5
8th THOMAS MEARS OF LONDON FECIT / 5755
Waist: RECAST BY GILLETT & JOHNSTON, CROYDON, 1937.
Opposite: (CFJ monogram) / MESSRS CLAUD JOHNSON & GEORGE STUBBS / CHURCH WARDENS 1796 / 6
9th THOMAS LESTER OF LONDINI FECIT 1750 / 5756
Waist: RECAST BY GILLETT & JOHNSTON, CROYDON, 1937.
Opposite: (CFJ monogram) / 7
10th T. MEARS OF LONDON FECIT 1823 / 5757
Waist: RECAST BY GILLETT & JOHNSTON, CROYDON, 1937.
Opposite: (CFJ monogram) / 8
11th THOMAS LESTER FECIT 1750 / 5758
Waist: RECAST BY GILLETT & JOHNSTON, CROYDON, 1937.
Opposite: (CFJ monogram) / 9
Tenor (Ornamental border all round) / RECAST BY GILLETT & JOHNSTON, CROYDON, 1937. / 5759
Waist: PACK & CHAPMAN OF LONDON FECIT 1772 / IN WEDLOCK BANDS ALL YE WHO JOIN WITH HANDS YOUR HEARTS UNITE / SO SHALL OUR TUNEFUL TONGUES COMBINE TO LAUD THE NUPTIAL RITE
Opposite: (CFJ monogram) / THESE BELLS WERE RECAST FOR THE CORONATION / OF KING GEORGE VI CHIEFLY THROUGH THE / GENEROSITY OF SIR CHARLES HYDE BART. / 10

 

Bell Founder & Date
Dia.

Weight

Treble Gillett & Johnston, 1949 26¾" 5-3-20
2nd Gillett & Johnston, 1949 27½" 5-3-16
3rd Gillett & Johnston, 1937 28¼" 5-3-1½
4th Gillett & Johnston, 1937 29½" 6-0-25
5th Gillett & Johnston, 1937 31" 6-2-9
6th Gillett & Johnston, 1937 32" 6-3-18½
7th Gillett & Johnston, 1937 34½" 8-0-20
8th Gillett & Johnston, 1937 37¾" 10-1-10
9th Gillett & Johnston, 1937 41½" 13-2-26
10th Gillett & Johnston, 1937 43½" 15-3-24
11th Gillett & Johnston, 1937 48½" 21-3-20
Tenor Gillett & Johnston, 1937 54¾" 31-0-21 in D

 

The bells are widely recognised to be a fine instrument, and are notable for the clarity of sound in the ringing chamber; fewer ringers will be aware of the richness of sound which fills the churchyard. Generations of Birmingham ringers have been justifiably proud of this magnificent ring of bells.

Besides their liturgical use, the bells of St Philip's play an important role in the history of change-ringing, and the training and development of ringers. Since 1949 the Cathedral has been a regular peal tower - the "long practices" on Thursdays, and more recently Mondays, have proved a training ground for in excess of 500 accomplished 12-bell ringers in the last 50 years. Thus the midweek activity is considered to be a finishing-school for 12-bell ringing, and as such the tradition of teaching excellence in ringing continues to this day. At the end of 2008 the total number of peals rung stood at just over 1750.

 

Acknowledgements


All the historical information and details of the bells in this document was generously provided by Christopher J Pickford, and is subject to his copyright.
The image of the Cathedral is taken from the St Martin's Guild website.
The drawing of the pre-1937 bell frame is reproduced with permission from Taylors, Eayre & Smith Ltd.
The photograph of the bells at Gillett & Johnson's works in 1937 is reproduced from the St Martin's Guild library.
All other images and sounds, and details about the Cathedral Ringing are by Michael Wilby.