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 early missionaries used small handbells to call people to worship, with bells being introduced into Christian churches around 400 AD by Paulinus, Bishop of Nola in Campania. Their adoption on a wide scale does not become apparent until about 550, when they were introduced into France and Italy before spreading to Great Britain by monks and friars coming to join religious orders.
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.
In the Middle Ages, bells were thought to have supernatural powers. During the 7th century it is said that the Bishop of Aurelia rang the bells to warn people of an attack. When the enemy heard them, they were said to have fled in fear. The people credited the bells with having saved them. In a world with little man made noise, the sound of bells was not only majestic, but could be deeply fearful.
The hanging of bells in British churches spread quickly with the Abbeys of Wearmouth (above) and Whitby both recorded as having bells in 680.
Popular superstition alleged that bells could ring themselves. It is said that those of Canterbury Cathedral tolled themselves when Thomas-a-Becket was murdered.
Pre 14th Century
Before the reign of Henry VIII and the Protestant Reformation, most bells in churches and monasteries were hung on a simple spindle and chimed by Deacons pulling a rope.
Ringers began to experiment with new ways of hanging the bell to get greater control. The first improvement was mounting bell to quarter wheel with a spindle serving as the axel and the rope attached to the rim of the wheel. As this method grew popular, bells then began to be mounted on half wheels.
The desecration of monastic abbeys and buildings often included the removal of many church bells.
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.
The combination of the easier control using the whole wheel and the development of change ringing led to increased interest from the lay people, who took over the belfry from the clergy.
The Ordinances of the ‘Companie of Ringers of the Blessed Virgin Mary of Lincoln’ were sealed on 18 October 1612, making it the oldest surviving Association. There is evidence that ringers were paid by the Cathedral to ring in the late sixteenth century, making this Society the oldest to be able to trace a continuous existence for at least 400 years. The better-known Ancient Society of College Youths was founded in 1637 and continues to this day to provide bell ringers for St Paul’s Cathedral and Westminster Abbey.
The Ordinances of the Companie of Ringers of the Blessed Virgin Mary of Lincoln were sealed in 1612
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 Bellringing”. 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 layouts 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 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 bellringing 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”.
At Debenham in Suffolk a band of eight young men rung a peal of Bob Major, consisting of 10,080 changes and taking over six hours.
On the 16th March, these bells they were swung
Such a peal in old England as never was rung
By any eight persons, indeed at one time
And now they are jolly and just in their prime
Little Spalding the carpenter not very stout
Took hold of the treble and swung her about
There was Sawyer the whittler he droops as he goes
Will start for the second as I do suppose
Wright the wethersett miller he’s not very old
Yet he’d rather be ringing than taking of toll
There’s Pettitt the blacksmith you very well know
He’ll pull down the fourth and give her a good blow
There’s Abbot the fifth, tho’ young at his strokes
He’d rather be ringing than driving of spokes
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 HoL.
Are church property, so Rector has law on his side, but little can do against a difficult band of ringers. In rural areas, any action rebounded = close knit and everyone related. Smaller congregations and collection money.
The Victorian reform of the Church of England included a reexamination 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 want 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. Effect of reviving interest 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.
XXX 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.
The Olympic Bell
…is the largest harmonically tuned bell in the world and was made by the Whitechapel Bell Foundry, whose workshop is just a few miles from the Olympic Stadium in Stratford.
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.