The Bells of St Mary-le-Bow, Cheapside

by Mark Regan, 2003

Photo DrL 7th May 2006 In 1392 Dick Whittington heard Bow bells call him back to London to become Lord Mayor; to be born within the sound of Bow bells was the sign of a true Londoner or Cockney; and Bow bell’s authority ends the medieval nursery rhyme Oranges and Lemons – ‘I do not know says the Great Bell of Bow’. During the Second World War the BBC’s World Service broadcast a recording of Bow bells, made in 1926, as a symbol of hope to the free people of Europe. This recording is still used by the BBC as an interval signal. Today Bow bells ring out proclaiming the presence of a church which has been at the centre of London life since Llanfranc refounded St Mary le Bow in 1088.

The first written reference about Bow bells in 1469 states that the Common Council ordered that a curfew should be rung at 9 o’clock each evening. Soon after this John Donne, a mercer, gave the church two houses in Hosier Lane (now Bow Lane) for the maintenance and regular ringing of the bells. In 1515 William Copland, a churchwarden, gave a great bell to the church making five in number. Sadly this bell was rung for the first time for Copland’s funeral. Ringing the curfew bell was stopped in 1876.

Bow church dominated life in the city and the 9 o’clock bell not only marked the curfew but also the end of an apprentice’s working day. The bell was often rung late, prompting this rhyme:

‘Clarke of the Bow belle with the Yellow lockes,

For thy late ringing thy head shall have knockes’


To which they received the reply:


‘Children of Cheape, hold you all still,

For you shall have the Bow bell rung at your will.’


Ringing prospered in the seventeenth century and in 1603 the Society of Cheapside Scholars was founded; Fabian Stedman, the father of modern bellringing, was a member. This society became extinct in 1662 and many of its members joined the College Youths which had been founded in 1637. By 1635 the tower contained six bells and in 1643 the bells were rung to celebrate the demolition of the famous Cheapside cross by a crowd of citizens and soldiers loyal to Parliament. The cross was seen as a symbol of Popery. There is a curious reference in the Bodleian Library in Oxford to Bow having twelve bells in 1652 ‘of which ten were rung and two were tolled’. No evidence has yet been found to prove this claim. Samuel Pepys’ diaries contain occasional references to Bow bells.

The tower and bells were destroyed in the Great Fire of London in September 1666. Although the tower of Wren’s new church was designed for twelve bells the bellfounder, John Hodson from Crayford in Kent, cast a heavy peal of eight in 1677. Thomas Lester, beginning Bow’s long association with the Whitechapel bellfoundry, recast the tenor bell in 1738. The other seven were considered inferior and recast in 1762 when two extra bells were also added. The ten bells were first rung to celebrate George III’s 25th birthday.

However the bells were often not rung because of problems with the tower, the bells, the bell frame or a shortage of ringers. In 1820 some stonework fell from the spire into the bedroom of a local merchant in Bow Lane, nearly killing him.

In 1856 the bells were silenced by the protestations of Mrs Elisabeth Bird, an eccentric neighbour who feared that the noise of the bells might end her life. After two years’ silence the bells were rung again and Mrs Bird lived to hear the bells for several more years.

The bells were finally augmented to twelve in 1881, and in 1926 they were declared unringable and not rung again. The silence of Bow bells became a matter of national concern. In 1933, after six years’ silence, eight of them, including the tenor, were recast and the remaining four retuned and rehung in the existing frame by Gillett and Johnston. This restoration and recasting was the gift of H Gordon Selfridge, the American entrepreneur who had founded his famous store in London’s Oxford Street. This restoration divided ringers’ and public opinion for many years and it has never been proved whether or not Selfridge actually paid for the work. Eight years later the bells were destroyed by a German air raid on the night of 11 and 12 May 1941. The church deliberately omitted any record of the 1933 restoration when the bells were later recast.

In 1956 Bow bells were recast from the remains of the destroyed ring by Mears and Stainbank and rung for the first time on 20 December 1961. Within the space of only 29 years the tower had contained three different rings of twelve and for over sixteen of these the tower was bomb damaged and derelict. Salvaged metal from the destroyed bells was reused but the overall weight was reduced. The new bells were rung for the first time on 21 December 1961. They hang 100 feet (30 metres) above the ground in a bell frame made of Javanese Jang. Each bell has an inscription from the Psalms on it and the first letter of each Psalm spells D WHITTINGTON. Much of the cost of rebuilding the tower and recasting the bells was the gift of the Bernard Sunley Charitable Foundation and Holy Trinity Wall Street in New York. Thwaites and Reedes installed the electric clock mechanism in 1961 and Smith of Derby replaced the chiming mechanism in 1985; this was replaced again in 2003. The unusual tune used to strike the quarters and the hour was composed by Villiers Stanford in 1904.

Since the first recorded peal on 12 January 1731 over 400 peals have been rung in the tower, although only 65 had been rung by 1939. 54 peals were rung on the Lester Pack and Chapman/Mears and Stainbank bells. The first three peals in the eighteenth century were rung on a 54 cwt eight, each with eleven participants, including Benjamin Annable and William Laughton. After augmentation in 1762, eleven peals were rung between 1765 and 1870. The first peal rung with only ten participants was in 1787, Philip Pilgrim ringing the tenor to Grandsire Caters. The first peal on the twelve was in 1890, Stedman Cinques by a College Youths band comprising many of the newly formed St Paul’s Cathedral Guild. In 1909 William Cockerill rang the tenor to 6,048 Kent Treble Bob Maximus – an astonishing feat commemorated by a reception at the Whitechapel Bellfoundry. Then in 1911 Bob Newton rang the tenor to London Major – another remarkable feat. The peals rung between 1909 and 1925 record the intense and bitter rivalry between the College Youths and Bill Pye’s Middlesex Association band. The College Youths’ names – Challis Whinney, Alf Peck, the Langdons, the Pasmores, Ted Duffield, Bob Newton and William Cockerill – and those in William Pye’s band – Reuben Saunders, Harry Flanders, Bert Prewitt, Isaac Shade and Ernie and Bob Pye – appear during this intense period of ringing. 28 peals were rung between 1919 and 1925 and many attempts were lost in this period too. Pye’s 7,392 Cambridge Surprise Maximus in 1925 stands out amongst all the peals rung before the bells suddenly became unringable.

The ‘go’ of the Gillett and Johnston bells prevented much ringing and two years passed before the first peal on these remarkable bells in 1935, and then only ten more peals were rung. The surviving recording testifies to the bells’ magnificence. Despite the controversy of their origins ringing is considerably poorer as a result of their destruction.

The Mears and Stainbank bells, opened in 1961, were infrequently rung. The first peal on the new bells was 5,007 Stedman Cinques by the College Youths on 9 November 1962. Over the next 18 years only 29 peals were rung on the bells. During the 1980s the bells became more available and during Victor Stock’s incumbency (1986 to 2002), the tower, bells and fittings were restored and many radical changes made. The tower and spire were cleaned, asbestos was removed from inside the tower and spire, the internal acoustics improved, adjustable sound control installed, and peal boards and photographs recording the tower’s history were placed in the ringing room. Since 1986, over 275 peals have been rung on the bells, making Bow the leading tower in the City and the most pealed ring with a tenor over 40 cwt.

However, peal ringing forms just a part of the regular pattern of ringing at Bow. A group of ringers who work in or near the City comprise the Bow lunchtime service band which has rung regularly for midweek services since 1986. The College Youths still has a close association and the other London ringing societies now regularly ring at Bow. The bells are freely available to competent bands for outings, quarter peals and peals.

On Saturday 26 June 2004 the National Twelve Bell Competition will be held at Bow. Hosted for the first time by the College Youths, it is also the first time since 1984 that the competition has been held in the City of London. The bells will be rung with the sound control open – a deafening and magnificent sound for those listening outside. Not for the faint-hearted, it promises to be a tough day’s ringing for the final contestants on clear and unforgiving bells.

The competition will be opened by Bow’s new Rector, George Bush. The tradition of openness and welcome continues as a key part of his ministry. For many hundreds of years the bells of St Mary le Bow have proclaimed the church’s presence in the heart of the City of London and they continue to do so today.