Asia becomes latest host to English bell ringing

St Andrew’s Cathedral in Singapore

The first English ‘ring of bells’ in Asia has been hung and rung as the unique  art form continues to spread around the globe.

There now hangs in St Andrew’s Anglican Cathedral in Singapore a ‘ring of 12’ that is tuned and hung to be used in the full-circle change-ringing style.

Experienced campanologists are training locals in the art, known as The Exercise, so this English sound can be heard regularly in the city-state.

It follows the first English ring of bells in France being installed by a group of ex-pats in Vernet-les-Baines in the south-west of the country.

The hanging, tuning and ringing of the Singapore bells is owes much to the efforts of retired Australian businessman and entrepreneur Laith Reynolds – a self-confessed ‘ringing addict’.

Laith Reynolds with the giant tenor bell

He first discovered that the cathedral had a chime of eight static bells in its vast tower when he visited in 1973.

Since then he has worked to promote a scheme to have these original bells augmented and converted into a change-ringing peal, just like those found in many Australian and English cathedrals. Now his dream has finally been realised.

Laith, who spends half the year in England, has been involved with more than 20 projects to have English bells hung in towers around the world.

He has also helped save John Taylor & Co. of Loughborough, one of the last remaining bell founders in Britain, which made and installed the new Singapore bells, as well as casting the cathedral’s original chime back in 1888.

He said: “I’ve been interested in bell projects since I led the effort to restore the change-ringing bells in St George’s Cathedral in Perth, WA, my family’s church.

“I have been involved in projects in many locations including Canada, Honolulu, New York and England.

“In Perth we now have seven rings of bells and they are part of the city’s soundscape. And we are seeing more than one a year being completed in Australia. The growth overseas has been quite spectacular.

“The Singapore project has taken the longest to come to fruition by some distance.

“The cathedral is huge and the tower has brick walls three metres thick. I first visited in 1973 and discovered the eight static bells.

“There is a large congregation of more than 3,500 families so raising the money wasn’t difficult but there were other rumours to do with structure and safety that held up progress.

“Two of the existing bells were recast and seven new cast bells were added and now there are 12 plus a semi-tone. The tenor bell weighs 1.25 tonnes after re-tuning.

“Locals are fascinated and there is a great deal of interest with many queuing up to be trained.

“I was at the dedication of the bells by the Rt Revd Kuan Kim Seng and over 30 ringers from around the world attended.

“English bell ringing is a folk art folk mathematics and resonates with the English speaking peoples worldwide.

“I learned to ring when visiting Sydney when I was 19 and it is a different form of music and it is a lovely, wonderful sound.

“The bells in Singapore are the first in Asia, and I very much hope they are not the last.”

Beginner ringers at St Andrew’s Cathedral in Singapore – learning to ring in the English style

The neo-gothic St Andrew’s Cathedral, built by the British Raj, held its first service in 1861. It replaced an earlier church that was hit by lightning and then demolished.

Robert Lewis, the Editor of The Ringing World that records all things campanological, said: “The Singapore project is truly remarkable. Although full circle change ringing took root in a handful of countries of the old British Empire – notably in Australia, North America and eventually Africa – it never spread to territories of Asia or the Indian sub-continent.

“There are probably many good logistical reasons for this, not least to do with climate, cultural sensitivities and the difficulty of maintaining trained bands of ringers in transient garrison towns. Static chimes were easier to install, maintain and operate in the more challenging outposts of Empire.

“In fact, a ring of bells was cast for the Delhi Durbar of 1911, when King George V was crowned Emperor of India, but for some reason the peal of eight cast by the Warner foundry in Spitalfields never made it out to the Durbar site.

“Instead they were used in a show at Earls Court before being bought by the Vicar of Oatlands Park Church in Surrey, where they still ring out today.

“The Anglican Church, and St Andrew’s Cathedral in particular, has continued to thrive since Singapore gained independence from Britain in 1965.

“There has been no shortage of keen local volunteers coming forward now to learn to ring these newly hung bells.

“Proficiency can only really be achieved over time with the help of visiting expert ringers, but they have got off to a tremendous start. It is a great opportunity to strengthen cultural links, particularly between Commonwealth countries with an established tradition of change-ringing.

“The sweltering Singapore climate is a challenge with such a physical activity – but there are plans to install air conditioning in the ringing chamber shortly.”

The composer Handel called England the ‘Ringing Isle’ because of its tradition of change-ringing.

The art or science involves ringing the bells to set patterns – known as ‘methods’ – without repetition of any changes; 5,000 changes or more is a peal and usually takes about three hours.

There are about 40,000 ringers in England where the vast majority of rings of bells are situated with more than 1,000 ringers overseas.