The Bell Ringers
St Mary’s Cathedral bells are not just an integral part of the cathedral experience they are a familiar and historic part of the fabric of the city of Sydney.
St Mary’s Cathedral has a peal of 14 bells in the key of C# major, located in the central tower. The current peal is the third set of bells in the history of the Cathedral and was cast at Whitechapel Bell Foundry in London in 1985. The bells range in weight from 281 kilograms to 1741 kilograms. They are the heaviest peal of 12 bells hung for change ringing in Australia.
The bells are rung and maintained by the St Mary’s Basilica Society of Change Ringers. Formed in 1844, this is the oldest change ringing society in Australia.
The bells are hung on a wheel for full-circle ringing or change ringing, a style which developed in England in the 17th century. Each bell is rung by one person, so that a team or band of ringers is required to ring the bells together. Many people do not realise that the bells are rung by hand, with more than 20 volunteers, from all walks of life and career paths. There are both Catholics and non-Catholics in the current group.
Bell ringing is intellectually challenging and relies more on mathematics and coordination than musical acumen as the bells are treated as numbers and performances are permutations (changes) of numbers rather than tunes. The sequence of permutations may be standard ‘methods’, some dating as far back as 400 years ago, or more recent compositions. All are rung from memory and no permutation is never repeated in the course of a performance.
As the bell ringers have to climb 120 steps to the tower, it is also quite good exercise!
The bells are rung for High Mass on Sundays and for major Feast Days during the year, as well as for Weddings, Baptisms and Funerals by arrangement. The bells also ring for civic occasions such as ANZAC Day and Remembrance Day, and have been rung to mark important celebrations such as the Sydney Olympics and the Centenary of Federation.
People wishing to learn the art of change ringing are encouraged to contact the Society.
“We are constantly recruiting, like all volunteer groups. It does take a long time until people can ring the bells safely on their own and there is a fair bit of investment that goes into the task. It can take a year or more before people are really starting to be competent on their own and people usually don’t ring on a Sunday morning for the first year.”