Their history gives illumination to key historical and literary moments. The church that is now Southwark Cathedral was founded as an Augustinian Priory in 1106. Seven bells were originally installed after the construction of the Tower, which began in 1310.
In 1424, the bells were recast and augmented in celebration of the marriage of James I of Scotland and Joan Beaufort, the niece of Cardinal Henry Beaufort, the Bishop of Winchester.
William Shakespeare paid for the bells to be rung at the funeral of his younger brother Edmund, which took place on 31 December 1607, the same year as the baptism of John Harvard. Edmund is buried on the site and his memorial stone is situated in the floor of the choir, beside the stones for the dramatists Philip Massinger and John Fletcher.
In 1734, the eight bells were recast again into a heavy ring of twelve, and hung in a bell frame made of oak. They became the sixth heaviest peal in England, with an excellent resonance.
In January 1869 Charles Dickens attended ringing practice and published an account in All the Year Round, Dickens’ own weekly literary magazine, on February 27th 1869:
“As we go, the tenor’s voice becomes louder and louder, and the ladder and walls shake more and more, until at last, as we are going to step onto the platform of the bells, we shrink back as from a blow, from the stunning clash of sound with which he greets us.”
A thirteenth bell was added in May 2005. In addition, the tower contains a separate, fourteenth bell, known as the St Peter’s Bell, which was originally cast for St Peter’s Church in Southwark. The Church was bombed in 1940 and the bell was moved to the Cathedral. It now serves as the service bell for all the daily services in the Cathedral when the full peal is not being rung.
In 2017 a major restoration of this heavy ring of twelve was completed. During this restoration, the bells and their fittings were removed from the tower and taken to Taylors of Loughborough Bell Foundry.
Mainly the work of Samuel Knight, the bells had their cast-in crown staples removed, and new seating pads cast on their crowns. The tenor and seventh bells were recast after tuning, giving Southwark a slightly heavier tenor of 48 cwts 3 qrs 1 lb.
The old bells were retuned. New bell fittings were manufactured, and the ancient oak bell frame strengthened. The extension bell frame housing the sharp 2nd bell was repositioned to give a more direct rope drop, and a new undergrillage manufactured for it.
A short film on the 12 Bell Restoration Project produced by Bompass and Parr can be viewed here
The Bell Frame
It was previously thought that the bell frame was installed in the tower in 1734 for the new ring of twelve, however a recent report on the frame indicates that it is in fact older than this, perhaps dating from the second half of the 17th century, and was adapted in 1734 to accommodate twelve bells. It is a unique survivor of a frame designed and built before 1735 for a major ring of bells, and subsequently adapted. It is an exceptional and important frame: the only other frames of similar standing, both for lighter rings, are at Hereford and Lichfield Cathedrals.
For further information please visit the Southwark Cathedral Society of Bellringers website here.