The Bells of Southwark Cathedral

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The Dean of Southwark, Andrew Nunn, says:
“For centuries the tower of Southwark Cathedral was the tallest structure on the south bank of the Thames, and its bells rang out above the noise of revellers and traders alike.  Now the tower stands proud amongst taller buildings but the bells continue to ring.  After this once in a century ‘MOT’ they will ring even more clearly and be rung even more easily to thrill hearts and draw people to worship in this holy and ancient place.  The support we have received is tremendous and we all look forward to all the ceremonies and festivities surrounding the lowering and raising of the bells.”

We are enormously grateful to all those who have given generously in support of the project, including:

  • Mr J. Michael Buchanan
  • The Ancient Society of College Youths
  • The Surrey Association of Church Bell Ringers Belfry Repair Fund
  • The Heritage of London Trust
  • The Middlesex County Association & London Diocesan Guild of Church Bell Ringers Bell Restoration Fund
  • The Society of Royal Cumberland Youths
  • The Worshipful Company of Scriveners
  • The Sharpe Trust
  • The Worshipful Company of Glass Sellers of London
  • The Worshipful Company of Launderers
  • The Worshipful Company of Glaziers and Painters of Glass
  • The Whitsters’ Club

We would also like to thank those donors who gave anonymously and all the many individual donors.

To see the Heritage of London Trust Appeal on our behalf, please go to

To donate to this and to help us raise the remaining funds, please click on the donate button, which will take you through to the CAF donate page for the Southwark Cathedral Development Trust. Each of the donation amounts given illustrates a moment of the history of the bells. The story of the bells is told below, together with the more details of the works to be carried out.

£1,424: The bells were recast in 1424 to celebrate the marriage of James I of Scotland and Joan Beaufort.

£126.75: The number of changes rung during the record peal rung on 21st May 1923.

£18.69: The year Charles Dickens attended ringing practice.

The Story of the Bells

Their history gives illumination to key historical and literary moments. The church that is now Southwark Cathedral was founded as an Augustinian Priory in 1106. Seven bells were originally installed after the construction of the Tower, which began in 1310. In 1424, the bells were recast and augmented in celebration of the marriage of James I of Scotland and Joan Beaufort, which took place in February of that year in the Priory. Joan Beaufort was the half-niece of Henry IV of England, and the daughter of the first Earl of Somerset. Her uncle was Cardinal Beaufort, Bishop of Winchester, whose palace was situated adjacent to the Priory (the remains can still be seen in Clink Street). The marriage was intended to forge an alliance between Scotland and England.

William Shakespeare paid for the bells to be rung at the funeral of his younger brother Edmond, which took place on 31 December, 1607, the same year as the baptism of John Harvard. Edmond is buried on the site and his memorial stone is situated on the floor of the Choir, beside the stones for the dramatists Philip Massinger and John Fletcher.

In 1734, the eight bells were recast again into a heavy ring of twelve, and hung in a bell frame made of oak. They became the sixth heaviest peal in England, with an excellent resonance. In January 1869 Charles Dickens attended ringing practice and published an account in All the Year Round, Dickens’ own weekly literary magazine, on February 27th 1869:

“As we go, the tenor’s voice becomes louder and louder, and the ladder and walls shake more and more, until at last, as we are going to step onto  the platform of the bells, we shrink back as from a blow, from the stunning clash of sound with which he greets us.”

A thirteenth bell was added in May 2005, adding to the range of the bells. In addition, the tower contains a separate, fourteenth, bell, known as the St Peter’s Bell, which was originally cast for St Peter’s Church in Southwark. The Church was bombed in 1940, and following this, the bell was moved to the Cathedral and housed in a separate frame. It serves as the service bell for all the daily services in the Cathedral when the full peal is not being rung. 

The Bell Frame

It was previously thought that the bell frame was installed in the tower in 1734 for the new ring of twelve, however a recent report on the frame indicates that it is in fact older than this, perhaps dating from the second half of the 17th century, and was adapted in 1734 to accommodate twelve bells. It is a unique survivor of a frame designed and built before 1735 for a major ring of bells, and subsequently adapted. It is an exceptional and important frame: the only other frames of similar standing, both for lighter rings, are at Hereford and Lichfield Cathedrals.

The Works

The frame and fittings have been well maintained but owing to the design and age of the installation the bells are becoming very difficult to ring, even by very experienced ringers.  This is having a considerable impact on bell ringing at the Cathedral. The Southwark Cathedral Society of Bell Ringers has a tradition of nurturing young ringers and guiding those with talent to the top echelons of ringing with some moving to Westminster Abbey and St Paul’s Cathedral; however the bells are now too difficult for the practice required.  In addition, there is a reluctance from ringers from the parishes in the Diocese to take their part in ringing their Cathedral bells because of the challenges of handling the bells.

The Southwark Cathedral Society of Bellringers and the Cathedral are creating an appropriate programme of repairs and improvements. The intentions are to safeguard the historic fabric, improve the “go” of the bells and leave them in good condition for several decades to come.

The works will again make the Cathedral a suitable venue again for young ringers’ nurturing and practice, and an attractive venue for parish bell-ringers. The Cathedral bells will also then be able to play a full part in the hundred year commemorations for the First World War, leading up to the celebration of the end of the War in 2018.

The initial estimate for the costs of the works is £200,000.

The ringers themselves are offering to put in unpaid man hours under supervision towards this work, which is common practice in bell restoration.