Sam Austin's comment on Tina's article about the state of handbell ringing, which he linked to the recent Ringing World article about the declining number of ringers, prompted me to compare the numbers of handbell and tower bell peals during the period covered by PealBase (1950-present). Why peals? Just because that's the data that's available. I have previously tried to estimate the number of active handbell ringers by looking at peal and quarter peal data from BellBoard, but with PealBase it's possible to go further back in time.

All the data in this article has been mined from PealBase, and in case you're interested, I produced the graphs with Gnuplot.

First we can look at the number of peals per year. Not surprisingly, most of the variation in the total is accounted for by variations in the tower bell total. It's hard to see what's going on with the handbell total, because of the scale.

Now let's put the handbell total onto a sensible scale. There seems to be an upward trend after a peak in the early1970s.

An interesting statistic is the proportion of peals that are rung on handbells. 2014 was an all-time high (or at least within the data that we have, which goes back to 1950). Let's see whether this trend continues.

We can also look at the number of people who rang peals in each year. First, combined tower bell and handbell data, which again makes it difficult to see the handbell details because of the scale. I think the big spike is the Queen's silver jubilee in 1977. There are smaller spikes for the millennium and for the golden jubilee in 2002, but the trend is clearly downwards.

Now for the number of people who rang handbell peals. There isn't a downward trend, but neither is there an upward trend to match the trend in the number of peals. It seems that handbell peal ringers are becoming more active.

The final graph is the proportion of peal ringers who rang a peal on handbells. The upward trend seems to be explained by the downward trend in the total number of peal ringers.

All the doom and gloom about declining numbers of ringers focuses on tower bell ringing, but it looks as if handbell ringing is holding its own; of course it is a much smaller activity overall. We should remember that handbell ringing offers another way of preserving the art of change-ringing, even if all the towers fall silent.

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