Sunday, 8 March 2015

The Bells Of Old England

A few weeks ago I was poking about taking unlikely photographs in the bell-tower of a church - doesn't everybody do that? - when in came a gentleman (the only word which would describe him accurately) and we fell into conversation about bells and bellringing. I've had to check some of this on the internet as some of the details I didn't catch and some I frankly didn't quite believe. So here's some of what he told me illustrated with photos of churches from the archive.

Great St Mary's, Cambridge

Bells have been used to call the faithful to prayer since the very dawn of  Christianity in these islands. Probably a monk walked through the streets ringing a handbell to announce that a service was about to be held. This was very necessary in a society where clocks were non-existent.

St Bene't's, Cambridge

But long before the Norman Conquest there were already bells in all the major churches. Surviving early churches like St Bene't's in Cambridge have towers that were clearly designed for bells.

St Margaret's, Kings Lynn

What little we know of the bells of that distant dark period of history suggests that the mechanism for ringing them was very primitive; the bells could be given a good clang but ringing with any accuracy or control was out of the question, though gradually new mechanisms were introduced, at first in the big cathedrals and abbeys.

Holy Trinity, Meldreth

Then came the Reformation and the destruction of the monastic abbeys and frequently the removal of bells from other churches. In the long term this apparent disaster may have done bell-ringing a huge favour; when bells began to be rehung the newest technology was used. This meant that the bell was mounted on an axle which was attached to a wheel. The rope was attached to the rim of the wheel and there was also a "stay" and a "slider" which allowed the ringing to be stopped and started at will.

St Mary's, Saffron Walden

In the following centuries bell-ringing increased in both popularity and sophistication as "Change Ringing" was developed. If you have, say, three bells in a tower you can ring them in different orders - 1, 2, 3; 1,3,2; 2,1,3 and so on, but the number of variations is rather limited. As you increase the number of bells the number of possible combinations increases rapidly. There is no attempt to produce a recognisable melody but rather to follow mathematical patterns of ringing.

All Saints', Cottenham

In many ways bell-ringing can be compared to modern sports; there was fierce rivalry between different churches and competition between those who wanted to ring, not only that but crowds were willing to turn out to hear the bells.

All Saints', St Ives, Cambridgeshire

All this sounds very wonderful, but those who are familiar with village sports will not be surprised to hear that drinking large quantities of beer also formed part of the attraction to the ringers. The fact that they were paid by the churches for their efforts meant that they also had funds to indulge their thirsts. There are plenty of pubs throughout England named "The Six Bells", "The Eight Bells" and so on, presumably celebrating their connections with their local team of ringers.

Eight Bells, pub sign, Saffron Walden

If the bell-ringers had confined themselves to sinking a few pints after the service then all might have been well. But often a barrel of beer was set up in the bell-tower and was consumed during the sermon and raucous behaviour was not unknown. They practised at all times of day, often locking the clergy out of their own churches!

All Saints', Barrington

Now long-time readers of "By Stargoose And Hanglands" might begin to make sense of that curiously pompous sign which we found in Barrington Church some time ago and which puzzled readers and me alike. To save you searching back here is what it said:

            1. The Bells are Holy Instruments dedicated to the Worship of God
and to be used only for His Glory. They must at all times be regarded and used
2. The Ringers obtain a part in the Sacred Ministry of Gods Church and must
behave always as His Ministers should do. 
3. The control of the ringing belongs by Law absolutely to the Vicar and the
Bells may only be used by such persons at such times and in such manner
as he may from time to time appoint.
4. Every ringer is expected to attend any Service for which he comes to ring
and to join devoutly in GODSWorship.
5. Drinking, smoking loud and boisterous talking or jesting and above
all disputing, are most unseemly amongst GODS Ministers in His House
and are hereby forbidden in this Belfry
                                                                                              Signed  December 1876
                                                                                                          Edward Conybeare
                                                                                                              Vicar of Barrington

and here's the original sign reflecting the Victorian attempts to clean up all aspects of worship in the Church Of England:

Bell-ringing survived Victorian reforms and improvements better than the architecture of some of our churches. There have been ups and downs but there are some 5,000 towers still in use for change-ringing in England while there are only 300 or so to be found elsewhere in the world. There's a good deal more which I've discovered over the last few days and it seems likely that I'll be bringing you a few more posts about this uniquely English tradition in the future.

Take care.


  1. Lovely, fascinating post. I have friends in the village who are semi-serious campanologists and they let me have a go - it's not easy! There wasn't any beer though - and I wonder if, in common with musicians in general, alcohol is best avoided because it makes you think you sound better than you actually are. Another fairly common pub name adjacent to a church is the Ring o' Bells. Great stuff, John. And great photographs illustrating a wonderful range of East Anglian churches.

  2. Oh, the bells, the bells! I think that if the rule of supping plenty of ale during the service was put into play once again there would be SO many volunteers and the footfall coming back into church would rise dramatically :-)

  3. A very different and interesting post indeed! I don't think change ringing is much used - if at all - here in Norway. I first found out abut it when I many yeas ago read Dorothy Sayers' novel "The Nine Tailors" where she goes into details about what it is and how it is done. Highly recommended.

  4. "The Ten Bells" was the pub at the heart of the Jack the Ripper case

  5. Absolutely fascinating John. I didn't know the half of it.
    As we are coming down your way on holiday this year we might well call in some of these places to have a look - you have certainly whetted my appetite.

  6. Very interesting. I'd heard that drinking was a big part of bell ringing, I remember an episode of All Creatures Great and Small where Tristan is a bell ringer and gets drunk. Also an episode of Midsomer Murders where a drunk group of bell ringers threw a vicar down a well.
    I didn't know that pubs with bell names were associated with bell ringers. Great pictures.

  7. Fascinating! One of our happiest memories of visiting England was going for an evening walk in Evesham, and coming across a church where the bell ringers were practising. We went to investigate the beautiful sounds and low and behold we got invited up the tower to watch the bell ringers practise, and got a personal account of how it worked - up close and personal

  8. Wow - so very interesting! I had no idea the history of bell-ringing. Fascinating information.

    The seminary my son attends has a set of bells in their church. The bells are different weights and each one has a name. They give off lovely tones when rung.

  9. Great post. I love church bells. When I was young, I sometimes got to ring the bell at our little Anglican church. A real treat.

  10. Love the link between bells & pub names. I didn't know that, & of course, now it makes sense. Bell ringing looks quite difficult, quite mathematical. Perhaps best to approach it loosened by the odd beer or two. Thanks for the Elephant Bird you tube link. Just off to watch it now.

  11. You tell about so many things I never knew.. Interesting!

  12. John, whenever I see that you have a new post, I get excited because I know that I am going to get another lesson about something I didn't know before. Sometimes Morris dancers, and now church bells. I hope I can remember some of this the next time someone makes an observation about hearing bells chime.

  13. Interesting history about church bells. My husband used to ring the church bells with a friend in a the swiss town of Thun when he was a boy.

  14. Fascinating history and lovely photos to illustrate. Thank you John!

  15. So interesting. My favorite place to hear the church bells ring out is in the countryside where they carry for miles. Such a unique sound.

  16. You kept me captivated through the whole post--and that's not an easy task! I loved every word and your photos are awesome, too. I especially like the silhouette shot.

  17. Such an interesting post, John Great photos. I played English Handbells with a small group in our community for about thirty years, and thoroughly enjoyed it - no drinking and it didn't require a lot of brawn!

  18. A great post of the bells. If only I would understand better all your english (you don't have any google translation here in your blog :). But the bell towers are beautiful
    Have a nice and quiet day.

  19. A fabulous series of shots.

  20. I am looking at your post second time. First, I like to look at interesting buildings and I still don't know how to take pictures of them. I think I am lacking some imagination and you have plenty of imagination to take fantastic and interesting photos of buildings.

    Second, I didn't know much about ringing bells. Leaned something very interesting about them.

    This is a great post with amazing photographs.

    Best wishes to you.

  21. Didn't realize that there was such a sophisticated culture of bell ringing. Didn't realize the custom of bell ringing had such a long history. --- barbara

  22. Fascinating, as always. In the New England church of my childhood, there was only one large bell in the tower. A massive rope threaded down to a tiny 'closet' in the vestibule. The timing and pattern of ringing the bell on Sunday morning must have been important, as the man doing this kept a watch in view on the ledge of the cupboard and hauled on the rope at determined intervals.
    In his later years my Dad, never a man for heights, clambered into the bell tower which also contained the workings for the steeple clock, to wind the clock. He persisted in this task until one day he was discovered sitting woozily on the tower stairs, made dizzy by the climb. He had to relinquish this duty to a younger deacon!


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