The earliest recorded incident with bell connections was that of John Painter of Nottingham in October 1393 when he made a complaint against Robert de Ayton who owed him 2/- of silver for the painting of a bell of the cross at the corner of the Church of the Blessed Mary in the town of Nottingham. In December 1394 Thomas de Downham was sub-clerk and keeper of the ornaments pertaining to the Church of the Blessed Mary of Nottingham. It was alleged the same Thomas sold away from the said Church a bell clapper, of the value of 13s 4d.

An inventory of 1553, at the beginning of the reign of Queen Mary, stated the church possessed five bells and a Sanctus, a clock and a chime.

Although the main body of the church was completed by the end of the fifteenth century, it is likely that the tower was not completed until the middle or end of the reign of Henry VIII. Shortly after its completion, a fierce storm on 7th July 1558 caused great damage in Nottingham. Part of the tower is thought to have collapsed into the church, destroying the stone vaulting underneath. If so, then the bells were almost certainly damaged and possibly some were destroyed. Church commissioners who made a visitation in 1559 reported that the Charncell is in gret decaye and the wyndowes unglased.

Some or all of the bells survived and were repaired. The second bell of the five was recast in 1589 when ‘Mr Alvie’ was paid £7 10s 8d for the work. It is probable he was a foreman of Henry Oldfield I, one of the many founders who cast bells in Nottingham from about 1370 through to 1793. The Long Row foundry recast the bell again in 1613. The founder was now Henry Oldfield II, son of the above Henry. The third bell was also recast twice, the first time in 1590 by Robert Quernbie. Quernbie was a descendent of the Mellours family whose foundry was probably in ‘Gretsmythgate’. The life of this bell was short-lived and Henry Oldfield II recast it in 1605.

Henry Oldfield II recast the fourth bell in 1595. This bell has survived all subsequent restoration and is the eleventh of the twelve bells now in existence. At 20¾ cwt, it is the largest surviving bell by the Oldfield firm. Decoration covers the shoulder and soundbow, and on the waist it displays the royal coat of arms alternating with his own large foundry badge that Oldfield reserved for important commissions. The bell frame was replaced in 1625 and the tenor recast in 1637 by another Oldfield at the Long Row foundry, George I, the son of Henry Oldfield II.

John Crow replaced the 1625 bell frame again in 1699 when the bells were augmented from five to six. The new bell frame was installed 22 feet lower in the tower than the old one. The lower bell frame allowed the bells to swing full circle to accommodate the new and developing art of ringing changes. A geometric ringing platform built in the tower crossing in 1708 shortened the length of rope even more and put the ringers in full view of the congregation.

The tenor bell became cracked and Thomas Hedderly recast it in 1757. Hedderly had taken over the Nottingham Long Row foundry from the Oldfields in 1742. This period saw a spate of restoration work. In 1760 the bells were augmented to eight by the addition of two smaller bells. A new frame was built to accommodate the eight bells and, with minor modification, the frame survived until 1934.

The coronation of King George III in 1761 was celebrated by augmenting the bells from eight to ten by the addition of two trebles cast by Pack & Chapman of Whitechapel, London. The money for these bells was raised by public subscription.

It is also at around this time that the ringers in Nottingham formed themselves into the Society of Sherwood Youths, which society has continued to the present day. The bells however, were not completely satisfactory; the third, fourth and tenor went to Lester & Pack in London for recasting. The resultant bells appeared to be satisfactory and the Society of Sherwood Youths rang a series of long peals on the bells culminating in 10,260 changes of Grandsire Caters rung in 7 hours 22 minutes on 3rd March 1778. This was conducted by William Doubleday Crofts, who rang the ninth bell single-handedly throughout. This series of peals was the result of competition between Leicester ringers and those of Nottingham in attempting to ring 10,000 changes. Leicester won with 10,080 changes of Grandsire Caters in February 1777, but the Nottingham peal was longer. Both sets of ringers were presented with a set of hand bells.

The geometric ringing platform under the tower crossing was dismantled in 1812 and the ringers returned to the loft above the plaster and oak vaulting.

The Nottingham Review reported on 25th July 1845:

We hear that the treble bell, in the fine peal at St Mary’s church, was broken on Sunday week, through the unskillful bungling of one of the ringers.

Ringing was suspended for a time during the restoration of the church as the same journal recorded on 17th October 1845:

The bells of St Mary’s did not chime as usual before divine service last Sunday, in consequence of the contractor for the repairs going forward having been represented to the vicar that the vibration of the bells was calculated to injure the works in progress at the piers. The chiming will consequently not be resumed until the piers of the tower are completed.

Apart from the period of the church restoration in 1843-48, the bells were used regularly up to 1934. The treble bell was recast twice, in 1852 and again in 1856.

In 1934, the wooden frame of 1760 was found to be in a poor state; the main beams were badly affected by death watch beetle. The stonework was also in a poor state needing urgent restoration. The bells were removed and nine of them recast by Messrs Gillett & Johnston of Croydon. The tenor bell now weighs 35¾ cwt (approximately a ton and three quarters). The ringing chamber was enlarged, the floor relaid in Ferro-concrete, and a new more compact stairway was constructed leading to the bells. A massive iron A-frame, supported by steel girders, was erected replacing the wooden bell frame. The ninth was cleaned and the new ten bells rededicated on 2nd November 1935 at a service attended by more than a hundred ringers from all over the county.

In 1980 it was decided to increase the ring by the addition of two treble bells. An order was placed with the contractors Eayre and Smith and the bells were cast by Eijsbouts of Asten in Holland. The money was raised by the Sherwood Youths and the St Mary’s ringers and the new bells were dedicated by the Bishop of Southwell at the Patronal Festival on 2nd February 1981.

Header image courtesy Kevin Marston