Bells rang out from the tower of St Mary’s long before the present third church was built. An old inventory shows that St Mary’s had “Item ij belles in the steeple” Evidently they had to be replaced for in July 1551 the two bells were sold to “Androwe Sayre of London Scoope Maker”
The entry reads “Ther was sold ij belles of cccc iij qr xiij lb. weight at xxxs the c. vij li. x” £7.50 does not seem to be a bad price to get for them in the values of that day. These two bells were soon replaced by four others. In the inventory of 1552 in the reign of King Edward VI there is an entry “Item foure belles waying by estymacion vij c weight”
Elizabeth I came to the throne in 1558, so it must have been these bells that rang for her coronation and probably remained in the tower until it was rebuilt in 1746.
There is a very interesting account of ringing on these bells at Rotherhithe in the book Change Ringing – The History of an English Art – Volume 3 (page 41). A group of ringers was formed in November 1733 with the objective of ringing all the peals of 3, 4, 5 and 6 bells in the City of London and ‘bills of Mortality’, and to ring at a different place at every time of meeting. The “Rambling Ringers” as they were known also had a colourful social life !.
They rang at Rotherhithe on June 6th 1734 and they travelled by boat. They rang 720 Bob Minor and 360 treble Bob Minor. They went back by boat to Milk Alley, Wapping and the Waterman’s Arms, and seventeen of them sat down to supper. This consisted of beans and boiled bacon, and a roast leg of mutton with cauliflower. After supper they ‘drank a dram’ and each member of the party told a tale or sang a song.
Shortly after, the tower was rebuilt and in 1748 Thomas Lester cast the present ring of eight at Whitechapel. There have been numerous problems with these bells ever since.
In 1831 the tenor was recast by Thomas Mears and in 1863, the 7th and Tenor were recast by George Mears at Whitechapel, presumably because they had become cracked. By 1910 the timber frame was not apparently in good condition, because it was replaced with a new metal one. Things did not stop here; just three years later the foundations of the tower were extensively underpinned and the structure restored.
Even then, the problems were not overcome. The tower sways very noticeably when the bells are rung and investigations by Whitechapel in 1973 using “Rufus” revealed that the tower moves up to 4.4mm in both the N-S and E-W directions. This may not sound excessive, but it is considered that anything more than 1.5mm may make a bell difficult to control. This probably accounts for the fact that from 1749 up to the 1910 re-hanging only 14 peals were rung on the bells. A further 26 were rung between 1910 and 1926 and five more were rung between 1968 and 1977, making a total of 45.
In 1973 proposals were put forward to hang a lighter ring of bells at a lower level and in 1985 there was the possibility of hanging the redundant bells from St Stephen Ealing in the tower. This proposal got as far as one of the Rotherhithe ringers arranging for these bells to be stored locally in a warehouse. However the prospect of selling the Thomas Lester bells proved too contentious and the scheme was aborted.
At this time it also became evident regular ringing was disturbing the fabric of the building. The purlins supporting the roof seemed to slide in and out of the tower walls. It was only when you looked at the gap between the tower and the church below that you realised it was the tower that was moving. It made you feel seasick. Lead flashings became cracked, rainwater entered the structure, this affected the plaster on the walls and threatened the organ below. Regular ringing stopped.
There has always been close contact between the two parishes at Rotherhithe and Bermondsey, so the restoration of the bells at Bermondsey in 1991 lead St Mary’s to reconsider how their bells might be restored.
A scheme was devised where the front six would be retained and two new trebles would be cast to make a lighter eight which would fit in the clockroom. The new ring would have a tenor of about 11cwt in G
Hung in a new frame in the clockroom, the new ring would be good for teaching and the floor above the clockroom would have hatches fitted, to control the volume of sound outside the tower. The existing metal frame would also be removed as part of this project and transferred to St Anne’s Limehouse to house the new ring of eight there.
Article by Roger Booth