The Bells of the Cathedral


The first ring of bells to be installed in Africa was hung in the Grahamstown Cathedral tower in 1879. The bells, an octave cast by John Warner and Sons in London, were supplied complete with fittings and with a frame of English oak. The Dean at the time, Frederick Williams, had grown up in Enniskillen in Northern Ireland, within sound of the bells of St Macartan’s Cathedral. Those bells are hung in a circle, and Dean Williams wished to have  similar circle of bells in the Cathedral in Grahamstown. The bells cost £1,200, which sum was raised mainly by the Civil Commissioner, Mr Huntly, and Mr Robert King of Port Elizabeth.

The frame was assembled in the tower by local labour but not, apparently, in the way in which Warners had intended. Mr Galpin, a local clockmaker, had been employed by the town council to install the town clock in the Cathedral tower. He wished it to strike on bells other than those intended by Warners and modified the frame accordingly, placing one bell in a subsidiary frame raised above the other bells. As a result, seven of the eight bells swung in the same direction. This made the bells extremely difficult to ring and it is probable that they were only, initially, swung chimed. In 1887 it was reported that the joint of the bell frame ” require tightening up throughout “.

In 1902 remedial work was undertaken on the bell frame and fittings and a band was in training under the tuition of a “Cape Town expert”, Mr Stephens. In 1903 the ringers were “Mr Lancaster (Captain), Dr Drury, Messrs G. Barnes, Charles Cory, Huntly and Walker”. Unfortunately the bell frame still gave trouble and ringing ceased in 1913.

In 1959 “Mr Eardley from Stoke-on-Trent … fitted new ropes” and undertook sufficient maintenance to enable four bells to be rung. In 1968 a change ringing band was formed under the tuition of Paul Spencer, who had learned to ring at Armitage Bridge in Yorkshire, and Bill Jackson, who had learned at Dalton-in-Furness in Lancashire.

In 1993, supported by Rhodes University, the bells were rehung in a new steel frame donated by Koch’s Cut and Supply Steel Centre of Pinetown, Durban, with new headstocks provided by Eayre and Smith (Overseas) Ltd. The frame was designed by Dr Ray Ayres with pits for ten bells and was assembled in the tower by local labour guided by Dave Webster of Eayre and Smith and by Colin Lewis.

The first peal on the bells was rung on 17 December 1995, conducted by Alan Regin in 3 hours and 12 minutes: Cambridge Surprise Major. In 1997 two trebles, cast the previous year in London at the Whitechapel Bell Foundry, were added to the ring. The first peal on the ten was rung on 4 April 1998, conducted by Timothy G. Pett in 3 hours 19 minutes: Cambridge Surprise Royal. By the end of 2000, five peals and 27 quarter-peals had been rung on the bells.

Podcast, Multi-Media Presentation

To listen to a podcast of a 45-minute radio programme on the bells of three Irish Cathedrals dedicated to St Macartan, and our own Cathedral bells, click here. The programme was produced and presented by Noel Murphy, who visited Grahamstown in May 2018 to record the segment relating to this Cathedral. It was broadcast on 26 December 2018 on the Irish radio stations Shannonside FM and Northern Sound FM.

For a multi-media preseentation on the Cathedral bells, click here.

Bell ringing in Grahamstown today

The Cathedral ringers practise and ring on most Sunday evenings, but do confirm with a call to either Catherine Letcher (073 613 9114) or Cameron  Luke (062 987 0397).  Ringers are urgently needed, since some of the band are University students who will soon, inevitably, leave Grahamstown.

Bell details

Bell no 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10
Weight (kg) 288 319 362 376 392 500 698 781 961 1302
Note G F E♭ D C B♭ A♭ G F E♭

Articles by Colin Lewis

Read an article by Colin Lewis published in ‘Ringing World’ of 17 March 2017.

Eric Webster (1932-2017) was instrumental in 1998 in initiating the scheme to replace the frame of the Grahamstown Cathedral bells. After his death Colin Lewis wrote a tribute to Eric Webster, which was published in ‘Ringing World’ of 14 July 2017.

Bell ringing at Hillandale

The Cathedral band also ring at Hillandale, some 10 km from Grahamstown, where there is a light-weight ring of four bells at the Monastery of the Order of the Holy Cross that was installed in 1999. Ringing there is under the direction of the Cathedral Ringing Master. By the end of July 2001, four quarter-peals had been rung at Hillandale, all by the Cathedral band.

Bell ringing at large

If you are interested in reading a fuller description of the fascinating topic of bell ringing go to and click on “What is change ringing?”

Visit the Web site of the South African Guild of BellRingers