Southwark Cathedral Society of Bellringers

Established 1911,   Reconstituted 1952 & 1977

President: The Dean, The Very Rev’d Andrew Nunn

The “Big Ring”

12,675 Stedman Cinques

Part 1 - 1923

The events at Southwark Cathedral on 21st May 1923 are amongst the most famous in the history of ringing. The following extracts from an article written by Edgar C Shepherd appeared in the Ringing World of October 1977:

The Tragedy at Southwark

The Ancient Society of College Youths are distinguished (among other things) for the notable connection with Stedman Cinques. On 6th October 1788, they rang a peal of 6,024. This was the first peal of Stedman Cinques to be accomplished, and it was rung at the church of St Martin-in-the-Fields, London. It is believed that the number of changes was chosen so that it would not easily be beaten, and that this peal would stand as the Record for a long time.

This did indeed happen, for it was not until 1806 that the length was surpassed. In this year, at Spitalfields, the Society of Royal Cumberland Youths rang a peal of 6,334 and from this time until the start of the 20th Century there were repeated attempts to establish a record that should last.

In this rivalry the College Youths were not backward, but their fortunes were variable. In 1861, they succeeded in ringing 8,580 at Cornhill and were satisfied with this until the Birmingham men rang 9,238 in 1881. Three months later the Ancient Society tried to beat the Birmingham peal, attempting a 10,000 which came to grief after three hours. In 1886, they made another attempt, and this failed through a broken rope. The next year , they started for the same 10,000 and rang over 9,900 changes. The composition was one of the old fashioned ones in the Tittums, with a difficult homing course at the very end. It was said that at the finish some of the heavy bell men were almost exhausted so that a trip in the homing course was allowed to get out of hand and the attempt failed. Had the peal been on the modern plan with the turning course in the middle, this disaster would probably have been averted.

The rivalry among leading bands of twelve bell ringers continued until on January 4th 1902 a mixed band of members of St Martin’s Guild Birmingham rang at St Martin’s 11,111 Stedman Cinques, conducted by William Short. This was what Albert Walker called “the five ones.”

The next serious challenge to this formidable length came three years later. On Easter Monday, 1905, a band belonging to the Gloucester and Bristol Diocesan Association started at Painswick for 12,345 Stedman Cinques and after ringing over 7,000 changes in five and a half hours, came to grief.

The Great War of 1914-18 interrupted bellringing to a great extent, even though it did not entirely silence the bells. It also robbed the Exercise of a number of very competent practitioners, amongst them that very promising young man Bertram Prewitt, who had already made a name for himself as one of the leading peal ringers of the age.

However, despite the war with its interruptions and depravations, by 1923 the ASCY felt in a position to challenge the Birmingham “five ones”, and it was determined to go for a length of 15,051 Stedman Cinques at St Saviour’s Southwark. The composition was by Henry C Miles and was so constructed as to be capable of being shortened to 12,675. It was a formidable task on this heavy ring, with a tenor of 50 cwt, and the prospect of some ten hours of ringing. For the heavy end, however, there were such stalwarts as Thomas Groombridge, Richard Hibbert and Henry Newton, with the indomitable Alfred Peck on the tenor. On Whit Monday, 21st May 1923, the band stood as follows:

TrebleChallis F Winney7Richard F Deal
2Charles W Roberts8Thomas Langdon
3William S Langdon9Thomas Groombridge
4Wilson Rushton10Richard T Hibbert
5Herbert Langdon (C)11Henry R Newton
6William HibbertTenorAlfred B Peck
The peal board, with the small brass plate recording the falseness at the bottom.

The peal was shortened to 12,675 and was successfully brought round in nine hours and forty-seven minutes. The Ringing World reported:

“The attempt to beat the record length of Stedman Cinques......was successful. The intention was to ring a peal of 15,051 if possible, and although this length was not accomplished, a peal of 12,675 was brought round......”

The then editor of the Ringing World, J S Goldsmith, wrote: “The task was a stupendous one, and one which deserves the admiration of all ringers. For more than 9 hours these twelve men rang some of the finest Stedman Cinques that ever were heard, for all listeners agree that from first to last the ringing was magnificent. The bells went off into changes at two minutes past nine in the morning, and so even was the ringing that the first ten courses came up on sixty-two minutes, the next ten in the same time and each of the succeeding ten courses in only one half-minute more. Hour after hour the ringing wen on with clock-like regularity, but after the record had been broken it was deemed wise to bring the bells round, for Mr Alfred Peck on the tenor was feeling the strain of the long sustained effort. No-one can wonder at that. To ring a 50 cwt bell for that length is a tremendous triumph, and everyone must agree that a 12,675 in the hand is worth a good deal more than 15,051 in the bush, so to speak. Great credit is due to every one of the band, and it should not be forgotten that there were in addition to men of tried merit and long experience two youths in the peal; one of whom, Wilson Rushton, is only seventeen years of age. One of the things which enabled the peal to be rung was the attention given to the bells by Mr Albert Hughes, who four or five times during the peal went up among the bells and with great coolness and dexterity oiled all the bearings. When the bells ran smoothly round, a considerable number of ringers had assembled, and the successful band received the hearty congratulations of all.”

This tribute perhaps says all that need be said about this magnificent performance. Such ringing must have been an unforgettable experience for those who rang, and for those who listened; and all who know this noble ring of twelve may imagine the thrills provided by the rolling up of the course ends, especially, maybe, in the Handstroke Home portions. Of the splendour of the shear physical effort little may be emphasised. The time and the weight of metal speak that clearly enough.

Was there ever a ringing tragedy like this one? It was in 1936, thirteen years later, that it was announced that the great peal had been found to be false. The news burst upon the Exercise when the Ringing World of 10th April 1936 printed the following:

“Fate has dealt a cruel blow at what, for nearly thirteen years, had been looked upon as a great, after all this lapse of time, a further examination of the composition, which was published a few weeks after the peal was rung, has revealed that it was false.

“We understand that the falseness of the peal was discovered by Mr C W Roberts, who, recently looking over the figures, found that just six rows, in the last turning course (less than six hundred changes from the end) repeated with an earlier part of the peal. He communicated his discovery to the composer, who reported it at the meeting of the College Youths last week. Naturally, the announcement was heard with great regret and no little consternation. The Society, while recording the facts in the minutes and acknowledging Mr Roberts’ part in the discovery, decided to ask permission to have a small brass plate attached to the peal board in Southwark tower to record the fact of the falseness.”

A false peal is, of course, no peal at all and so the performance had to be withdrawn. But the merits of the band’s performance are not diminished in any way, and there are many who are inclined to think that it was a pity that the falseness was ever discovered at all.

To complete the story, the record was reset at Birmingham in 1966, with 15,699 changes, and finally 20,001 changes were rung at All Saints, Worcester on 22nd October 1983 in 13 hours 11 minutes. The peal was composed by Robert Dennis and conducted by David C Brown.

Part 2 - 1998

As the 75th anniversary of the 1923 peal approached, the idea of a repeat performance to set the record straight began to gain currency. This project was enthusiastically embraced by the Provost (now Dean), the Very Revd. Colin Slee, who dubbed it “The Big Ring”. On another Whit Monday, another band of College Youths set out to ring a new composition, composed and conducted by Paul Mounsey. The following article by Michael Uphill was published in the Ringing World of June 1998:

Success at Southwark

“When the bells ran smoothly round, a considerable number of ringers had assembled, and the successful band received the hearty congratulations of all.”

Thus J. S. Goldsmith reported the 12,675 Stedman Cinques rung at Southwark Cathedral on Whit Monday in The Ringing World, a performance which was later found to be false.

Seventy-five years later, on 25th May, a second (and true) attempt of 12,675 Stedman Cinques received its own hearty congratulations from another considerable gathering. This took the form of tremendous cheers from both the riverside piazza, and from the pendulum gallery below the ringing room at Southwark Cathedral. The cheers were heard as the bells came round, and then again when the bells stood, so that the twelve “good men and true” could hear them.

Awaiting the ringers was an assortment of local ringers, spouses, “other halves”, and the Church Times ringing correspondent, armed with trays of glasses, jugs of beer, soft drinks and a bucket (not required), to offer some comfort to the ringers after their 10-hour day in the tower.

During the course of the day, some three or four hundred visitors listened to the first class peal. Like its famous predecessor, the ringing settled straight away into a steady rhythm: the first ten courses coming up in just over the hour, the second, third, and fourth slightly slower, and from then until the end of the peal each course coming up in just over six minutes.

The day began with some members of the band enjoying a breakfast in the main function room of Montague Chambers, a building adjacent to the Cathedral. The building was recently acquired to house the Cathedral staff and the Education Centre, and it was for this project that the peal and surrounding events raised nearly 10,000 in sponsorship.

At 8.45, the ringers moved to the tower, where the Provost greeted the band and prayed for their success to the whirring of the cameras of The Times and The Church Times. The ringers were then left alone, with the exception of one reluctant photographer, who, on the television screen below (there was a cctv link in operation) could be observed trying to get his camera up Mark Regan’s nose. The Provost told the band, via the telephone link, what to do with him.

Montague Chambers, made available to entertain visitors, buzzed with excitement throughout the day. Some 200 meals were served by Tony Braben, ably assisted by Carl, Patricia and Ruth. The food was washed down with some 288 pints of beer.

The ringing attracted great media interest. In addition to the photographers already mentioned, Michael Uphill was called upon during the day to give a progress report for BBC’s Newsroom South-East. Southwark ringers attended St George’s, Borough to assist in the making of a programme for LWT’s Holy Smoke. The producers ranked Mark Entwistle a “star”.

Eight local towers were available during the day and attracted a good number of ringers. Several past masters of the College Youths came by to support the day, including Stan Mason, Michael Moreton, Brooke Lunn, Jim Phillips and Dill Faulkes. Many other London-based stalwarts also dropped by, including Jack Crampion and Dennis Randall. But the biggest cheer was for Frank Darby, 92, who had heard some of the original peal.

The successful band, after having a quick refresher in the tower, joined the waiting supporters in Montague Chambers, where a buffet supper and another pint or three was waiting. Short speeches of congratulation by Michael Uphill and the Provost rounded off a most exciting day.

Many thanks to the band whose effort has raised such a magnificent sum for the Education Centre; and to all those who helped with the day’s arrangements, including manning the exhibitions in the Cathedral and the selling of Nigel Pointer’s new book The Bells of Southwark, published the same day.

The band after the peal, front row (R to L) 1 - 6, back row (L to R) 7 - 12.

The band stood as follows:

TreblePaul N Mounsey (C)7Thomas W Griffiths
2Alan D Flood8Hilary F C Small
3P Quentin Armitage9Robert C Kippin
4John Hughes D’Aeth10Paul L Carless
5David E House11Philip Rogers
6James W BelshawTenorMark Regan