16th March 1767. Hell’s Bells and Buckets.

The art of Change Ringing with its ‘Bob Majors’ and ‘Grandsire Triples’ was developed by the early campanologist, Fabian Stedman, the author of Tintinnalogia (1688). It is peculiar to the England, and like most English traditions, unintelligible to the rest of the world.

Church Bells

Church Bells, James Hayllar. Pic Ref below.

‘Wedding Bells’ was painted by James Hayllar (1829-1920) showing bells being rung from the floor by the West Door of the church, as the bride and groom are about to enter.

Today in 1767 in the Suffolk village of Debenham it was recorded in doggerel, ‘On 16th of March these bells they were swung/Such a peal in Old England as never was rung.’

Of the eight young men involved in the ringing they included the ‘village carpenter, blacksmith, Wright the wethersett miller, Sawyer the whittler and Abbott the fifth.’

They rung a peal of Bob Major of 10,080 changes, which took six hours to complete.

Bells were rung on many occasions and the passages of life, including the ‘Death Knell’ as we read in Dickens’ Old Curiosity Shop, when that of Little Nell is marked by the ‘remorseless toll, as if Nell had a ghostly extra ‘K’ hovering around it.’

The number of tolls related to the deceased age, preceded by six rings for a woman and the ‘nine tailors’ for a man, often with muffled peals, as recorded in the  novel ‘Nine Tailors’ where Dorothy Sayers writes authoritatively on the ancient art of bell ringing.

The Sacrist was responsible for providing and maintaining the bells and many Sacrists’ Rolls detail the ringing-rope, oil, ironwork, headstocks etc. At Norwich the ‘campanarius’ appears to have been a significant figure, responsible for organising and training the bell ringers.

Much medieval heritage survived the Reformation, but casualties include the small sacring bells, used at the elevation of the Host in the Mass, though examples are said to be seen in the west Norfolk churches at Thornham and others.

As early as 1598 Paul Hentzner a Silesian noblemen noted the fact that ringers: ‘go up into some belfry and ring the bells for hours together, for the exercise.’

The oldest society of bell ringers in London was established in 1637 called College Youths being the successor of a far older Guild. When first established they rang the bells of St. Martin’s Vintry, London, and on that being burned down transferred to neighbouring St Michael Paternoster Royal on College Hill.

Art of Bell Ringing.

Art of Bell Ringing 1668

Since the 17th century, bells have been mounted on wheels and tuned to a musical scale using a mathematical pattern of combinations.

Known as ‘the exercise’ it appears in literature from the joyous in Dickens’ 1843 ‘Christmas Carol’, to offering hope to poor, downtrodden street porter, Toby Veck in the 1844 ‘The Chimes’, when bells were rung on New Year’s Eve.

Dickens writes: ‘As bells were blessed with holy water and named, so Veck, had been as lawfully Christened in his day as the bells had been in theirs, though with not quite so much solemnity or public rejoicing.’

One novel which is entirely based on bell-ringing, is Dorothy L Sayer novel ‘The Nine Tailors’ 1934.

It features the Rev. Theodore Venables, Rector of Fenchurch St Paul, Norfolk and no doubt reflects her knowledge of her  father’s parish of Christchurch, in Cambridgeshire. Here the bells are revealed in their awesome ability to kill.

Ref: bellringing.org/history. History of Bell Ringing.

Ref: Daily Telegraph, 24.4.2010, Article: A deaf ear to church bells. Pic Ref. Hayllar.

Ref: bellringing.org/history. Pic re Art of Bell Ringing.


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About colindunkerley

My name is Colin Dunkerley who having spent two years in the Royal Army Pay Corps ploughed many a barren industrial furrow until drawn to the 'chalk-face' as a teacher, now retired. I have spent the last 15 years researching all aspects of life in Britain since Roman times.

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