If you want to find out more about bell ringing, a good place to start is “Discovering Bells and Bellringing” by John Camp (Shire Publications Ltd).
Here are a few little snippets from that book which may whet your enthusiasm to read the whole thing.
The oldest bell in St Peter’s tower Goldhanger dates from 1627, but bells have been rung long before that date, mainly associated with churches but also at times to signal warnings or disasters. In 1552 Bishop Latimer wrote that “If all the bells in England were rung at one time, there would scarcely be a single spot where a bell would not be heard.”
Up to the fourteenth century bells in England were usually hung on a simple spindle and chimed by pulling a rope attached to the spindle. But as time went on, ways were found to improve control of the bell by mounting it first onto a wooden quarter- wheel and then a half –wheel, with the spindle as the axle. By the reign of Henry the Eighth most churches had two or three bells, while the larger churches and monasteries had eight or ten. With the coming of the Reformation and the destruction of the monasteries, many bells were silenced or completely removed.
After the Reformation these same bells had to be rehung, this time using a whole wheel. This allowed greater control of the bell, and with the introduction of the slider and stay which allowed the bell’s movement to be halted at will or restarted quickly, the way lay ahead for the development of change ringing, a practice generally unique in England and countries with British connections.
Many churchwardens’ accounts of the time show the costs of repairs to bells and the payments made to bell ringers. The records of St Margaret’s Westminster show that in 1586 ringers were paid one shilling each for “ringing at the beheading of the Queen of Scotts,” and less than twenty years later paid ten times that amount for ringing “at the time when the Parliament House should have been blown up.”
More and more laymen were now becoming involved in bell ringing, and societies of lay ringers were set up from the early seventeenth century. By the late 1800s diocesan and county associations of ringers were formed, including our own Essex Association of Bell Ringers, set up in 1879.
In the eighteenth century ringers became notorious for bad behaviour – possibly because ringing was a chance to earn a little money which could be spent afterwards in the local inn. The situation seemed to be worse in rural areas where every opportunity was taken to ring, and cursing, swearing and smoking were common, with some ringing chambers having their own private supply of beer.
Bequests could be made for ringers to give thanks on behalf of local people. In 1813 Thomas Nashe of Bath left £50 to the Abbey ringers to ring “solemn and doleful changes” every 14th May, the anniversary of his wedding. But on the day of his death he requested “merry mirthful peals in commemoration of my happy release from domestic tyranny and wretchedness.” Poor man!
As the connection between ringers and the church became more tenuous, rifts developed between clergy and ringers; in one Devon parish the rector was locked out by the ringers, and some rectors turned down livings when they heard who controlled the tower. But with the Victorian enthusiasm for church restoration, ringing came back more under the control of the church, and ringers’ behaviour was required to improve. In some churches this was achieved by taking out the floor of the ringing chamber and lengthening the ropes so that they came down to the floor of the tower and ringers had to ring in full view of the congregation. Although some clung on to old ways – an article printed in 1865 advised on how to deal with “an ungodly set of ringers” – standards rose and by the end of the 1800s women were also taking part in ringing.