The Ringing Room
The ringing room at St. Mary’s Cathedral has been described as “the finest ringing room in the world” and a veritable “ringing palace”, due in all probability to its size, excellent ringing circle and furnishings.
It is huge, measuring 32 ft square and 33 ft high, the floor being 71 ft above the Chancel floor. The room has washing facilities, is now fully carpeted and has seating for 50 people. The room has also been described as “barn-like” and, because the eight narrow windows rise from 15 ft above the floor as “dungeon-like”.
As well as the twelve live bells, the ringing room has a training bell, a dumbbell linked up to a ringing simulator that allows people to practice alone while others in the band ring something else together. There are washing facilities and the room is now fully carpeted with seating for 50 people.
At the time of the dedication the room had been furnished with dozens of pictures, interesting subjects and ringing paraphernalia under the superintendence and at the expense of Mr George Godfrey Cunninghame, Advocate and leader of the bell ringers. These artefacts and furnishings and additions throughout the history of St Mary’s now make the ringing room a unique museum of ringing paraphernalia.
Items to see include plaster casts of famous bells, commemorative plaques, our Society badges, our library, and our collection of handbells. The Ringing Room also contains the remains of both Ellacombe and Seage apparatuses, the Cathedral Peal Boards, and various pieces of Victorian memorabilia.
Bell plaster casts
We have plaster casts of seven interesting and ancient ringing bells in the locality of Edinburgh and Central Scotland. It is thought that they were made by Italian “artists” brought to Edinburgh for this purpose.
An interesting discovery has been made at the Dean Orphanage in Belford Road – thanks to Mr Barnett of the City Chambers Museum. On examination the bell, which hangs behind the clock tower there and chimes the hours, proved to have the following inscription:
Soli Deo Gloria Michael Burgerhuis M(e) F(ecit) Ad
Sacros Coetus Convocandus Middleburg Zelandoram
Fusam Publicis Sumptibus Summa Aedis Divi Aegidii
Arce Iocandam Curarunt senatus Populusque Edinburghensis
Calendis Octobris Ao Dni 1621
It also bears the device of a thistle, the City Arms, and the Scottish motto 'Nemo me impune lacessit' [No one provokes me with impunity].
The legend – 'The Council and People of Edinburgh caused me to be placed at the topmost tower of the house of St Giles' – is clear evidence of the bells’ intended destination. The bell and a carved stone plaque from the gate of the Netherbow have been reinstated in the bell tower of the Scottish Storytelling Centre, High Street, Edinburgh.
Seton Collegiate Church (East Lothian)
In the course of the ‘Rough Wooing’ (1543-1547), Seton Church, like many others, suffered. Hertford’s forces stole the bell and organ of Seton Collegiate Church and parts of the church were burned. The theft of the bell ensured that the faithful could no longer be called to prayer and even if they did attend at the correct time, their songs of praise could not be accompanied by organ music.
For a short time the church was used as a parish church and in 1577 the 7th Lord Seton had this bell cast in Holland for the incomplete church steeple. It bears the inscription 'Lord George Seton', together with the Seton crest. The original is now cracked and is on display in the church.
Edinburgh St Giles (vespers bell)
It was discovered hanging in a dark corner of the tower at the time of Dr Chamber’s restoration of the church. (19th C). Refitted with a clapper, it was used for some time to announce the services, but ultimately it was taken down as being too precious to run the risk of damage. It is now on view in the Cathedral at a spot near the R. L. Stevenson memorial. The Vesper Bell has the following inscription: 'O Mater Dei: Memento Mei: Anno: D. M.: IIII:LIII'
Dr Chambers ascribed the date to 1504, the last numeral having been illegible or unnoticed. But for some time it has been recognised that the “D” with the small”i” above it is part, not of the date but of “Anno Domini,” the accepted date being therefore 1452. The bell weighs one and a quarter hundredweights, and stands thirteen and a half inches high with a diameter of 19 inches.
In the belfry of St.Giles today three bells still hang, forming the chiming apparatus for the clock. The two smaller ones date from the beginning of the eighteenth century. The inscription on one reads 'Robertus Maxwell me fecit, Edimburgi in company Anno 1728', preceded by the names of Archibald Macaulay, Lord Provost and others. The second is dated 1706, and bears the City Arms and the names of Sir Patrick Johnson, Lord Provost and others. Both were probably made at Meikle’s foundry in Castlehill, though Meikle himself died in 1704. Maxwell was his assistant and probable successor.
Stirling Holy Rude (5th)
Cornelius Ouderogge of Rotterdam, Holland, cast this bell in 1657. It is 29 ins diameter and 25 ins high. It is 4-1-26 in C and now forms the fifth of a ring of six bells installed by John Taylor & Co in 1970.
Linlithgow St Michael (tenor)
This is 34 5/8 ins diameter, height 31 ins. Founder unknown – cast c.1542.
Glasgow Tollbooth (in store)
Cast of ancient bell, which till 1881 formed part of the chime in the steeple of the Tolbooth of Glasgow. This fine bell stands 2 feet 1 inch high with a crown of 71/2 inches, and across the mouth it has a diameter of 2 feet 73/4 inches. On one side it has, in a medallion, a mitred Episcopal figure; and on the opposite side in a similar medallion a shield with griffins rampant as supporters with a flying griffin in the centre. Between this is on one side a crowned female figure with a sword and a book, and on the others side a male figure in a flowing robe bearing a long crucifix. Underneath an ornamental belt on the shoulder is the legend:
[Katherine, I am cast by Jacob Waghaven, in the year of our lord 1554]
The bell has obviously not been cast for Glasgow, and must have been obtained second-hand, probably from Holland. The Tolbooth, which was built in 1626, had a bell in its steeple from the first; there is no evidence that any bell was at that time purchased for the new building. The tollbooth of 1626 replaced an older municipal building, the Praetorium, that dated at least from 1454. In 1576 the council added to the Praetotium a “foir-werk” which seems to have included a steeple or belfry, for at the same time they ordered for it a “Knok” and a bell. In the 1626 Tolbooth, a new “knok” was provided, but bells do not wear out like “knoks” and there can be little doubt that the bell obtained in 1576 was that set up in 1626, which continued there till 1881, and which is now deposited in the Kelvingrove Museum. The bell hung alone until after the Restoration, and in 1663 the Town Council resolved that the city should have “ane paill of belles to be made in Holland, and to have the toune’s armes fixit on them.”
Perth St John (bourdon – 28cwt)
Peter Waghevens of Mechlen, Holland cast this bell in 1506. It weighs 28-0-10. It hung as a single bell at St Johns Church, Perth until it became Bass or Bourdon bell of a 35-bell carillon installed by Gillett & Johnston of Croydon in 1935. The carillon is played regularly on Sundays & weekdays.
There are three notable plaques on display in the ringing room.
A brass plaque on mahogany in memory of George Godfrey Cunninghame who led St Mary’s bell ringers in their earliest days.
A stone embedded in the north-west wall of the ringing room, surmounted by an intricate carving of bells, wheels and ropes and carrying a relief carving of the Society Badge.
John Mowat is buried in Aubigny Communal Cemetery Extension, grave reference VI.G.8.
John Stannard was in the British Red Cross (B.R.C) and was not in the Military, and as such there is no Commonwealth War Grave Record. He is also recorded in a war memorial in St Cuthbert’s church but Cathedral records indicate that he was a ringer of (St James’) Leith.
Their names are recorded in the Central Council of Church Bell Ringers war memorial books.
A cast bronze plaque located on the east wall acknowledges the people and organisations who contributed money, time and effort to the success of the augmentation project in 2008, when two new bells were added to make a ring of 12 bells here at a total cost of £50,000. The ten major benefactors are written in the centre of the plaque and the borders record all of the other 50 contributors. The plaque is cast in bell-metal and sits beneath the two peal boards recording peals to mark the beginning and end of the project.
There are twelve ornate silver Society badges. These originally numbered perhaps fifteen but some are missing. Possibly they were presented to retiring members for exceptional services to bell-ringing at St Mary’s; possibly some were lost or retained by a member and forgotten about. One badge came to light quite recently when a member of the public contacted us trying to research an expensive purchase he had just made. This turned out to be a Society badge but he had no further historical information about his purchase. It is quite probable that there are other badges hidden away somewhere.
The badge is in silver and oval in shape and measures 2in x 1½in. The long axis is vertical and the ten names of the original bells are inscribed around an ornate border. In the centre of the badge is the gilt monogram “S”-“M”, for St Mary’s, above a little bell-shaped mount. The back of the badge has a clasped pin for fixing to clothing and carries the inscription:
S.MARY’S CATHEDRAL CHURCH
On the bottom edge of the badge is a little eyelet to carry a hooked pendant with a monogram “C”-“Y” signifying that the bearer is a qualified bell-ringer and a member of one of the two senior bell-ringing societies. Originally this meant the Ancient Society of College Youths, established in London in 1637 but is nowadays extended to include The Society of Royal Cumberland Youths, established in 1746 but thought to have started out as the London Scholars in 1717.
The badges are not on display but may be examined on request.
As a source of record and research, the library is unrivalled in Scottish bell towers.
Housed in two glass-fronted cabinets on the west wall of the ringing room it contains various technical and biographical books on bell ringing. The main content of the library is the complete annually bound set of The Ringing World, the weekly journal of the ringing “exercise” from its inception in 1911. There are roughly 100 volumes up to 2011, certain Second World War editions being bound together. (All bell ringing was stopped for three years during WWII and publication of the journal was sporadic during that time). The collection since 2011 is complete, but not yet bound.
The second largest section of the library is the annually bound set of The Bell News & Ringers Record the predecessor of The Ringing World published from 1890 to 1911. This is all but complete, the volume for 1886 being missing. It is thought that this was at some time borrowed in order to research the first peal on the bells, not returned and is now lost in antiquity. More information is at www.ringingworld.co.uk.
There are 78 hand bells in two sets. There is a five-chromatic octave set of 61 bells with a base bell size 29 in C, 10 inches (250mm) in diameter and weighing 7lbs (3.2kg) and a diatonic set of 17 bells, tenor size 22 in C. They are used for occasional tune ringing and change ringing and were purchased from Welch in about 1890 at a cost, according to the original invoice kept in our archives, of the princely sum of £15 12s 6d (£15.63).
Ellacombe and Seage apparatus
The mechanisms for the Ellacombe Chiming Apparatus and the Seage’s Dumb Practice apparatus were disconnected and partly taken down some time in the 1960s. The only remaining trace of the Ellacombe equipment is the bare playing console on the north wall of the ringing room and the guide pulleys above, near the ceiling. All hammers and levers have been removed from the tower.
The redundant Seage’s apparatus handbells and strikers remained on the ringing room wall and were finally taken down in the 2000s for safekeeping when the ringing room was full of scaffolding needed for extensive tower works. Rather than store or dispose of the Seage bells, one of our ringers designed and built a little tabletop chime. It was not possible to utilise the original strikers so a mechanism similar to that on a piano was used. The instrument is played by a “conventional” hand clavier. Some original Seage strikers have been retained for display, but all other equipment has been removed from the tower.
The first Society tower-bell peal (in the tower) was rung in 1904 and some time later it was felt that details should be recorded within the room. A large four-panel peal board was commissioned and paid for by the then Provost of the Cathedral, Dr John S. Wilson, and presented to the Society in 1912; the is peal recorded on the first panel. The next three Society tower-bell peals rung in the tower, in 1952, 1953 and 1974, filled the remaining panels and since then details of Society peals and peals of special significance appeared on separate boards. Of note are the SACR peal marking the 75th Anniversary of the formation of the Association at St Mary’s in 1932, a long length of 5,500 changes rung in four hours and the first peal on 12 bells in Scotland. More information is at https://www.sacr.org/.
There is some original Victorian equipment that, though still functional, is now entirely redundant. The first is a simple oil lantern which at one time constituted the main lighting in the room. Ancient photographs show it perched on a box in the centre of the ringing circle. It is now missing the wick screw but is otherwise intact.
There is also a curious linear vacuum cleaner. This is about four feet (1.2m) long and is of course hand-operated. There are attachments and the cleaner still seems to work.
Another gadget is the original firefighting equipment. As well as two red-painted sand buckets there is a curious water pump contraption. This is a large bucket with cast iron feet and a hand-operated wheel driving a short water pump. A rubber hose, now missing, led from the pump to the operator. Records show that this equipment was tested in 1886 by members of the first peal band, several of whom were volunteer firemen.