The “Cambridge Quarters” inspired the “Westminster Chimes” of Big Ben!
Great St Mary’s church has had bells for many centuries. There are records of bells being moved from a detached wooden structure in the churchyard to hang in the unfinished tower of the newly rebuilt, enlarged church in 1515. The tower was finally completed in 1608. In 1723 there were ten ringing bells, and in 1770 they were augmented to twelve.
There are now 13 new bells hung for ‘full circle’ ringing. They were donated by Dr Martin C Faulkes to mark the 800th anniversary of the University of Cambridge in 2009. They were cast (made) by Taylors, Eayre & Smith of Loughborough. They range in weight from 4cwt 3qr 0lb (242kg/532lb) to 24cwt 1qr 1lb (1234kg/2717lb). The bells are rung by ropes from the ringing room two floors below. A rope is attached to the wheel fixed to each bell.
The company of people that ring these bells, The Society of Cambridge Youths, is the third oldest group of bellringers in the world. They ring the bells before church services on Sundays, for weddings, and on occasions of University, Civic or National importance. They practice on Monday evenings.
There are also some other bells of historical importance in the tower:
If you visit the tower, in the corner on the far side you can see a very large bell with a small bell attached to the top. This bell, weighing 27cwt 0qr 13lb (1379kg/3037lb), is the ‘hour bell’ for the clock chimes. These chimes, properly known as the ‘Cambridge Quarters’, use four bells arranged in two stacks to the left of the hour bell (not all may be visible). These bells, dating from 1722 to 1770, are the original bells used for the chimes.
The installation of a new clock in 1793 inspired the commission of the ‘Cambridge Quarters’ which, legend says, were based on Handel’s aria ‘I know that my redeemer liveth’. These much admired quarters were copied in 1859 for the new clock and bells in the tower of the Palace of Westminster (where the ‘hour bell’ is known as ‘Big Ben’): thus the tune is also often, inaccurately, known as the ‘Westminster Chimes’.
The small bell (on top of the ‘hour bell’), commonly called the ‘priest’s bell’, is the oldest in the tower. It was cast in 1607, and has an inscription bearing the name Iohn Warrin, who was most probably keeper (churchwarden) of the church at that time. During the Great War it was lent for use as a fire bell in a local military hospital.