Do you remember the childhood song “Frere Jacques”? Jacques seemingly was a monk whose job was to ‘ring the morning bell’, a sort of medieval alarm clock for the town. Jacques was perhaps, how shall we say, unreliable? Dormez-vous?
In Shrewsbury, the morning bell was for many years rung (at about 4 a.m.) from St Alkmund’s until that duty passed to neighbouring St Julian’s. One is tempted to wonder if our own ‘Jacques’ ever slept in…
A glance around the tower interior today suggests a proud history of change ringing at the church, but sadly you will have to go far to hear those bells ring a change today – to the most remote of places, indeed, for they now hang in the Mackintosh Tower at St Andrew’s Cathedral, Honolulu. Though the sound of the St Alkmund bells has been carried – literally – to the far side of the world, their story is still treasured here.
The building of a great Perpendicular tower and spire at St Alkmund’s around 1475 allowed for the housing of bells high above the centre of Shrewsbury. They not only summoned the townsfolk to worship – the ‘morning bell’ which acted as an alarm clock to send people to work in Tudor times was also sounded from St Alkmund’s. Little is known of these early ringers, although the church ledgers not infrequently record expenses such as “ale for [the] ringers”.
The original three bells were melted down in 1621 and replaced by a peal of five, cast by John Clibury: a further bell was added by Abraham Rudhall in 1695. These must have been well used, for by 1811 the bells and their fittings were worn and had become unsafe to use. They were removed and melted down.
From that metal John Briant of Hertford cast eight bells (tenor 13-1-0 in Ab) which were first used on Easter Sunday, 1812. Whit Sunday that same year saw (perhaps ‘heard’ is a better word) the first peal of Oxford Treble Bob Major rung – some 5,000 changes – and St Alkmund’s entered its golden age of change ringing.
These were the last days of the Napoleonic Wars, and the bells rang to mark Wellington’s victory in the Peninsular Campaign. Soon afterwards in 1815 they repeated the celebration when the news from Waterloo reached Shrewsbury. From then on the bells of St Alkmund’s became part of the soundscape of the town. Particular feats of change ringing (including, as was customary, the amount of time taken) are recorded on painted boards which still decorate the tower.
The movement of these bells within the tower always caused nervousness about the structural integrity of the spire, and after the Great War the frequency of ringing was much reduced. Shrewsbury folk have good reason to be careful since the collapse of Old St Chad’s in 1788 – ‘once bitten, twice shy’…
In 1972, with the church itself under threat of redundancy and with major repairs needed, the bells were put up for sale. A plan to install them in a new Town Centre structure never came to fruition. They were acquired by Mr Laith Reynolds for the cathedral of St Andrew, Honolulu. So it was that in 1990 the bells were removed, refitted at the famous foundry at Whitechapel in London, and engraved with the names of kings and queens of Hawaii before their journey halfway around the world.
Today the bells still sound for worship, but from the middle of the Pacific. The St Alkmund’s peal in St Andrew’s, Honolulu is the most remote change-ringing destination in the world. Our huge thanks to the Cathedral of St Andrew’s for the video below, which tells the story of the bells’ move! It is great to know that bell ringers travel from many different countries to hear ‘our’ bells. The sound is still magnificent, but – whisper it quietly – some say the beer was better at the “Three Fishes”!..