The Guild is a voluntary association of bell ringers in the Birmingham area with the objectives of maintaining ringing for church services; practising, encouraging and advancing the art of change-ringing and providing a fund to support belfry restoration and improvement projects within its area.
Historical development prior to 1906
The Guild adopted its current full name – “The St Martin’s Guild of Church Bell Ringers for the Diocese of Birmingham” – in January 1906, shortly after the creation of the Diocese, and the new Bishop of Birmingham accepted the title of President.
The note “Established in 1755” which often accompanies the name may appear anachronistic; but it refers to the first peal of 5,000+ changes known to have been rung by members of the principal Birmingham change-ringing society, The Society of St Martin’s Youths, and the Guild is in direct line of descent via the following evolution:
St Martin’s Society of Change Ringers. This name appears in 1881 on the title page of the second peal book. The dropping of the word “Youths” may have been the result of the Church “belfry reform” movement and the ringers’ desire for a name more appropriate to their sense of respectability in the later 19th Century.
St Martin’s Guild of Change Ringers for Birmingham, Aston and the Surrounding Districts. This dates from January 1889 following amalgamation with the Aston ringing society. Henry Johnson was unanimously elected Presiding Ringing Master.
A manuscript record, made by Henry Johnson (1809 – 1890), of St Martin’s Youths’ performances begins with the peal on 16 September 1755 (Bob Major at St. Philip’s). It also contains this remark on the fly-sheet:
“These peals are the first we have any record of, rung by the St Martin’s Company. There is no doubt there must have been some previously rung on the old eight bells in St Martin’s tower, but all records of them are lost.”
Evidence of bell ringing at St Martin’s going back to the early years of the development of the uniquely English tradition of change-ringing (late 16th & early 17th Centuries) rests with the following known facts:
In 1629 the Rope Croft Charity was set up by one John Billingsley to provide a regular income for buying bell ropes.
In 1682 the belfry was renovated with a new ring of six being installed. This ring was augmented to eight bells, possibly in 1706. There is a theory that the bell by Smith of Edgbaston bearing that date and now at St John’s Wolverhampton, built 1759/60, came from St Martin’s following the much larger ring installed there in 1758. A ring of eight was also established at St Philip’s in 1727.
According to Aris’ Birmingham Gazette of 16/7/1753 “the whole peal of Grandsire Trebles” was rung at St Martin’s on 11 July 1753. This is the first reference to change ringing in Birmingham. It is thought that this peal will have been false (i.e. incomplete).
It may be noted that the Church’s reorganisation with a diocese centred on Birmingham was at a time of an increasing sense of territorial responsibility by bell-ringers’ associations. But former traditions persist: The Worcester & Districts Association and the Midland Counties Guild have overlapping boundaries with St Martin’s Guild, which, declaring itself “Established in 1755”, is largely seen as the tradition based on the City centre and its old parish church.