Reading Minster of St Mary the Virgin

History of the Bells

In medieval times there appears to have been a peal of five bells at St Mary’s, with a tenor of approximately 22 cwt, although no details are available of this ring. The first mention of bells in the churchwardens’ accounts appears in the years 1550-53, during which time St Mary’s was in the process of being rebuilt, largely with material from the ruins of Reading Abbey, and the two tenors were sold for £57 3s 3d to help pay for this work. The clapper of the tenor is recorded as being sold as a separate item, and fetched a further 11s. The three remaining bells were rehung and new fittings provided, including three new ropes at “xxxd” the set.

During 1558-59 one of the bells was recast (it is not known which), and a year later the tenor was rehung. The tenor again received attention in 1585 when it was recast by William Knight II of Reading. The ring of three was then untouched until about 1603/4 when two new bells were added . The new fourth was cast by Henry Knight I and was paid for mainly by the then Vicar, Dr Powell, with public subscriptions providing the balance. The tenor was the gift of Lady Jemmat Webbe and weighed 21 cwt 1 qr and 19lbs. It was cast by Robert Mot at the Whitechapel foundry although Henry Knight provided the brass fittings. This bell was brought to Reading by river and hung under the supervision of “Olde Father Barnes” who probably came down from London (the churchwardens’ accounts speak of payments for his board).

A new treble was added in 1617. No details are available of the founder but the bell weighed 8 cwt and 3 lbs and was paid for out of donations from the parishioners, collected by William Marshall, the Parish Clerk. St Mary’s now had a ring of six for the first time and was one of the first churches in Berkshire to reach this number.

Between 1640 and 1642 at least four of the bells were recast by Ellis Knight of Reading; the fifth is mentioned in the churchwardens’ accounts, whiles the inscriptions on the present third, fourth and tenor (then the treble, second and tenor) indicate three other recastings. It is possible that the whole peal was in fact recast at this time, but no other details are available. The fifth became cracked again in 1664 and was again recast by the Knight foundry.

No more major work was done on the bells until 1740, when Robert Caitlin of London cast and hung two trebles to form a ring of eight. These two bells, at a total cost of £102 7s 10d were given by William Strode and John Blagrave, then MPs for the Borough of Reading. At the end of the year, on Christmas Eve, the first peal on the bells was rung and is recorded by a peal board:

DECEMr The 24; J740
The whole Peal of UNION
TRIPLES 5040 changes
Were Rung in three hours
& ten minutes being the
firft Ever Done in this
Parifh by the Perfons
Here mentioned.  GILES NEWBERY, TRIBLE.
ROBERT BOOTH, SECOND.
BENIAMIN FORD, THIRD.
WILLIAM LUTMAN, FOURTH.
WILLIAM FORD, FIFTH.
HENRY PEATY, SIXTH.
IOHN LUCAS, SEVENTH.
IOHN BROWN & IAMES HILL, TENNOR.

This was followed in 1742 by the first peal of Grandsire Triples on the bells. In 1743 Robert Caitlin was called in again, this time to recast the fifth, sixth and seventh, the first two of which were the last remaining bells of the original pre-1550 five. Caitlin was a member of the Ancient Society of College Youths, and must have been told the leading members of the Society at the time how good the bells at St Mary’s were, for in 1744 members of the Society visited St Mary’s to ring a peal which is recorded in the Society peal book:

St Mary
Reading
In the County of Berks.
The company rang on Tuesday
May 15th, 1744, a complete peal
Of 5,040 Bob Major, being the
First that was done in that
Steeple and in 3 hours & 26 minutes
It was perform’d.
Mr. James Richardson. Treble.
Mr. Edward Newton. 2nd.
Mr. William Pickard. 3rd.
Mr. Benjamin Annable. 4th.  C. B.
Mr. Samuel Jeacocke. 5th.
Mr. Richard Spicer. 6th.
Mr. John Blake. 7th.
Mr. John Trenell. Tenor.

The Reading Youths were stung into action by the performance of the College Youths and the following year attempted to go one better. A board in the ringing room records the event:

MARCH YE 3RD J745
The Reading YOUTHS went
For a Peal of Bob Major 10,080, with Eight men only
And, after Ringing 8J76 Changes,
In 5 Hours 59 Minutes, had
The miffortune to Break
The Third rope, or in all
Probability their Defign
Had been completed; every
Man being in perfect strength.
*THEIR NAMES*
WILLIAM ABERY: Treble
ROBERT BOOTH: Second
HENRY CLARK:  Third
HENRY ADAMS: Fourth
CHARLES WRIGHT: Fifth
THOMAS LANGLEY: Sixth
THOMAS BECKERIDGE: Seventh
IOHN LUCAS: Tenor.

At the top of the board is the figure of a bell surmounted by a scroll bearing the motto of the Ancient Society of College Youths (“Intactum sileo, percute dulce cano”), which tempts to suggest that the College Youths erected a board to commemorate their peal in 1744, which was afterwards utilized by the Reading Youths.

A long period then elapsed, until 1863 when the seventh was recast by George Mears and the ring assumed its present form.

The next chapter in the history of the bells of St Mary’s came nearly 200 years after the installation of the original eight. Towards the end of the 1920s the bells were becoming increasingly difficult to handle, and at the end of September 1928 the frame was finally condemned as unsafe and ringing ceased. Mears & Stainbank were immediately called in and the work of rehanging commenced in January 1929. The oak frame was removed and a new iron frame installed, and the bells were retuned and rehung with completely new fittings. The entire cost of the work (£490) was met by Dr J. Leonard Joyce, a noted local surgeon, who was at that time Captain of the St Mary’s ringers. The newly renovated bells were dedicated by Bishop Shaw on Tuesday 9th April 1929, the Patronal Festival, and the first ringing took place after Evensong on that day. The band taking part in the ringing that evening consisted of Messrs J. Leonard Joyce (Captain), John S Taylor (Steeplekeeper), John Swain (Deputy Captain), William S Pearton (Secretary), Percy J Dyke, Eric Andrews, Oliver Rundall, William Evans, Percy Paynter and Miss Rosina J Howe.

Since that time the bells have proved popular with both local and visiting ringers. Over 250 peals have now been rung in the tower and there is an active local band who ring at both St Laurence’s and at St Mary’s.

Views of Reading Minster of St Mary the Virgin

Reading Minster of St Mary the Virgin

Reading Minster of St Mary the Virgin seen from the south

The tower of Reading Minster of St Mary the Virgin

Reading Minster of St Mary the Virgin
The bells of Reading Minster of St Mary the Virgin

The bells of Reading Minster of St Mary the Virgin

The Bells of Reading Minster of St Mary the Virgin

The bells hang in a cast-iron side-pattern frame mounted on a double set of rolled steel joists installed in 1929 by Mears & Stainbank. The bells are fitted with cast iron headstocks having fixed steel gudgeons, self-aligning ball bearings, and other traditional-type wheels and other gear.

The sanctus and seventh bells were cast at the Whitechapel Foundry; the third, fourth and tenor are by Ellis Knight I of Reading; and the remainder by Robert Caitlin, of London.

Bell Inscription Weight
(cwt-qrs-lb)
Treble × GEOGE GREEN RICHARD WEBB CHURCH WARDENS × ROBERT CAITLIN FECIT ANNO J740 6-1-19
Second (SAME AS TREBLE) 6-1-6
Third LOVE GOD 1640 7-2-25
Fourth W × M FEARE GOD 1640 8-2-1
Fifth ROBERT CAITLIN FECIT × J743 9-2-4
Sixth PROSPERITY × TO × THE × PARISH × OF × ST MARY × (BELL) × × ROBERT CAITLIN FECIT J743 11-3-25
Seventh G. MEARS & CO. FOUNDERS LONDON 1863. / ARTHUR P. CUST VICAR / J. W HOUNSLOW. / J. BLIGH MONCK × CHURCH WARDENS 17-2-11
Tenor WALTER FELLOWE . AND WILLIAM GANDI CHVRCH WARDENS 1640. 25-2-26
Sanctus C. & G. MEARS FOUNDERS LONDON 1851. / REVD. SLL : W. YATES VICAR. / WM. HOBBS / DL. S. RUSSELL CHURCHWARDENS 1-2-0