St Helen with St Martin, York

The history of the bells

A history of the bells 

The first recorded mention of bells at St Martin’s dates from 16th century Churchwardens’ Accounts. There is reference to the repair of a Sanctus bell in 1557 – “Item a new baltyre to the Sanctus bell iii” – this is a reference to a baldrick which is a leather strap by which the clapper was suspended from the bell’s iron crown staple. The “iii” will have been the cost – 3 pence. Another entry in these accounts dated 1577/8 records that the two old bells, weighing 6cwts 0qrs 14lbs, and 5cwts 0qrs 21lbs were replaced with a new ring of three weighing 6cwts 3qrs 14lbs, 7cwts 0qrs 7lbs and 9cwts 0qrs 14lbs.

By 1729 only one large bell hung in the tower. This was inscribed, “SONITU RESCIPISCITE MOESTO ANTE JACETIS HUMO”. It had a diameter of 41¼”, and weighed approximately 12cwts. In that same year five smaller bells were added. These were the gift of William Thompson who is described as a “Prothonotary”. These bells were cast by Edward Seller II of York and were rung for the first time on Ascension Day (15th May) 1729. This new ring of six was “judged by the most competent Gentlemen of Music in the City and hereabouts, and approved by them to be tunable and very fine notes”.

One year later, in 1730, two further treble bells were added, and the old tenor bell was recast, the work again being carried out by Edward Seller. The inscriptions of the two 1730 trebles record that the 2nd was the gift of the ringers and the treble the gift of the ringers’ friends. Seller completed his work on 23rd December at a cost of £59 10s, and only five days later the first full peal – 5040 Grandsire Triples – was rung on them. Indeed, this was the very first full peal (where each bell rings over 5000 times) to be rung anywhere in the north of England.

There are references to the bells being rehung only three years later in 1733 by James Harrison of Barrow upon Humber. Harrison was engaged in the provision of a new bell frame and a major rehanging of the Minster’s heavy ring of bells in 1733, and it is probable that his work at St Martin’s would have been of a maintenance-type nature.

Change ringing flourished during the 18th and into the 19th centuries as a gentleman’s recreation, and eighteen full peals, each taking more than 3 hours, were rung on the bells.

In 1888 the bells were again rehung at the cost of £100, and on Tuesday 9th October that year the York Minster Ringers rang a peal of 5024 Kent Treble Bob Major on them in 3 hours 15 minutes.

On 29th April 1942 St Martin’s was bombed during the Baedeker Raid on the City. Most of the bells were cracked and lay in the ruins of the church until all but the tenor bell were stolen in the early 1960’s.

This tenor bell was recast in 1961 by Taylors of Loughborough and was hung in a new cast iron and steel eight bell frame in the restored tower. This new bell frame was paid for by the War Damage Commissioners. This bell had a diameter of 39¼” and weighed 11cwts 2qrs 16 lbs.

In 1978 this 1961 bell was sold to Holy Cross Abbey, Thurles, County Tipperary and a ring of eight was installed in the empty bell frame. The largest four bells had been cast by Taylor’s in 1937 for Illingworth, Halifax, the smallest four were recast from three larger bells that had hung in St. Margaret’s, Walmgate, York. The tenor bell of this new ring of eight has a diameter of 38”, weighs 10cwts 1qr 23lbs, and bears an inscription in West Yorkshire dialect: “GET AGATE OWD LAD, AN' RING 'EM IN FRO' ALL OWER T'PLACE”.

Full details for the current peal of bells (all cast by Taylor’s of Loughborough) are as follows

Bell Weight (cwt/qtr/lb) Note Diameter (inches) Date cast
 1   3-2-7 G# 23.75 1978
 2  3-1-12 F## 24.25 1978
 3  3-2-11 E# 25.25 1978
 4  4-0-10 D# 27.00 1978
 5  4-3-3 C# 29.00 1937
 6  5-2-2 B# 30.50 1937
 7  7-2-7 A# 33.88 1937
 8  10-1-23 G# 38.00 1937



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