The Bells of Exeter Cathedral - A Brief History

There were seven bells at the time of the Cathedral's foundation, and from the time of the building of the two towers the bells were divided roughly equally between them. The fabric Rolls record that in 1372 one bell was cast and another recast by Thomas Karoun, who may have been from Gloucester.

There was a thriving bell foundry in medieval Exeter by 1400 and many of the products of this foundry can still be seen in the West Country today. The clock bell "Peter" was recast (in Exeter) at the order of Bishop Courtenay in 1484, and it is almost certain that the founder was Robert Russell, who was Mayor of Exeter in 1485. Although this bell does not survive, many by Russell do and are distinguished by having stamps of coins between their canons.

The first complete list of the Cathedral's bells dates from 1552, and is found in an inventory made by the Commissioners for Church Good in 1552. This inventory details the "Peter" bell, and four smaller bells (three of which were broken soon afterwards, and subsequently scrapped) in the North tower and eight in the South tower. However, although the bells in the South tower formed a diatonic octave in the key of Bb, this was in the medieval Mixolydian Mode rather than the now ubiquitous Major Mode. The difference between the two is that in a Mixolydian octave the 2nd bell is a semitone flatter than it would be in a major octave. Ringers would call a Mixolydian octave the front eight of a Major twelve.

In 1616 John Birdall, the last owner of the Medieval Exeter foundry, was commissioned to 'make Tuneable and perfect' the ring in the South tower. He added an additional treble bell (the present fourth), to create a Mixolydian ring of nine. It is known that the Chapter were not happy with this and the main purpose of this augmentation was presumably to enable a Major ring of six (the front six of the nine bells) to be rung. In the same year, Birdall was commissioned to recast "Peter", which had become cracked on Guy Fawkes' Night, 5th November 1611.

Between 1625 and 1630 Thomas Pennington recast the tenor, seventh and third bells, and in 1658 his brother John recast the second (this bell surviving as the present fifth). However, eight years later the bells were in a sad state of disrepair with the sixth, eighth, tenor and "Peter" all cracked.

In 1676 Thomas Purdue of Closworth recast the cracked bells and added a new bell sounding the note a semitone sharp of the 3rd of nine, the casting of the bells reputedly having taken place in the Chancellor's garden. This work produced a Major ring of nine with a flat 3rd. It is interesting to note that one of the 1676 bells, the present 9th, was cast without canons - an accident caused by the metal running short. Purdue hung the bell by drilling four holes through its crown and bolting it to its headstock, but had to sign a bond guaranteeing to recast the bell if it failed within 20 years. It is an established fact that the bells were not hung for 'full circle' ringing until 1678; prior to this date they were hung 'dead rope', which meant that they could only be controlled at alternate swings.

By 1729 more work was required as the fourth, seventh and tenor were all cracked. William Evans of Chepstow was asked to recast the cracked bells and make the ring into a true 'Major' ring of ten. He recast the one small bell remaining in the North tower into a treble to make a ring of ten. It took Evans two attempts to recast the seventh, but he succeeded at the second attempt and this bell is the only one of his bells to survive (as the tenth) in the present ring.

The bells remained as Evans left them until 1902, when a full overhaul was carried out by Taylor's of Loughborough, who rehung the eleven bells in a cast iron 'H' frame for thirteen bells. As part of this restoration Taylor's also recast the 5th and tenor (despite some opposition to the idea), and tuned the remainder. The tenor was cast half a ton heavier than was really required at the request of the Cathedral authorities, who wanted to ensure that the new bell had enough power to cover the fine 11th properly, which the previous 62 cwt tenor had not done.

In 1915 Taylor's recast the treble of ten, which had become cracked. This was one of the relatively few bells to be cast during the war years, and its inscription makes reference to this fact. In 1922/3 Taylor's returned to fill the two vacant pits, thus augmenting the ring to twelve. In 1979/80 Taylor's cast and installed a further bell, an extra treble, to create a light ring of ten.

In 1990 Whitechapel rehung the tenor on a new cast iron headstock (which weighs 15 cwt!). The bearings fitted to the old headstock had partially collapsed, and larger ones were fitted to the new to prevent a recurrence of this problem. Following the completion of the work a service of dedication was held in the bellchamber, with the Dean presiding from the platform overlooking the tenor.

Since then the bells have had no major attention until now. Recent work has included removing the “button tops” from the trebles, replacing all the clappers with new ones of a composite design and adding new steel beams under the 9th and tenor to strengthen the frame and stop it flexing. The frame has also been cleaned and painted.

Source: The Rings of Twelve

Bell Weight Note Diameter Dated Founder
1 6-0-19 F 29.00" 1922 John Taylor & Co
2 6-1-12 Eb 30.25" 1922 John Taylor & Co
3 7-1-3 D 31.25" 1915 John Taylor & Co
4 8-3-10 C 34.75" 1616† John II Birdall
5 8-2-0 Bb 36.00" 1658† John II Pennington
6 10-1-2 A 39.25" 1676 Thomas Purdue
7 18-0-4 G 44.50" 1902 John Taylor & Co
8 19-0-19 F 47.25" 1693† Thomas Purdue
9 28-0-4 Eb 54.00" 1676† Thomas Purdue
10 33-2-11 D 57.63" 1729† William Evans
11 40-3-19 C 63.13" 1676† Thomas Purdue
12 72-2-2 Bb 72.00" 1902 John Taylor & Co