The earliest record of Christ Church bells is in 1546 soon after the transfer of the Diocesan see from Osney Abbey to Christ Church. The records show that the bells from Osney Abbey were taken down and re-erected in the Cathedral Spire. At that time there were seven bells and campanologists have puzzled over what was actually transferred ever since that time. Current thinking is that the bells comprised a heavy ring of six with an additional ‘Great’ bell. Two of those bells, cast circa 1410 by John Bird of London, still exist and form the ninth and tenth bells of the present ring of twelve.
The remaining bells have all been recast on at least one occasion. The Great bell brought from Osney Abbey was a predecessor of Great Tom, which was recast in 1680 and later hung in Tom Tower.
When Christopher Hodson recast Great Tom in 1680, the space in the bell frame was filled by four smaller bells designed to augment the existing six bells to form one of the earliest rings of ten. It seems that the new bells were probably rather small in relation to the existing bells, and the two smallest were recast in 1698 by Abraham Rudhall I of Gloucester.
In 1740 Abel Rudhall was contracted to recast the two remaining bells that were added in 1680 and also the present eleventh bell. As part of that contract he was paid £5–5–0 to re-tune the present 7th and tenor bells.
During the re-ordering of the Cathedral in the early 1870s, the bells were removed from the spire and hung in a timber structure now hidden behind a stone façade that forms the completed part of the 1873 design by G.F Bodley. The timber structure was the subject of a pamphlet entitled The New Belfry of Christ Church Oxford: A Monograph by DCL where the style of construction was described as ‘Early Debased – Very Early and remarkably Debased’. It was in this monograph that the timber structure was given the name of ‘The Meat Safe.’
Oxford Society of Change Ringers
Bell ringing at the cathedral is the responsibility of the Oxford Society of Change Ringers which currently has approximately 75 active members of all ages. The society was established in 1734 and is the oldest, extant territorial ringing society. Beyond Christ Church, members of the Society also ring the bells hung in the towers at Lincoln, Magdalen, Merton, and New Colleges, as well as those located in the church of St Mary the Virgin and Carfax Tower.
Today, the Christ Church bells are rung regularly for a variety of purposes: to call worshippers to service; to complement university events; to mark historic occasions and for general practice. Pieces of ringing can last as little as five minutes or as long as four hours, depending on the occasion.
Bell ringing is a skill which can be learnt at any age that combines moderate physical exercise with an awareness of rhythm and numbers, without the requirement for previous musical or mathematical training. It is also a very social activity, and members of the Oxford Society can often be found together outside the ringing chamber. If you would be interested in trying your hand at bell ringing, please visit the following website to get in touch with us https://www.oxfordsociety.org.uk/contact