Tales from Tour Guides: the stories that fascinate, perplex and inspire the Tour Guides of Peterborough Cathedral, written during lockdown.
The Bells of Peterborough Cathedral
by Christopher Groome
English cathedrals are mostly known in bell ringing circles for the quality of their bells and the quality of the ringers who ring them. Peterborough missed out for several centuries because of bad decisions and only joined the list of cathedrals with good ringing as recently as 1986. The records show various attempts being made to give Peterborough a ring of bells worthy of the Cathedral and why, for various reasons, they failed.
The Abbey kept poor records of its bells before the dissolution of the monasteries, but there are records from the thirteenth century referring to the ‘great bells’ being rung for the death of various notables. By inference, there were four such bells, presumably housed in the north west tower.
In 1709 there was a flurry of activity to bring Peterborough Cathedral into the age of change ringing, with the casting of a new ring of 10 bells from the metal of the four ‘great bells.’ Rings of bells are classified by the weight of the heaviest bell, which is known as the tenor. The tenor at Peterborough weighed 30 cwt. The weight was suitable for the Cathedral but there were two problems which dogged ringing right up to the present day.
The first problem was the choice of founder. The founder given the job was Henry Penn. He was a local man who had his foundry by the river. The job was much the biggest he had ever done. Small rings of, for example, six bells in a village he could turn out without a problem. A 30cwt ring of 10 was quite a different matter. There are no records of the discussions leading to the decision to appoint Henry Penn, but I guess that several people argued for using the local man. The consequence was a ring of bells which was out of tune and difficult to ring. They should have employed a national foundry which had a track record for casting and hanging bells of cathedral weight.
The second problem was the reputation of the west front, that it would collapse if the bells were rung. For the whole life of the ring, the glib answer to any move to ring the bells more frequently was: To protect the west front the answer is ‘No’. This was the position until 1980. Who would raise money for improvements if the answer is always ‘No’?
The next milestone was in 1831 when the ninth bell cracked. It was a measure of the importance attached to the bells that the Dean and Chapter of the time traded in the front five bells to pay for the recasting of the ninth. Then there were five!
The bells limped on for most of the Victorian period. When the energy which led to the rebuilding of the central tower was paralleled by many other works, the bells again came into view. The leading figure was Henry Pearson Gates who was the Mayor of Peterborough in 1891. He paid for a new 10 bell frame by Taylor of Loughborough, at that time the best bell founders in the land. He challenged other leading citizens to pay for the five missing bells. He had no takers. It was hardly surprising given the still prevailing view that the west front would collapse if the bells were rung. So the Cathedral entered the twentieth century with the heaviest ring of five bells in the world, bells of indifferent quality, and an excellent 10 bell frame.
For bell ringers, to have a cathedral without ringing bells was almost a badge of shame. The Diocesan Guild of Church Bell Ringers therefore decided in 1980 to make the Cathedral its Diamond Jubilee project for delivery in 1984. Canon Ernest Orland, who was my predecessor as President, and I visited Dick Wingfield-Digby, then Dean, and Canon Thomas Christie, Canon Treasurer, to seek their support. They were unable to help us financially but would share the cost of employing Professor Jacques Heyman of Cambridge University, the leading structural engineer of the time for mediaeval masonry buildings. If he decided the North West tower was safe to carry a ring of bells, the Cathedral would back it, if not financially. Professor Heyman gave the tower a clean bill of health. His report particularly commended the bell frame of 1891.
The next step was to draw up and cost a scheme preparatory to getting detailed approval and launching an appeal. The starting point was the 10-bell frame, but the bells of 1709 could not be tuned to provide a ring of quality. The good news was that a second-hand ring of 10 bells from the redundant Church of St John the Divine, Leicester, was available for purchase. These Taylor bells were contemporary with the Peterborough frame, of excellent quality, and had been installed when Leicester was in the Peterborough Diocese. The tenor weight was 21 cwt so it would fit into the 9th pit, leaving the 10th pit for three new trebles to form a ring of 13 bells as befits a cathedral.
Our proposal for dealing with the old bells was to sell the recast 4th to Withycombe Raleigh in Devon to become the tenor of a ring of 10 bells. It was the best of the old bells. We proposed to retune the 5th and retain it as a bourdon bell because it had historical significance as the biggest bell cast in Peterborough. It is the bell which sounds before services and strikes the hours and half hours for the clock. The other three bells we proposed to sell for scrap. The budget for the scheme was £100,000.
At this point we came up against the conservation lobby which wanted to retain all the old five bells as the basis for the new ring. This would have perpetuated the string of bad decisions made starting in 1709. It would have cost more and produced a bad outcome. With the backing of the Dean and Chapter the Diocesan Guild appealed to the Cathedrals Advisory Commission for its scheme to be approved and I went to London for the meeting. The Commission backed our scheme subject to trying to sell the three old bells in the USA, which we did successfully with the help of Peterborough Development Corporation.
Peterborough Cathedral’s ‘new’ bells were slightly late for the Guild’s Diamond Jubilee, being blessed by Bishop Bill Westwood in November 1986, whereas the actual Jubilee year was 1984. In the context of three centuries messing around and no substantial progress, two years late is a modest delay. I think Henry Pearson Gates would be pleased with what we did, albeit nearly a century after he issued his challenge.
We know that this is a very difficult time for everyone, but if you feel able to make a donation to help the Cathedral now, when income from visitors, worshippers and events have all plummeted, that would be very much appreciated. You can do so via the Cathedral’s Virgin Money Giving page. Thank you.