We believe that St. Mary’s Society of Ringers was first formed in 1885, but there have been bells at St. Mary’s since the mid-sixteenth century.
Sources give slightly differing accounts of the bells’ history: according to British History Online there were four bells and a sanctus bell in 1552 at the Church of St. Mary the Virgin, five bells in 1757, and six in 1815. Two new bells by Mears and Stainbank were added in 1885, and all the bells were rehung in 1891. Of the six older bells, one of 1678 was by John and Christopher Hodson, one of 1755 was probably by Joseph Eayre, and four of 1774–5 were by Edward Arnold of St. Neots.
Another source states there were four bells in 1553. By 1755 there were five bells in the ring, the third and tenor being recast in that year by Joseph Eayre of St. Neots. In 1774 the two trebles of the then ring of five were recast, and two years later a treble was added to make a ring of six. In 1863 the second was recast by George Mears & Co. of Whitechapel. In 1885 Sawston became one of the very first eight-bell towers in Cambridgeshire when the organ builder and bellfounder Thomas C. Lewis of Brixton cast two new bells to augment the ring to eight, but proving unsatisfactory these bells were replaced by the present trebles in 1886.
Full details of the bells can be seen in this table from Dove Online. The oldest bell currently in the tower is the seventh, dating from 1678, which was cast by John & Christopher Hodson. According to Dove’s pNRB there are only six bells by this founder in existence. Also in the tower are two by Edward Arnold (127 in existence) two by Joseph Eayre (181 in existence) and one from G Mears and Company (83 in existence).
The eight bells were re-hung in a new frame by John Taylor & Co. of Loughborough in 1891. To fit eight bells into the lift square of the tower required the use of iron H frames which rest on timber beams, which are linked by ironwork, rather than resting on the usual iron grillage. The low side frames are cast iron and were made to a unique pattern which has, unlike every other metal frame, real visual quality. The combination of high and low iron frames and the mixture of timber and iron supports make this frame of exceptional interest.
Several notable peals have been rung at Sawston. The Cambridge University Guild rang their first tower bell peal on the bells in 1894 and the first peals of Cambridge S Major (1898) and Bristol S Major (1912) in Cambridgeshire were rung in the tower. The bells were pealed in 1910 half muffled out of respect for HM King Edward VII.
On a sadder note, there have been two particular tragedies: John Taylor, Parish Clerk of Sawston, hanged himself on the rope of the Great Bell in 1777; and local ringer Private Herbert Reed died at Ypres in the Battle of Passchendaele on the 31 July 1917 making 2017 the 100th anniversary of his death. There is a commemoration plaque on the wall of the ringing room. The chiming of 11 o’clock forms an integral part of Sawston’s Remembrance Sunday.