The bells of St Bride's, Fleet Street -
"One of the Greatest Novelties of the Day"

or

The lost bells of change-ringing's most important tower.
by Michael P A Wilby



The story of St Bride's, Fleet Street is perhaps the most sad of all the lost rings of twelve. A tower once so highly regarded in change-ringing history is now silent, save for a worn a tape recording of some obscure bells that barely even resembles ringing.

St Bride's is possibly the oldest Christian foundation in London. According to Stow, the church was at first small, but extended greatly in 1480 by William Venor, Warden of the Fleet, who built a new large nave and aisles, leaving the existing building as the choir. It stood outside the City walls, but within Temple Bar, and was used for holding courts of law. The Inventory taken during the reign of Edward VI shows that this church had a saunce bell, and a ring of bells. Prior to the Great Fire of London in 1666, the tower of this church was known to contain a ring of eight, with a tenor of over 40cwt, and from an early period St Bride's was one of four churches appointed to ring the Curfew; St Mary-le-Bow was another.

The great fire in 1666 claimed this church and bells; Sir Christopher Wren was appointed to build the replacement. The body and tower were constructed between 1670 and 1684 at a cost of £11,430 5s 11d. The steeple, completed in 1700, is the highest in London at some 226 feet, and possibly the inspiration behind the design of the wedding cake.

The first bells in the new church did not arrive until 1710, when Abraham Rudhall installed a ring of 10 with a tenor 28 cwt in D-flat. These were not the first such ring: St Sepulchre's had been augmented to 10 in 1671 to facilitate the desire to practice Grandsire Caters, though it seems that they were not all that satisfactory, for the ninth had to be recast in 1686, the two trebles in 1698, the ninth again in 1699, and the second again in 1701 (the latter two recastings largely at the expense of the College Youths). However, on the arrival of the bells at St Bride's, the London Scholars began to meet there regularly to practise Grandsire Caters, and on January 11th 1717 this society rang the first peal in that method (also the first peal on ten bells). Presumably the College Youths also rang there for in 1719 the two societies gave the two trebles that would create the first certain ring of twelve (though it is documented that St Mary-le-Bow had twelve bells before the fire of London, and research shows York to have had a similar number from 1681, it is not certain that either of these "rings" were created for the purposes of twelve-bell ringing). In accordance with the spirit of the times, when change-ringing was considered an ordinary sport, the two societies considered these trebles to be their property, and kept them chained up so that no other ringers could use them! In 1736 the fifth and sixth were recast by Samuel Knight, but otherwise the bells remained intact as a ringing peal until their destruction in 1940.

What methods were practised are open to speculation, however the repertoire must have included Grandsire Cinques, for on January 19th 1725 (often given as 1724, from the old calendar), a band of College Youths rang the first ever twelve-bell peal; also being the first recorded peal by that society. This peal, some 4½ hours in duration, was composed by William Jackson, and showed an appreciation of musical qualities of keeping the bells in the "Tittums" position for much of the composition, though the composer did not yet know how this may be achieved throughout the whole peal-length. Details of the composition may be found in the College Youths' peal book. The peal details are also given as follows:-


"No.1. St. Bridgets Alias St. Brides in London. The Company rung on Tuesday January 19th, 1724, a complete peal of 5060 Grandsire Cinques, being the first that was done.

Mr. William Woodgrove

Treble
Mr. Benjamin Annable
2nd
Mr. Edmund Chadwell
3rd
Mr. John Ward
4th
Mr. John Pearson
5th
Mr. Robert Catlin
6th
Mr. Richard Castelman
7th
Mr. William Thompson
8th
Mr. William Jackson
9th
Mr. Peter Merrygarts
10th
Mr. Matthew East
11th Call'd Bobs
Mr. Thomas Roman
Tenor"


Peal ringing was such a rare event in those days, that it was regarded as a great feat of endurance, and held an interest for ringers and non-ringers alike. Thus the following article appeared in the St. James's Evening Post for Saturday January 23rd 1724/5:


"On Tuesday last in the Afternoon was rung at St.Bride's Church in Fleet-street, a glorious Peale of four hours and a half long, on Twelve Bells; There was a vast Concourse of People to hear it, who were all of Opinion, that it exceeded every thing of that Nature that had at any Time before been in England."


Among the band are some notable names, of which two stand out in particular. Robert Catlin, who was only 16 at the time of this peal, was employed as a carpenter and bell-hanger to Samuel Knight, the Holborn bellfounder. His work can still be seen (the old preserved frame at St Sepulchre's, and the existing frame at Southwark), and he was to eventually to succeed to Knight's business in 1741, which he carried on until his own death in 1751.

The other name is, of course, Benjamin Annable. Annable, who was a baker and had been born near the church (all according to Trollope), may well have seen the new ring of ten bells arrive from Gloucester by barge. There is some confusion over his date of birth. From information in the Clavis it is suggested that he was born sometime between 1686 and 1696, though the commonly-held idea is that Annable was just 20 over when the twelve-bell peal was rung. This latter notion is based on some inconclusive parish records, and it is safer to assume an earlier date of birth. He joined the College Youths in 1721 when he composed and conducted a peal of 5058 Grandsire Caters at St Magnus-the-Martyr, however at the time of the Grandsire Cinques, he had not yet risen to lead the society.

Very shortly this was to change: the next three peals at St Bride's were all composed and conducted by Annable, who rang the tenor on all three occasions, and firmly established himself as an excellent heavy-bell ringer and composer. These peals were of Plain Bob Major, Royal, and Maximus, and with their completion the band had scored the first peals of Royal, Cinques, and Maximus, and the second peal of Major, all within the space of thirteen months. The ringers for each peal stood as follows:-


April 26th, 1725: Plain Bob Major

Mr. John Ward

Treble
Mr. Francis Geary
2nd
Mr. Edmund Chadwell
3rd
Mr. William Laughton
4th
Mr. William Woodgrove
5th
Mr. Peter Merrygarts
6th
Mr. William Thompson
7th
Mr. Benjamin Annable
Tenor Call'd Bobs
 
 
November 22nd, 1725: 5040 Plain Bob Royal

Mr. John Ward

Treble
Mr. Robert Catlin
2nd
Mr. John Hardham
3rd
Mr. Francis Geary
4th
Mr. Edmund Chadwell
5th
Mr. William Laughton
6th
Mr. William Woodgrove
7th
Mr. Peter Merrygarts
8th
Mr. William Thompson
9th
Mr. Benjamin Annable
Tenor Call'd Bobs
   
   
February 26th, 1726: 5280 Plain Bob Maximus

Mr. William Woodgrove

Treble
Mr. Robert Catlin
2nd
Mr. Edmund Chadwell
3rd
Mr. John Ward
4th
Mr. John Hardham
5th
Mr. Francis Geary
6th
Mr. John Dearmore
7th
Mr. Samuel Jeacock
8th
Mr. William Laughton
9th
Mr. Peter Merrygarts
10th
Mr. William Thompson
11th
Mr. Benjamin Annable
Tenor Call'd Bobs
   
Edward Osbourne, writing in about 1845, says of this last peal:-

"It was very currently reported by the Ancient Ringers that every one who rang in this lastly mentioned peal, left the church in his own Carriage! - how far the real truth of this statement extends, I cannot pretend to determine, but I have often heard it remarked that when St. Bride's bells were first put up and for some years afterwards that Fleet Street was thronged with Carriages and Gentry who came from afar to hear them rung, report says that St. Bride's Bells were formerly considered one of the greatest novelties of the day."


Under Annable's leadership peal ringing flourished. Many of these performances were rung at St. Bride's, including methods such as Double Bob Royal (1734), Double Grandsire Caters (1733) and Cinques (1738), and until 1749, the College Youths were the only society to ring peals at St Bride's whatsoever. The Eastern Scholars were the first "visiting" peal band, and rang 6072 Plain Bob Maximus in 4 hour 45 minutes, being conducted from the tenor by John Blake. The Union Scholars rang peals in 1750: Plain Bob Major on the front eight, conducted by John Holt, and 1751: 5104 Grandsire Cinques.

The contribution Annable made to shaping peal-ringing as we know it cannot be underestimated. In the field of composition Annable's fingerprints can be seen on the compositional standards used today; it was Annable who decided to make the tenors the fixed observation bells in Major and above, and his composition of Plain Bob Major is still rung today.

Benjamin Annable died on February 1st 1756, and was buried under the tower of the church; sadly his grave is unmarked today. The following appeared in an unidentified newspaper, and shows the esteem with which this great man was held:


"A few nights ago was buried under the tower of St. Bride's Mr. Benjamin Annable the best ringer that was ever known in the world. Till his time ringing was only called an art, but from the strength of his great genius he married it to the mathematics and 'tis now a science. This man in figures and ringing was like a Newton in philosophy, a Ratcliff in physic, a Hardwick in wisdom and law, a Handel in music, a Shakespeare in writing and a Garrick in acting. O rare Ben!"


At the time of Annable's death there was much upheaval in London ringing societies, and to be fair, Annable had had a large share in the politics: ambitions and rivalries were breaking up the old societies and new ones were being formed. This was a period of contest in ringing, and possibly did much to push the boundaries of the art. The College Youths had split into the "Ancients", who moved to St Martin-in-the-Fields, leaving the "Juniors" to practice at St Bride's, though it was not until October 19th 1761 that the Juniors rang their first peal there: 5126 Grandsire Cinques called by George Meakins. On March 21st 1763 Meakins called a peal of 6072 Double Grandsire Cinques, and that was to be the last peal on the bells for fifteen years. The next peal came at the height of a contest between the College Youths and the Cumberlands to ring the longest peal of maximus, and 5232 Treble Bob Maximus in 1777 was to temporarily give this record to the College Youths. There was even a contest between the "Ancient" and "Junior" College Youths to see who could ring the first peal of Real Double Bob Maximus (where there are calls at the lead-end and half-lead). This was won by the "Juniors" with their peal at St Bride's on March 24th 1784.

It is worth recording here that the "Ancients" had a brief period of brilliancy following the breakup and subsequent influx of the London Youths. These were led by William Jones, and had been practicing at St Bride's for some years, having rung a peal of Bob Maximus there three days after the "Junior" College Youth's record Treble Bob Maximus of 1777. These ex-London Youths joined the "Ancients" at St Martin-in-the-Fields; this period of brilliancy ended with the dissolution of the "Ancients" in 1788, but not before they had achieved the first peal of Stedman Cinques on October 6th of that year.

Following the break-up, the College Youths effectively re-merged, and activity now centered on the twelve at St Martin's-in-the-Fields. St Bride's now took the back-seat, though this is possibly more to do with the state of the bells: we know that the tower was renovated in 1796, when the peal board recording the London Scholars' 1717 Grandsire Caters was destroyed. The next peal at St Bride's was in 1798, one of 5040 Treble Bob Maximus, then it was to be forty-three years before another peal was achieved.

In 1841 the Cumberlands rang a peal of Oxford Treble Bob Maximus, and returned two years later to ring another of Stedman Cinques. In 1850 the College Youths rang a peal of Stedman Cinques which was composed and conducted by John Cox. Cox had been appointed Steeplekeeper at St Bride's by the College Youths, though when he defected to the Cumberlands, effective control of the tower went with him.
Felstead lists some 11 peals from 1881 until the end of the century:


December 3rd 1881

Stedman Cinques
February 2nd 1882 Stedman Cinques
December 15th 1882 Stedman Caters
February 3rd 1883 5019 Stedman Cinques
by the Cumberlands, Composed and Conducted by John Nelms
March 8th 1884 5040 Kent Treble Bob Maximus
by the Cumberlands, Conducted by Geroge Newson
December 11th 1886 5104 Grandsire Cinques
by the Cumberlands, Conducted by William Baron
January 29th 1887 Grandsire Caters
by the Cumberlands
February 23rd 1889 Stedman Cinques
April 27th 1889 Stedman Cinques
February 7th 1891 Stedman Cinques
October 7th 1893
Stedman Cinques
by the College Youths, Conducted by James Pettit, on the occasion of the marriage of Mr FE Dawe

The beginning of the 20th Century, and what was to prove to be the last forty years of the bells' existence, is perhaps the most sad. Owing to the rise of the Newspaper industry and the close proximity of the presses, St Bride's bells fell virtually silent. The last two peals on the bells were scored in 1903, the details as follows:-


The Middlesex County Association
and London Diocesan Guild


The Middlesex County Association
and London Diocesan Guild

On Saturday March 28th 1903 in 3 hours 45 minutes
Tenor 28cwt

On Saturday November 28th 1903 in 3 hours 34 minutes
Tenor 28cwt

5021 Stedman Cinques

5007 Stedman Cinques
 
Treble

William Pye
   
Treble

Fred G May
  2nd Ernest Pye     2nd Herbert P Harman
  3rd Charles Wilkins     3rd Charles Wilkins
  4th Bertram Prewett     4th Isaac G Shade
  5th Isaac G Shade     5th Bertram Prewett
  6th Thomas Groombridge   6th Hubert Eden*
  7th Herbert P Harman     7th Ernest Pye
  8th Arthur R Jacob     8th Reuben Charge*
  9th Harry Flanders     9th William J Nudds**
  10th Cornelius Charge*   10th George T Daltry
  11th John R Sharman     11th William Pye
  Tenor William J Nudds     Tenor John R Sharman

Composed by Gabriel Lindoff
Conducted by William Pye

Composed by Henry Johnson
Conducted by Fred G May

* First peal on 12 bells.

* First peal on 12 bells
** First peal of Cinques away from the tenor


The bells continued to be rung until around 1911, when almost all activity ceased. In the years following the First World War, no interest was revived in the bells, and an Ellacombe was installed in 1923. It was to be over ten years before any further ringing was to take place. An article from The Ringing World of 1936 (p741) describes how the ringers had "...the now rare opportunity of ringing these famous bells for service.". The article went on to say: "The excuse [for not ringing] is that they are in the heart of London's newspaper land. But the heart of London's newspaper land does not throb on Sunday mornings. Even if it has begun to beat again by the evening - well there may be some newspaper men who would not be any the worse for a reminder of the things for which the Church stands." A sentiment still echoed today.

The interest in the bells had been revived by the Cumberlands, who had literally dug the bells out of guano. During the 1930s the bells were rung infrequently, but ringing was established on notable occasions such as the 1935 Silver Jubilee, every Lord Mayor's Day, the 1936 Central Council Meeting, and the 1937 Coronation. Between each occasion the ropes were removed to prevent their rapid deteriation: the tower was evidently filthy inside, and the bells somewhat open to the elements. The ringing-chamber was dimly lit by a single 40 watt bulb, scarcely illuminating the large ancient peal boards that hung as testament to the history made in this tower. It seems that they were last rung in 1938; the onset of war silenced, and ultimately claimed the bells during an air raid which destroyed the church on the night of December 29th 1940.

Surprisingly few of the war-time London ringers ever rang on the bells. Jim Prior once explained to the author that he had never rung there as the bells were considered to be a "rough old lot, and not very good". He went on to say that pre-war London was overflowing with such rings, and the ringers at this time were indifferent to the bells; they had more than enough other towers at which to ring. It is only since the bells have been lost that their true value is realised.

What followed after the war may at best be described as an unfortunate turn of circumstance. Though there was a definite intention to replace the twelve, somehow the plans never came to fruition. Instead an electronic 25-note Compton "carillon" machine was purchased, adding final insult to historic injury. During the reconstruction of the tower concrete floors were cast, and a frame layout was drafted by Mears & Stainbank to position the twelve rope holes that were cast into the ringing chamber ceiling. Taylors later became involved in the project and eventually cast a 15cwt bell, designed to be the 10th in a new ring with a tenor of 28cwt in D. This bell, inscribed "Curfew", and with inscriptions also taken from some of the lost bells, now hangs in a single low-sided frame with full-circle fittings (even marked as number 10) in an otherwise empty bell chamber. The massive louver-windows have been bricked up, save for small openings, as a precursor to full variable sound control facilities.

In the 1980s the electronic "carillon", much-loathed by Fleet Street, ceased to work and was replaced by the tape-recording of bells that bears at least some passing resemblance to change-ringing. It is just to be hoped that one day this, the scene of Benjamin Annable's triumphs and the true home of peal ringing, can once more hold a ring of bells that may be considered one of the greatest novelties of the day, and the tower be restored to its rightful place at the forefront of the exercise.

 



Sources:
Beard, "The Works of Christopher Wren", 1987
Cook, "The Society of College Youths", 1987
RW 36/741 40/220 40/232 40/244 40/256 40/268
Bell News and Ringers Record 1903