Rochester Cathedral

Company of Bell Ringers



The Current Bells

The current bells were cast by Gillett and Johnston of Croydon in 1921, replacing a ring of 8 bells. It can be presumed that these bells must have been tonally poor, because the original plan was to add two trebles but also to recast 5 of the 8 existing bells. They were hung in a steel and iron frame and rehung in 1960 in a new steel frame by John Taylor and Company (Bellfounders) Ltd in 1960.

Research through the Cathedral minutes and other documents has helped to piece together details of the augmentation in 1921, and from reading through the material, it appears that a strange twist of fate po]robably contributed to project finally being able to go ahead.

The first entry regarding the augmentation seems to appear in the minutes dates 25th November 1918, where they state: “The Dean mentioned that it had been suggested that two additional bells should be provided in the Tower. It was resolved that this should not be done except upon a report from the Cathedral Architect that the additional weight would not in any way endanger the safety of the tower or the bell frame. 

There was further reference made in the minutes from 10th January 1919 where they said that: “The Dean reported that the Bellringers desired that two light bells should be added to the present peal, at an estimated cost of £270 by Messrs Mears & Stainbank if funds could be obtained. It was desired that the proposal must first be approved by the Cathedral Architect. 

Events then seemed to go quiet for just over a year, and then the minutes of 2nd March 1920 reported: “A letter was read from the Dean to the effect that two additional bells had been promised by an anonymous donor. The Chapter Clerk was instructed to obtain particulars of the weight of the bells and to ascertain from Mr Temple Moore whether such weight together with the vibration were likely to affect the stability of the Tower.  He was also to ascertain the exact cost and to submit the same to the Donor for his approval. 

The identity of the donor appears to be revealed in the next entry, dated 29th March 1920: “The Archdeacon reported that an estimate had been received from Messrs Gillett & Johnston to supply two new bells with cast iron and steel frame on steel joists, and to supply two sets of ringing fittings for £318, and that Mr Charles Willis was prepared to pay for these. They submitted a further estimate of £127 for eight steel shanks to strengthen the existing frame and to tune the existing bells Nos. 1, 2 and 3.  For this the Ringers were prepared to guarantee the expense. It was ordered that these estimates be accepted subject to Mr Temple Moore being satisfied that the structure was sufficient to carry the additional weight. The inscription for the Bells submitted by Mr Charles Willis was approved. Charles Willis was an Alderman and former Mayor of Rochester. His eldest son, George White Willis was killed on active service in an air accident in January 1919 as a result of an engine failure in the plane he was testing at the time.

However, within a few months, the plans for augmentation seem to be in jeopardy again. The Minutes of 7th June 1920 hint towards the possible postponement of the augmentation. It states that: “It was reported that the Cathedral Architect had decided that the proposed struts to support the new bells were not necessary and that the Ringers were anxious that the old bells should be tuned and re-cast where necessary at an estimated cost of £248, which sum they hoped to be able to collect. It was ordered that the Chapter cannot consent to the expenditure being incurred unless the money is actually in hand. 

It appears that the money was made available as the next entry, dated 6th September 1920, indicates that Gillett and Johnston had had to revise the estimate: Letter was received from Messrs Gillett & Johnston, Bell Founders, to the effect that the cost of tuning the 8 bells, 5 of them being recast, would be £439, and that there would be a loss of 6 cwt of metal in the process. The Chapter desired to know the reason for the increase in the estimate from April last when the amount was £248 - they also desired to know the reason for the loss of 6 cwt of metal. The Archdeacon kindly undertook to obtain information as to the proposed method of tuning the bells.”  And the minutes of 6th October 1920 record that: “Mr W W Starmer attended the Chapter by invitation and gave his opinion on the proposals of Messrs Gillett & Johnston and on their estimates.  He advised the Chapter generally that it would be wise to have all the bells recast and tuned if it was decided to take that course with regard to any of them and he undertook to obtain from Messrs Gillett & Johnston an estimate of the cost of this which the Chapter would consider together with the estimates already received.” William Starmer was the then Tower Captain at Rochester Cathedral. 

In spite of this apparent progress, the minutes of 23rd October 1920 show that the planned augmentation was still very much in the air even though it appears that presumably Cyril Johnston was also present at this meeting “The question of recasting the Bells was further considered and Mr Starmer and Mr Johnston explained their views to the Chapter. It was ordered that a statement of the position be drawn up by the Dean and Archdeacon and made public in order to give possible donors an opportunity of offering a war memorial in connection with recasting the bells. That Messrs Gillett and Johnston be informed that the Chapter are not in a financial position to give an order, but are making their needs publicly known, and that they be asked to give a separate estimate for recasting each bell for purposes of appeal.” 

The Kentish Mercury of 12th November 1920 indicates that the project was at last due to go ahead: “MEMORIAL BELLS FOR ROCHESTERTwo memorial bells are being presented to Rochester Cathedral by the Dean of Rochester. Mrs Storrs, and family, dedicated to a son who died on active service, two other bells by Alderman Willis, and one by the cathedral bellringers.” The Chapter Minutes of 17th December 1920 also confirm this: “It was reported that the Bells had been taken away to be recast and the Chapter Clerk was instructed to ascertain whether a bell could be borrowed from Messrs Johnston to sound the hours of service and to take the strike of the Clock.” 

The final piece of research was in respect of the inscription on the
third, "USS Pittsburgh In Memory of 1920", The
USS Pittsburgh
was launched as the USS Pennsylvania in 1903 as an Armoured
Cruiser No 4, and subsequently renamed Pittsburgh in 1912.

In 1919, the Pittsburgh was prepared as flagship for the Commander, U.S. Naval Forces in the eastern Mediterranean, for which she sailed from Portsmouth, New Hampshire on 19th June 1919.

From here, she headed north to assist with relief assignments in the Baltic Sea, and it was here on the 9th September 1920 that she ran aground off of the coast of Latvia. She was escorted to the Royal Dockyard in Sheerness, but subsequently moved up river to Chatham Dockyard to be put into dry dock.

This research finally provided a link to the area, but it was not until the final two reports were found that the link to the Cathedral finally became established. Firstly, the
Kent and Sussex Courier of 31st December 1920 states: “The Rochester Cathedral chimes are to be augmented by an interesting addition. Dr Storrs, the Dean of Rochester, recently conducted services on board the U.S.A. battleship Pittsburgh in Chatham Dockyard, and afterwards invited the officers and crew to a service in Rochester Cathedral, where they learnt that the existing peal of bells, under Mr W. W. Starmer’s expert direction, is being re-cast and re-tuned. The American visitors have now offered to the Bishop of Rochester to defray the cost of a new bell to be added to the chimes.”But the last word needs to go to Captain J W Todd of the US Navy, who wrote a letter to the Dean and Chapter which was reprinted in the Chatham News of 20th December, 1920:1596347The Chatham News 1920-12-20 — Page 7: USS Pittsburgh1920

“Officers and Men Give a Bell to Rochester Cathedral.

The following letter sent this week to the Dean of Rochester, speaks for itself:—Dear Dr. Storrs,——Before the ship sails from Chatham, I wish to express to you our appreciation of the honour you have done us, in coming on board to address my officers and men, and for the special service which you held for us in your Cathedral.We are grateful for these kindnesses, and I beg you to thank Mrs. Storrs, and the ladies of Rochester, for their entertainment of our men in the Guildhall, Rochester.I hand you herewith a cheque for £52 10s, from Admiral Huse, the Officers and Men of Pittsburg, to cover the cost of re-casting a bell for the Cathedral chimes. I understand that it is agreeable to you to have the bell marked:U.S.S. Pittsburgh,
1920.Please accept this as a token of our great appreciation of kindnesses received, and of our sincere desire that our two peoples may always happily associate and feel as kindly toward each other, as we do, to our hosts of the last two-and-a-half months. May the Pittsburgh bell sound from the Tower of your ancient town a sweet tone, a note of goodwill from us to you. Sincerely and respectfully yours,

J. W. TODD, Capt. U.S. Navy, Comdg.”


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Grateful thanks go to J Martin Rushton, a former member of the band, for his diligent research into the history of the current bells.