St Mary's has a peal of 8 bells and a ninth "Service" bell. Technical details can be found on this website.
Bells in the Christian tradition are a call to prayer, letting the parish know that divine service is about to begin, and emphasising certain important aspects of that worship, such as the Consecration. They are also rung a times of great solemnity and celebration, such as at funerals or a wedding.
The Story So Far...
In 1866 St Mary’s had a new tower (the one we still have today, but with a steeple on top) complete with a turret clock and 6 bells, the gift of Miss Eleanor Thompson, the owner of the Clements Estate. They were what would now be called a light six, ranging in weight from 160 kg to 366 kg – 25 to 58 stone in old money.
In 1891 two new bells, weighing 135 and 150 kg, were added to make up the octave. But all was not well. The bells may have been light (by ringers’ standards), but so was the tower, described as of ‘slender brick construction’. The new bells were ‘hung dead’, that is to say, they were bolted rigidly to a beam, and could only be rung by being struck with a hammer, probably controlled by a rope. We can guess that if the new lighter bells were so restricted, the original six bells were also only being chimed – as opposed to being rung full circle in the traditional way. For why?
When the tower was inspected in 1978, long cracks were noted in all its four walls, and they were not new. Swinging bells exert a lot of sideways pressure (think of park swings, then think of the weight of all that metal); if the wooden frame is at all loose, it is like a battering ram on the inside of the walls of the tower.
In 1979 Keith Gatman, a teacher at Wanstead High School, came up with the idea of a major bell restoration project. The school had a long tradition of undertaking projects in the community, and in the 1970s there was an emphasis on engineering ‘encouraged by a speech by Prince Charles’. Fr Barnes (then Vicar) was consulted, the PCC was consulted, architects were consulted, the Whitechapel Bell Foundry was consulted, the Diocesan Advisory Committee gave the go-ahead. The estimate was £7,000, the eventual cost after embellishments was £8,900; the PCC put up £4,000, school fundraising efforts contributed £2,000, Essex bellringers £1,100, business and charities £800. But the drama was not the money but the school labour-force, estimated at over 1,500 pupil-hours over the project – there were girls as well as boys, of roughly Fr Jeffrey Woolnough’s generation (he is a one time curate, born 1959) – when Fr Jeffrey saw the photos, he excitedly named names.
The bells were originally high up in the tower, at the level of the slatted stone louvres. The solution found by Gatman was to move the bells lower in the tower, a little below the clock face; at the same time, the clock mechanism had to be moved up in the tower to where the bells had been. The lower part of the tower was also considerably strengthened with over 1,000 new bricks.
The first task for the school workforce was to lower the bells to the porch – if you look up where the wooden steps are now fitted you will see a large trap door through which the bells were winched down and later winched back up. The bells were taken to Whitechapel Bell Foundry to be sand-blasted and tuned, and then taken to Wanstead High School. Meanwhile the old oak bell-frame was cut up and lowered for disposal (apart from a few pieces that were stashed between floors and finally removed only in 2007). Whitechapel designed a new steel frame; 3 tons of steelwork and other components were delivered to the school and were assembled, one bell-housing at a time. This was no mean achievement, involving up to 20 pupils at a time, at lunchtime, after school and two evenings a week, with thousands of 18mm holes to be positioned and drilled, and all the steelwork to be given three coats of paint. 'At lunch-time the bells were frequently to be heard pealing across the school site'.
Several students gained work-experience assisting an experienced restorer to dismantle, clean and reassemble the turret clock (it was again taken back to Wanstead). Two sixth-formers produced working drawings of the clock as part of their A-level Technical Drawing.
Now it was time for work on-site; as well as brickwork and the housings for the new steel frame there was plumbing (the cold-water tank was previously in the tower) and electric wiring (for lighting, tools and eventually the clock). Work-parties moved to evenings, weekends and school holidays. Finally, in July 1981 the bells, bellframe and fittings were delivered back to St Mary’s, hoisted up the tower and reassembled. The bells were first rung on 29 July as a tribute for the Wedding of HRH Charles, Prince of Wales to Princess Diana, and were formally dedicated by the Bishop of Barking (The Rt Revd James Adams) on 8 November 1981.
That wasn’t the end of the project. A 400 kg medieval bell was acquired from a redundant church in Frating, Essex and was installed at the top of the tower for chiming only. This is the bell that can be rung from the porch (with a 60-foot (18m) rope); it is struck for the hours for the church clock – a wire from the striking mechanism lifts a hammer which then drops against the rim of the bell. The clock is driven by weights, which had to be wound back up by hand every week, but now, as soon as the weights have dropped about 18 inches, an electric motor kicks in and winds them back up again. New timber ceilings were provided for the porch and the ringing room.
In September 1982 a quarter-peal was rung by ringers from the school to welcome their new headmaster – a significant long-term benefit of the project is the number of youngsters who were recruited to ringing and continue to ring. The first full 3-hour peal was rung in May 1983.
Young people move away. By the time I arrived at St Mary's the end of the 1980s, St Mary’s had bells but no ringers, although Fr Barnes (then Vicar) was always to be found ringing hymn-tunes on the bells with chiming hammers before the 10am Mass. However, Fr Stuart Bates (a curate in the 1990s) was a ringer, and he received an offer to come and train a band from the congregation.
Fr Gareth Jones, our Vicar since 2010 decided to reinstate regular ringing shortly after his arrival as both a call to prayer and as community outreach. He asked Andy Bond and Matt Stokes and the Barking Ringers to ring with us and train newcomers. It is thanks to them that the tradition of ringing continues regularly at St Mary's.