The City Of Oxford

Oxford has been occupied since Saxon times. Its history begins with the foundation of St Frideswide’s nunnery in the 8th century; the first written record of the settlement is in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle for the year 912. The city is perhaps most famous for its university. As the oldest English-speaking university in the world, it can lay claim to nine centuries of continuous existence. There is no clear date of foundation, but teaching existed at Oxford in some form in 1096 and developed rapidly from 1167, when Henry II banned English students from attending the University of Paris. The first college was founded in 1249.

Ringing In The City

Anthony Wood matriculated at Merton College in 1647 and lived in two attic rooms opposite the college gate. While at college, he became seriously ill and was sent to Cassington to recuperate. It was here that he learned to ring and on his return to Oxford he practised ringing at Merton with his fellow students. He records in his diary over two hundred references to ringing that show how much the sound of bells, both parochial and collegiate, was part of ordinary life.

On every notable occasion there was ringing: in 1681 a new parliament was summoned to meet in Oxford and when Charles II visited Christ Church , Wood records,

‘What with the shouts and melodious ringing of the ten statlie bells there, the colledge sounded and the buildings did learn from its scholars to echo forth his majestie’s welcome.’

And two years later,

‘Most of the bells in the city and colleges rang for the Duke of York . Merton eight rang at least an hour before he came.’

Ringing Societies

The Ancient Society of College Youths was founded in London in 1637 and is the oldest ringing society still extant. While the history of the College Youths is well documented, things in Oxford are quite different. The earliest ringing in Oxford is recorded in the Northampton Mercury in 1729 which states,

‘Oxford , Dec. 12. The Society of Oxford Youths rung this day a Peal of 5040 Changes at the New College in three Hours and seven Minutes, it being the first that was ever compleated in this City.’

Despite this, the diarist Thomas Hearne describes the first peal as being rung at Christ Church on New Year’s Day 1733/4. Indeed, this is recorded in the Society’s first peal book since there is no other record of the earlier performance:

January 1st 1734
Christ Church , Oxford
5040 changes Grandsire Caters was rung in 3 hours and 27 minutes
1. Richard Hearne
2. John Vickers
3. John George
4. Guy Terry
5. Thomas Yate
6. John Broughton
7. Richard Smith
8. William Barnes
9. Arthur Lloyd
10. Nicholas Benwell
Composed and conducted by John Vickers

The peal book assumes that all peals were rung for the one society, however through studying various sources it is clear that there were a number of groups active in the early years and in some cases the ringers were members of more than one group. To name a few:-

The Society of Oxford Youths, 1729-1831
The Oxford Society of Cumberlands, 1807-1817
The Society of Oxford College Youths, 1814-1821
The Oxford Union Scholars, or the Oxford Union Society, 1824-1828
The Society of Oxford Change Ringers, 1834-1861
The Oxford Society of Change Ringers, 1862-

In the early days of ringing societies, the names were not rigid nor formalised and the reference to Cumberlands and College Youths agrees with a pattern that local ringing organisations modelled themselves on the two prominent London societies.

In addition to the Oxford Society (OS), the Oxford University Society of Change Ringers (OUS) was founded in 1872, and in 1881, the Oxford Diocesan Guild of Church Bell Ringers (ODG) was formed.