Where the Bells Ring No Longer
A Visit to St Magnus the Martyr, Lower Thames Street

by Dickon R. Love, 2001

It has been over 50 years since the sound of bells has shouted down from Wren’s second highest spire in the City. The church of St Magnus the Martyr stands next to London Bridge hidden from the Thames by one of a number of bland office blocks that have grown like weeds to obscure many of London’s architectural gems. The story of the fate of the bells has fallen into London ringing folklore, and so the opportunity to have a look at what has been left behind was welcomed. This is the story of what we found.

The bells formed a ring of ten with a tenor of 21cwt. Succeeding a ring of six, the back eight were cast in 1714 by Richard Phelps, ten years after the spire was built, and the trebles very soon after. The first peal, by the College Youths, 5088 Grandsire Caters, was rung on 15th February 1725. The two trebles were recast by Robert Catlin in 1748, the gift of the Eastern Youths and the British Scholars; the treble and tenor were recast in 1831 and the treble yet again in 1843 by Thomas Mears.

Ringing in the years before the War came under the care of the Ancient Society of College Youths: they practised there for the last time on 17th August, 1939 (according to the Minute Book). The last of the 97 known peals was one of Stedman Caters rung on 23rd March, 1940. By June of that year, all ringing in the country was ordered to cease, and a letter was sent to the College Youths in December 1941 from the Rector advising that the bells had been taken down and placed in the churchyard for safety.

The War produced many serious "bell" casualties, and most of the towers that the College Youths practised at were gutted. The roof and ceiling of the church itself were damaged, but the tower remained untouched, and had the bells remained in situ, they would have survived those destructive years. The removal (which took place via the ringing room window) was prompted by an American friend of St Magnus church. In 1951, the bells were taken to the Whitechapel Bell Foundry in preparation for refitting and rehanging. When they were cleaned, four of them were found to be cracked by which time the benefactor had departed. Lack of funds prevented the completion of this work, so they remained in storage despite the enthusiasm of the then Rector, Fr Fynes-Clinton, who produced an attractive brochure on the restoration of the bells and had been a regular guest at ASCY dinners. As the other rings in other City churches were restored, so ringing resumed in the City, and the new generation of London ringers were largely unaware of the old ten languishing in Whitechapel. The regime changed after Fr Fynes-Clinton's death. The Magnus bells were for years stored in the old back yard before removal to the foundry yard in 1971. Despite the concessions made by the foundry and advice from the Council for the Care of Churches, nothing was done and finally the church elected to sell them for scrap. The swan song of the tenor was to accompany the 1812 Overture at the Royal Albert Hall during the 1976 Summer Proms; in the autumn the whole ring was broken up in the place where it had been first cast two centuries before.

The second door led us to the ringing chamber, and what a forlorn sight we were greeted with as we stepped back in time. Where there is often wooden panelling, the walls had been painted a red ochre colour with a line of timber coat hooks and hat pegs separating that part from the once whitewashed upper walls. The floor boards were bare timber with small indentations under each bell where the ringers would have dug their feet in while heaving away. In the south-east corner were brackets across the space where the peal board in the crypt once hung; in the centre of the west wall was a large board recording a College Youths peal of Stedman Caters in 1859 and on the south wa.ll were two 20th-century peal boards. Below stood benches that were once distributed round the sides of the room, now piled together against one wall. The one window in the room, a large opening that

Moving to 2001 and having received permission from the Rector, the Verger kindly led us to the door of the tower, but not before showing us a magnificent old peal board preserved in the crypt. It was a performance by The College Youths on 20th February 1762 of 5148 Double Grandsire Caters, being "the most number of changes ever performed in that method". It must also have been one of the slowest, taking 3 hours 40 minutes!The tower now stands on three arches west of the nave, the aisles having been foreshortened in c.1760 to allow one of the footways to Old London Bridge to pass right under the Tower.

The opening to the staircase nestles in the north west corner. The first door led to a room occupied with the bellows of the organ and the clock works; in the pendulum case we found four good-as-new dog-leg bell stays!

almost reaches the ground with useful seating on it, let in only as much light as the years of dirt and shadow of the ever growing outside buildings would allow. However, the most striking feature was the trap door in the middle of the ceiling, swinging open wide revealing a glimpse of the frame from which the bells had been plucked. The ten rope holes and bosses too just hung there, covered in dust and cobwebs. The second and third rope holes appeared very close together, bearing out the testament about these two bells from those who remembered ringing there. The tenor hole was in the south east corner with the peal boards: the lack of floor indentation indicated that there was once a tenor box, now removed. The room was very sad, empty and lost and instead of bells pealing, all that was left was red ochre paint peeling on the walls revealing the whitewash underneath.

The ceiling of the ringing room - note the 2nd and 3rd rope holes to the right of the picture and the trap door gaping open.

Going upstairs and through a timber gate we came to the massive oak frame which once contained so much of London's ringing history. It appeared originally to have been a six bell frame with a very large central opening. As built it seems to have housed bells 1, 2 and 4, 5 along the west and east walls respectively, swinging north and south with the third along the north wall and the tenor along the south, swinging east and west. In 1714 it was adapted by slipping in the 6th (later 8th) bell between the 5th and 7th (7th and 9th) at right angles to them and taking out the north side truss of the old 3rd pit and forming two pits at right angles for the new 3rd and 4th (5th and 6th). These three pits have open ends which occupy the large belfry openings. Clearly the bells would have been very loud outside when they were rung. When the bells were made ten the new bells were simply slipped in to the north and west sides of the central void, still leaving plenty of space there, but accounting for the roping difficulties with the 2nd and 3rd. In 1917 a new cast-iron frameside was fitted to the tenor pit. Some of the ropes used to lower the bells were still wrapped round parts of the frame; the brasses of the plain bearings gaped pathetically open; pulleys and runner-boards were still in place and the cast-iron tenor headstock was still swinging upside down on its bearings in its pit.
The staircase got considerably narrower further up the tower and finally came to an end in a room above the belfry. The opportunity to photograph the frame from above was taken through the central trap door. A wooden staircase leading up the side of the wall allowed access to the opening at the base of the spire and the lead roof under it. The service bell hung from the base of the spire some ten feet above our heads, and ascent of an iron staircase to a platform in the middle permitted the clocking of it. Forgotten perhaps by those who came to save the ringing peal, it now hangs as a sole bronze orphan.

Returning to the base of the tower, the Verger asked us to come to the vestry for our opinion on something else he had recently unearthed. He produced a set of eight handbells that were clearly quite old and slightly battered. The tenor bore an engraving of the church with its name as a motto. The plain course of Bob Minor we rang on them was possibly the first change ringing in the church for sixty years!

The Verger showing off the newly rediscovered handbells.

I subsequently discovered that the College Youths used to keep a set of handbells in the ringing room. In March 1940 they resolved that "the handbells at present in the belfry of St Magnus would be more useful to the Society if kept in the Meeting Room." The bells were duly reported as being in their new home in The Coffee Pot within a fortnight. On 30th December, 1940, the Treasurer went to the City to find The Coffee Pot no-longer there: all three sets of the Society’s handbells had been destroyed! Ironically, the handbells, like the tower bells, would have been ringing today had they been left alone.

It is easy to be wise after the event. Sixty years have passed since the bells were lowered for safety. Fifty years ago they were taken to the foundry for the restoration which never happened. It is twenty-five years since they were scrapped. It is maddening to appreciate that what started with the best of intentions should end in expediency and indifference. There are so many imponderables: if they had simply been put back as they were - if indeed they had never been touched in the first place, for example. Again, had they first become "available" a year earlier, their value would have been sufficient to purchase and install the superb Taylor eight which was being taken out of St Dunstan-in-the-East nearby. As it is, we have lost both rings.

The Verger told us that the church would love to have bells sounding from their tower again, but it simply cannot afford it. So it looks as if the frame will remain empty for a while longer, and the paint will continue to peel from the walls.

The tour was organised by: Rev’d David Cawley and also visiting was Simon Davies. With thanks also to Jim Phillips.

For more information on the bells of St Magnus, see the St Magnus Page in the main site.