The new way of ringing handbells - as seen in 1946

If you have read last week's Ringing World (11th June 2021), you might have been as intrigued as I was by the "75 Years Ago in The Ringing World" feature, which reprinted the editorial from 14th June 1946. It refers to "the more modern systems" of handbell ringing and states that "the results which in the last few years have been attained by the new system are remarkable". Reading further, we pick up the impression that the "new system" is some kind of structure-based ringing. However, the editorial finished by contrasting that style of ringing with traditional techniques based on following the work of the method, and concludes "The new systems in their stark nakedness stand outside the art [of change ringing], and, for all their efficiency, have no real place in it. Perhaps for that reason they will never come into general use."

The editorial seemed to be a response to something that had been published in earlier issues, so I turned to the DVDs to find out what. The following extracts from the Ringing World of 1946 are reproduced with the permission of the current editor.

The story begins with a short article by G. F. Woodhouse, published on 12th April 1946. You can follow the link to read it - it's an explanation of ringing by place notation, using Double Norwich as an example. There's a similar explanation in Change-Ringing on Handbells Volume 1. Another concept, which I have written about before, is letting the handstrokes ring themselves. The article also suggests a sensible progression of minor methods for handbells, which has stood the test of time. Toward the end it claims that unfamiliar methods can easily be rung by place notation in the tower, which is more of a stretch, in my opinion. The article closes provocatively with "Try all this seriously and get on to difficult methods".

I looked up G. F. Woodhouse in PealBase, expecting to see an impressive list of handbell peals in cutting-edge (for the time) methods. But there is nothing - not even a tower bell peal. I don't know whether he was an expert in ringing handbells by place notation, but he was the developer of the Woodhouse ringing machine which operates from place notation, so it's understandable that he would advocate its use by human ringers.

Two weeks later, on 26th April, an editorial entitled "Handbell Ringing" reflects on the current state of handbell ringing, noting that it had benefited from the unavailability of tower bell ringing during the war years - we can see echoes of that situation in the current pandemic. The editor refers to the system of ringing by place notation as advocated by G. F. Woodhouse, and concludes:

How far such a system in its stark nakedness has been put into operation we do not know. The best of the handbell ringers use a system based on the tradi­tional style modified and extended to a greater or less extent by knowledge of the position of places. The tendency is certainly in the direction indicated by Mr. Woodhouse, and it is completely changing the essential nature of handbell ringing. This development is in­evitable, but whether it is all good is a question to be asked. Much good there is, but it may be that a heavy price will have to be paid for it in other things.

This description of "blue line plus", as I have heard Philip Earis describe it, surely resonates with most handbell ringers and indeed many tower bell ringers today. The clear tone of disapproval of ringing purely by place notation, which is repeated in the editorial of 14th June, is interesting though.

Two weeks later again, on 10th May, readers of the Ringing World take up the debate. Arthur Davis and C. Glenn both support Woodhouse's views and dispute the editor's opinion that there is something undesirable about ringing by place notation.

After a further two weeks, on 24th May, a long contribution by John Spice expands on the technique of ringing by place notation and structure, giving details of its application to the standard four surprise major methods: Cambridge, Superlative, Bristol and London. A point that I have never noticed, but which John Spice uses as part of the explanation, is that in all of these methods (apart from a small exception in London), the places at the cross-sections are the same as in Double Norwich. He also describes the teaching of handbell ringing, in a way that certainly stands the test of time.

The editor responded on 31st May with a defence of his position that ringing by place notation detracts from enjoyment of the work of a method. He also seems to think that the systematic approach makes ringing too easy, making an analogy with mountaineering versus building funicular railways to the summits. I have some sympathy with the idea that ringing by place notation decreases the sense of progress through the work of a method, but I would also take into account the fact that some methods are much easier than others to ring by place notation.

The editor's final word was yet another editorial on 14th June - even though he had not published any more contributions from readers in the meantime - continuing to argue that ringing by place notation should not be recommended as a general approach. This is the editorial that was reprinted in the Ringing World of 11th June this year.

In the end I have to admit that I agree to some extent with the views of the editor (J. Armiger Trollope). I don't object to anyone using any technique they want to, including ringing purely by place notation, but I do find the aesthetics of the blue line appealing and I find it easier to ring by lines plus structure than to think only about place notation.


I too was intrigued by the 75 years ago feature last week in the RW and spent a happy afternoon on Friday tracing back through the old editions and following the discussion. I think it very relevant because as an inexperienced learner with no library of blue lines in my head, I have to use a system more based on place notation than a memory for the order of work. At the beginning, I relied on memorising lists of pairs of numbers, which is fine if you only ever intend to ring plain bob, but overwhelming once you want to ring dozens of methods. My brain is not large enough to accommodate all the permutations, so I have evolved my own method, which I intend to write about. I do think that handbell ringers starting with a clean sheet in that they know no methods from towers, will always approach things differently and that teachers need to be aware of this. I also think it inevitable that experienced tower bell ringers will bring prior knowledge to handbells that they are not even aware of. My ringing partners always deny this but the human brain will try to make sense of a new challenge using all the information that it has, even if an individual is not conscious of what is being accessed behind the scenes!