The sound of bells ringing is deeply rooted in British culture. Almost everyone in Britain lives within hearing range of bells. They provide the grand soundtrack to our historic moments, call out for our celebrations and toll sadly in empathy with our grief.
The bitter-sweet sound of just one bell or the majesty of a whole peal, has become part of the English heritage and much of the country’s history can be traced through the history of its bells.
They call us to wake, to pray, to work, to arms, to feast and, in times of crisis, to come together. Above all, bells are the sound of freedom and peace as in World War II they hung silently until the day they could ring in the peace.
The hanging of bells in British churches spread quickly with the Abbeys of Wearmouth and Whitby both recorded as having bells in 680. By 750, they were sufficiently common for the Archbishop of York to order all priests to toll their bell at certain times. St Dunstan, the then Bishop of London and Archbishop of Canterbury, hung bells in all churches under his care during the late 10th Century and gave rules for their use.
After Reformation, 1600s
Following the Reformation, many churches began to rehang bells, with most using the new technology of bells mounted on a whole wheel. This gave much greater control using the rope, but the final refinement was a stay and slider to be able to ‘set’ the bell. The ringer could now rotate the bells 360 degrees and stop and start the ringing at will.
The cost of maintaining bells and payments to the ringers, who at the time were paid for their services, could be quite a high proportion of running the Parish. St Margaret’s, Westminster (right) paid ringers one shilling each for ringing at the beheading of the Queen of Scots. Less than twenty years later, the same church paid ten times that for ringing ‘at the time when the Parliament House should have been blown up’. There was a long development period during the decades when the whole wheels were appearing, up to the mid 17th century when orderly ringing involving changing note patterns began to take place.
During the reign of James II (1633-1688) bell ringing became extremely fashionable amongst the aristocracy as it provided physical exercise and intellectual stimulation. In the rural churches, however, bands of ordinary ringers strived to outdo one another. On days of competition the ringing was often preceded by a large meal at the local pub and followed by the presentation of a ‘good hat’ or a pair of gloves to each ringer in the band that had performed the best.
The recreation began to flourish in and around London during the late 17th Century. An important milestone in the development of change ringing was the 1668 publication by Richard Duckworth and Fabian Stedman of their book Tintinnalogia, which promised in its subtitle to lay down “plain and easie Rules for Ringing all sorts of Plain Changes.” Stedman followed this in 1677 with another famous early guide, Campanalogia. It revealed the technical improvements in change ringing in only nine years. Tintinnalogia had mentioned a few of the methods; Campanologia mentions dozens of newer methods including introducing his Grandsire Method and his Stedman’s Principle.
These books described the art of change ringing and drew up rules for long series of changes, without the need for calls, whereby bells must change place at each pull of the rope. Further rules soon evolved and changes could be worked out, written down and learned by heart to create patterns where the bells are never sounded in the same order twice. These compositions were named methods and soon hundreds were created, often named after the cities they were first rung in such as Norwich, London or Cambridge.
Tintinnalogia shows the criss crossing movements of the bells as in a peal written in their numbered rows of six, each bell moving with every stroke to the next row and the next and the next, until a complete number of changes possible has been finished. In this book, Stedman outlines his famous principle for five bells, the Stedman Principle, which he invented in 1657. To Stedman is owed that complex system of changes which makes a “peal”. Because of this, Stedman is called “The Father of Modern Bell Ringing”. The oldest system of change ringing is Grandsire Doubles (formerly Grandsire Bob), which is rung on five bells. From these two, Grandsire and Stedman, change ringing on five evolved. Later on, change ringing was extended to a greater number of bells.
In the rural areas, standards of behaviour deteriorated with bell ringers described as layabouts and drunks. Often locals saw an opportunity to earn a few shillings, however this was often transferred quickly from the church tower to the village inn. Any and every opportunity was taken to ring, for which the tavern keepers were very grateful. Attendance at church services was considered no part of bell ringing.
Stories of bell’s powers to heal, to drive away evil and the devil, to calm storms and to save people from plague, pests and enemies led to bells being rung at the time of death to keep the devil away from the soul of the departed. A sum of money was given to the Church of St Sepulchre, at the Old Bailey, during the 1700’s to pay for bell ringing on days of execution. The condemned were given a service, a nosegay of flowers and a “peal” on the bells.
The first true peal (a extent of ringing with over 5,000 different variations in) was believed to have been rung on May 2nd 1715 at St Peter Mancroft, Norwich.
By the middle of the 18th century many newspapers indicate that the ability to stand for three hours and to ring a peal of 5040 changes was common and also that there was a crowd of listeners near and far eager to hear. At Leicester in March 1731 one of the ringers commented; “we upon bells completed the whole peal of Grandsire Triples in three hours and two minutes to the great satisfaction of thousands both in town and country”.
Change ringing began to lower in social esteem, with swearing, smoking and a barrel of beer in the tower normal. Some belfries became notorious as the meeting place of the village riff-raff, who indulged in heavy drinking and riotous behaviour. A deep rift developed between ringers and clergy, with some towers closed by their incumbents. The ringers often broke into the belfries to ring or drink and were usually very independent, reserving the right to choose when to ring. High Wycombe, Bucks in 1832… bells rung out to celebrate the passing of the Reform Bill but a few days later on the occasion of the annual visit of the Bishop the ringers refused to turn out as a mark of their disapproval at his having voted against the Bill in the House of Lords.
Bells are church property, so the Rector had the law on his side, but he could do little against a difficult band of ringers. In rural areas, any action rebounded – communities were close-knit and most people were related, which led to smaller congregations and less collection money.
The Victorian reform of the Church of England included a re-examination of practices used since the Reformation. In 1839, the Cambridge Camden Society began a national spring clean of churches, including the tower and bell ringers. Rectors were reinstated in control of bell towers, despite many groups of ringers who fought to preserve their ‘privileges’.
Church leaders wanted to improve the standard of ringing and, above all, to ensure proper and reverent behaviour in the ringing chamber and to encourage ringers to attend church services. Many churches had the floor of the ringing chamber removed and the ropes lengthened so that the ringers now performed in full view of the congregation.
By the late 19th Century, women began to take up bell ringing. Miss Alice White of Basingstoke was the first woman to complete a full peal in 1896. As more women became interested, the Ladies Guild of Change Ringers was formed in 1912.
Bell ringers were encouraged to appoint a Tower Captain to be responsible for the regular attendance and general conduct of ringers – including giving penalties for bad ringing or behaviour. By 1900, a new generation of ringers had emerged and bell ringing was once again respectable and part of the church. Many bell installations also improved, making the bells easier to ring and triggering more complicated methods requiring a greater degree of concentration, not to be attempted when fuddled with alcohol.
After World War I, disillusion with politicians manifested itself in a swing against organised religion. The number attending church services fell hugely, and the number of bell ringers also declined.
During World War II all church bells were silenced, to ring only to inform of an invasion by enemy troops. Interest revived in the art once peace had returned. BBC sitcom Dad’s Army included an episode where the church bells rang by mistake, leading the Home Guard to believe that an invasion was taking place.
From 1950 there was a rapid increase in the numbers of bell ringers, especially young bell ringers, with an accompanying increase in the standard of ringing.
Ringing in the Millennium – A £3m Lottery Grant led to 150 separate bell restoration and augmentation projects. Ring In 2000 – This project was the largest national ringing event ever staged, aiming to attract 5,000 new ringers who learnt to ring in time for the Millennium. Approximately 95% of all the church bells in the UK were rung on 1 January 2000.
Queen’s Diamond Jubilee – As part of the Her Majesty The Queen’s Diamond Jubilee, eight bells were cast at Whitechapel Bell Foundry and led the Thames Pageant of 1,000 boats with a floating belfry from which the bells were rung.
The Olympic Games in London. Along the 8,000 miles of the Torch Relay bells rang to celebrate the passing of the Olympic Torch and at the culmination of the Torch Relay, and as part of the London 2012 Festival, at 8.12am on the day of the Opening Ceremony three minutes of ringing all kinds of bells captured the public’s attention to bell ringing and broadcast to an estimated audience of over 12 million people. The great Olympic Bell then featured prominently in the Olympic Opening Ceremony. Commissioned from Whitechapel Bell Foundry in London it was tolled by Tour de France winner Bradley Wiggins to open the Ceremony. At 23 tonnes it is the largest harmonically tuned bell in the world.