Over the Christmas period, we’re republishing some of our lighter reading while the East Anglia Bylines editorial team take a much-deserved break. This article was first published in July 2022.
Travel the world from distant horizon to distant horizon and you will see a variety of cultures and religions. Yet wherever you go, a Christian church will, in the vast majority of cases, have a bell.
Originally, between the time of William the Conqueror and the War of the Roses these bells were intended to call the faithful to prayer or indicate danger to the location, however as time progressed they became used for other events, such as weddings and funerals.
Early bell technology
The bell was mounted on one quarter of a wheel, allowing the rope to be affixed to the outer rim and enabling a person to swing the bell from side to side, allowing it to ring.
As church bells grew in size, in order to be heard over greater distances, then teams of two, three or perhaps even four people were needed to cause the bell to swing. Further developments saw the quarter wheel become a half and in some cases a three quarter wheel to enable more control and ease of use.
The post reformation development of bell-ringing technology culminated in the full bell wheel. This enabled the bell to become inverted with the hammer pointing upwards, and the bell resembling a cup that, ironically, gave more opportunity for it and other bells, to be rung in sequence, forming a musical progression.
The development of the full wheel also led to a series of competitions amongst villages and bell-ringers, especially as not only did lifting the bell into the inverted position take strength but to manipulate it as part of a team took skill.
With the development of the full wheel came an intrinsic risk: that of the bell not stopping in the vertical position but continuing to spin. To prevent that, the ‘stay’ – in effect a simple length of elm wood – was included. The idea was that the ash would break before the rest of the mechanism.
To this day the stay remains the breaching mechanism to prevent the bells momentum spinning the bell into a series of revolutions that would either rip the rope from the bell-ringers hand, or worse, rocket them skyward towards the ceiling.
Bell-ringing is a sport
Given that ringing a bell required both strength and skill as well as teamwork, it was considered a sport. It’s a designation that seems even more appropriate in the age of e-sports (competitive video gaming), as the determination of a team’s success was not so much in how they were seen, but how they were heard.
Unlike other forms of music, bell-ringing requires an individual to play a single note, in sequence. As a result the skill is not just musical timing but also the exact placement of the note.
This leads to another divergence from other forms of music with the bells playing progressions, with the bells changing position with each other, as opposed to a melody that could see some bells rest whilst the others play twice.
It is this uniqueness that led to it being called “Change-ringing” and, in time, the practitioners became known as campanologists.
It was during the reign of James I that the popularity of change-ringing became recognised, with a series of publications explaining not only the techniques, but also the numerical sequences that a bell could be rung. The first was in 1668 with Richard Duckworth and Fabian Stedman’s book “Tintinnalogia”. It was the first book to set out change-ringing, which Stedman followed in 1677 with another famous early guide, “Campanalogia”, from which the name campanology is derived. The developments shown in the latter highlight the technical improvements in change-ringing that had occurred in only nine years.
These books described the art of change-ringing and drew up rules for long series of changes, without the need for individual instructions to the bell-ringers. These books inspired the creation of other sequences and these compositions were named ‘methods’. Soon hundreds were created, often named after the cities they were first rung in such as Norwich, London or Cambridge.
St Peter Mancroft church, Norwich
It was in the reign of George I, on Thursday 2 May 1715, that the first full ‘true’ peal of bells, where all the possible permutations of the bells were rung without mistake, on the seven bells of the Church of St Peter Mancroft, in the centre of Norwich. The seven bells provided over five thousand possible combinations and it took those involved in the order of three to four hours to complete.
In 1767 at Debenham in Suffolk a band of eight young men rang a peal consisting of 10,080 changes which took over six hours.
As with all sports and social gatherings, there are often occasions where the behaviour of some of those present can leave much to be desired. It was during this period that it was not uncommon for bell-ringers to be considered unruly, and for beer and other alcohol to be consumed by the ringers.
It was in the Victorian era that bell-ringing returned to being closely aligned to the church. As a result, in 1839, the Cambridge Camden Society began a national spring clean of churches, including the tower and bell-ringers. Control of the bell towers returned to the rectors, and many towers were redesigned to ensure the ringers were now in full view of the congregation. In due course, at the end of the 1800s, women were allowed to ring the bells.
Bells fell silent during WWII
During the second World War, church bells were only to be used to warn of an invasion, so during that period, all church towers fell silent. But by the 1950’s there was a resurgence in interest with bell-ringing. However, congregation numbers have been steadily falling ever since. Now, in the new millennium, along with the passing of older generations of church-goers, a question arises over the longevity of bell-ringing.
Canterbury may have its cathedral, Glastonbury its Tor, but East Anglia is the home of the sound track which for centuries made the spirits of the devoted soar. Indeed, cast in the 1440s, Suffolk is home to the oldest circle of five church bells in the world, at St Lawrence church in Ipswich.
So when next time you travel across the region and find yourself in a strange village or town, and are fortunate enough to hear a team of ringers practice their sport, take a moment to appreciate it, for it is a rare craft indeed.
Norwich is home to one of only three bell-ringing training centres in the world, in the aforementioned St Peter Mancroft church.