History of the Bells

The first Provost of the Cathedral & Dean of the Diocese of Edinburgh, the Very Rev Dr. James F Montgomery (Dean 1878 – 1897) donated the original 10 Bells. The specification for the bells was prepared by the veteran campanologist, Sir Edmund M S Beckett (-Denison) Bart. QC, &c, &c, 5th Baron Beckett and 1st Baron Grimthorpe. Lawyer, horologist and architect, Beckett was very self-opinionated and always specified the heaviest bells possible for every project. He is famed for, amongst other achievements, designing the clock in St Stephen’s Tower, Palace of Westminster and for the specification and procurement of the clock bells including Big Ben, then, at 16 tons the heaviest bell ever cast in the UK.

Our ring of ten bells was to weigh a total of 9 tons, with a tenor bell of just over two tons, and were cast by John Taylor & Co. of Loughborough in 1878 & 1879. They were tuned to the Old Standard and were installed by Taylors in 1879. Bells 1 – 6 were cast with integral canons and bells 7 – 10 with flat crowns. All were mounted on elm headstocks and had plain bearings. The ring was installed in a massive, freestanding oak bell frame 23ft x 20ft x 5ft, with individual beams up to 12 ins square and weighing a total of some 13 tons.
On Wednesday 29th October 1879, the bells were solemnly dedicated to the service of Almighty God, in the presence of a large company who had assembled in the belfry. At 4.30pm, the Dean, accompanied by his Chaplain and the Succentor of the Cathedral, with the Organist and Choir (in cassocks), occupied the bell chamber and read the special service.  After this, an invited band from Leeds and York raised and rang the bells for the first time to a touch of Grandsire Caters. A short report of the event appeared in “Church Bells” dated 8th November 1879. Details are:

1     James Lockwood       Leeds
2     William Pawson       Leeds
3     Peter Snowden        Leeds      
4     Thomas Lockwood      Leeds
5     Thomas West          Leeds      
6     William Morell       York
7     William Whittaker    Leeds     
8     Charles Underwood    York
9     William Walker       Leeds      
10    George Breed         York

The next day, 30th October was the official opening of the Cathedral. Several short touches of Grandsire Caters, Plain Bob Royal and Kent Treble Bob Royal were rung and the day was concluded by firing many volleys with the bells.

When the Cathedral was first opened, whilst the eight belfry “windows” had been soundproofed with tight fitting shutters, the four very large lancet windows in the spire were left open so that the full volume of the bells could be heard outside. As the Cathedral stands in what at that time was the most fashionable part of town, this caused noise problems and a Seage’s Dumb Practice apparatus was installed very soon after the dedication and in time to prevent a whole legion of injunctions being set in motion. This apparatus was an arrangement whereby as each bell is swung (the clapper being clamped so that the bell does not sound) a trigger mechanism activates one of ten small hand-bells within the ringing room. As far as we know, this was used for practices thereafter and certainly it was still in use in the 1950’s. During the 1960’s the N and S lancet windows in the spire were bricked-up and as a result, the problem of excessive noise was considered solved and the Seage apparatus became obsolete.

At the time of dedication, an Ellacombe chiming apparatus was also fitted and was played by a rope clavier in the ringing room. There is no record of its intended or actual usage and this too became obsolete in the 1960’s and both this and the Seage apparatus were disassembled.

The first peal on the bells was on Tuesday 31st August 1886 and rung by a band of people from London, Oxford, Birmingham and Wrexham. It was of 5003 Grandsire Caters especially composed by Henry Johnson Sen. of Birmingham (of The St Martin’s Guild fame) comprising 109 bobs and two singles & was conducted by Francis Edward Dawe of London (later to become Master of the Ancient Society of College Youths 1888-1890 and 1891-1893 and first Hon Secretary of the Central council of Church Bell Ringers in 1893). The peal was rung in 3hr 29min and was the first 10-bell peal rung in Scotland. It was credited to The Ancient Society of College Youths and The Wrexham Society
Details are:

1  Joseph Field       Oxford      
2  Richard W Evans    Wrexham
3  Alfred Thomas      Birmingham  
4  Joseph Williams    Wrexham
5  John Ellis         Wrexham  
6  Francis E Dawe     London
7  Edward Rowland     Wrexham      
8  Thomas Newell      Wrexham
9  Edward Evans       Wrexham  
10 James Kendrick     Wrexham

This peal had taken over a year to organize, as it required the consent of the Dean and Chapter, the Lord Provost of the City, the City Council and other officials almost without number. Further, powerful influence had been bought to bear on the Chief Commissioner of Police to instruct his men to ignore complaints during the event. As it was, numerous messengers and constables turned up to enquire what was up. It was reported that “these obnoxious visitors came however, only to be told by a special man at the door, that full permission in every way had been obtained, and the ringers were not to be interfered with.”! Francis Dawe's account of the first peal later appeared in The Bell News and Ringers Record page 217 and continued in further editions on p 231 and p243. It is a remarkable and amazing account of what Dawe describes as “a brilliant affair”.

On one night in 1897(?) after the bells were left up overnight, a crack opened up in the headstock of the ninth bell, and sometime during the night the headstock broke into two pieces and the bell was cast into its pit. Fortunately the bell was undamaged. The headstock was cut away from the bell and was found recently in a corner of the belfry and put on display in the ringing room. A new cast iron headstock with roller bearings was fitted in its place. It is not known what other fittings were damaged, but it is likely that a new wheel was fitted.
At this time or early in the 1890’s J Taylors overhauled the whole installation.

The second peal on the bells was rung in 1895 by a band of ringers from the Newcastle area. It was 5040 Kent Treble Bob Royal composed by Wm Holme; it was rung in 3hrs 47mins and was the first peal of Royal on the bells and in Scotland. It was credited to The Durham and Newcastle Diocesan Association and was conducted by Charles Routledge, at this time a student at Edinburgh University and member of St Mary’s Society.
Details are:
1  Charles L Routledge         
2  Robert S Story  
3  Henry H Lindsey          
4  Robert C Hudson
5  Hugh D Dall
6  Emmett W J Lincoln
7  Alfred F Hiller
8  William Story
9  William Holmes       
10 Fredk J Harrison

A letter by Charles Routledge describing the affair appears in the “Bell News” of 17th August 1895, p134. There is a photograph of the band in the ringing room.

There were three other peals rung early in the 20th century. Two were rung in 1902 by Scottish-based ringers and the third, of Grandsire Caters was rung by St Mary’s Society in 1904 and was the first 10-bell peal rung by a Sunday-Service band in Scotland. Details of this peal appear on the Society Peal board in the ringing room and are accompanied by a photograph of the band.

The five peals described, plus a further peal rung in 1927, were the only peals rung on the bells as installed in 1879, that is to say with a tenor of weight 42-2-21 and plain bearings. That the peals were rung is such good times demonstrated the excellent “go” of the bells and can be taken as a compliment, not only to the ringing participants, but also to John Taylor & Co. for a first-class installation, and to the Society for a high level of maintenance.


Dr Montgomery died in office in 1897 and was succeeded by the Very Rev Dr John Skinner Wilson who was Dean & Provost for 22 years. On his retirement, aged 70 years, a bell was cast and installed in the newly completed NW tower of the Cathedral in his honour. The bell, by Taylors of Loughborough has a weight of 8 ½  cwt and a note of A#. It is hung on a cast iron headstock for full-circle ringing in a cast iron low-side frame with plain bearings (Heywood lubricators) and a Hastings stay. It is chimed regularly for weekday services.

In 1935, the bells had a major overhaul managed by John Taylor & Co. The bells & fittings were removed from the tower & taken to the foundry workshops for retuning on the Simpson Principle. The canons were removed from the front six bells and cast-iron headstocks with roller bearings fitted to all bells. Whilst at the workshop the seventh bell was found to be cracked and was recast. The retune resulted in an overall loss in weight of over half a ton.

Since this time there have been no major changes. In 1982, during a routine inspection, the fourth bell was found to be cracked and was recast at Loughborough. The business of removing the cracked bell from the tower and subsequent installation of the new bell was handled entirely by the bell-ringers with the help of a gallows-jib erected by The Royal Navy using telegraph poles!
Subsequently the clappers of the sixth bell and tenor well were replaced and three headstocks re-gudgeoned at Loughborough.

At the turn of this century, the ten bells at St Mary’s were the heaviest ring of bells in Scotland and the second heaviest ring of ten bells in the world. The tenor bell was the deepest toned bell of all rings of ten bells in the world.

In 2008 after a long fund raising effort to raise £50K, two trebles were added to the original ten bells to create a ring of 12 bells. They were cast at Loughborough and installed in a low-side cast iron frame. They are the first such ring in Scotland and are the most northerly church-tower ring of 12 in the world – fittingly they are in the largest ecclesiastical building in Scotland.

The first ringing on the 12 bells is detailed below.

On Saturday 6th December 2008
A Touch of 110 Grandsire Cinques
1  Frances Cunningham      
2  Helen M Brotherton
3  Angela H Deakin          
4  Fiona Wheater
5  Christopher Frye          
6  Peter Sanders
7  William A Brotherton (C)      
8  Neil Ballard
9  W John Grainger          
10 Peter Williamson
11 Robert J Hancock          
12 W David Roskelly

This bob course of Grandsire Cinques marks the completion of the Augmentation Project. Rung by members of the Cathedral Band and the Scottish Association of Change Ringers.The first changes  on 12 bells in Scotland

Full details of the Augmentation Project appear in an article in The Ringing World Issue No 5155, Feb 12 2010.
The first 12-bell quarter peal was 1320 Plain Bob Cinques on 16 July 2009 and the first peal on 12-bells was 5016 Plain Bob Maximus on 7 October 2009. The new bells were dedicated & the original 10 bells rededicated on Thursday 12 November 2009 commemorating 130 years ringing at St Mary’s.

© Bill Brotherton 2012