Handbell Ringing (Ringing World Editorial)


(Editorial, The Ringing World, 26th April 1946)

A notable result of the late war was a great develop­ment in handbell ringing. During several years there had been a marked tendency in that direction, and it is pretty certain that, had there been no war at all, hand­bell ringing would ultimately have reached the stage it is in now; but it would have taken a longer time. When the war came with its restrictions on tower bell ringing, and especially when total silence was imposed on church steeples, the active and enthusiastic members of the Exer­cise were almost compelled to turn their attention to handbell ringing, and so the progress which would have been made in the belfry was made on handbells. During the years of the ban handbell ringing, both in the num­ber of peals rung and in the quality and variety of the methods practised, reached a much higher level than ever before and probably it will be a long tune before it will reach it again.

Although it has never had so wide or so strong an appeal as tower bell ringing, handbell ringing has always had a fascination for an important section of the Exer­cise and is never likely to lose its charm for those who have once experienced it. The story of its development is an interesting and instructive one. From the early days of the nineteenth century when the Sheffield men rang peals of Oxford Treble Bob Major, Royal and Maximus, until near the close of the same century, when the Cambridge University Guild rang Double Norwich Major, the only methods practised were Plain Bob, Treble Bob, Grandsire, and Stedman, and the last was almost entirely confined to a handful of clever London men. Many peals were rung in London and other parts of the country (some of them as far back as the seven­teenth century), but they were lapped. That was a form of ringing at one time very popular, but now almost obsolete, in which the bells themselves were passed from hand to hand. By this means peals in vari­ous methods up to Stedman Cinques and Double Nor­wich Maximus were accomplished, but in those days ringing on bells "retained in hand" other than in the four standard methods would have been thought im­possible, and indeed was so. To-day peals have been rung, not only in a surprisingly large number of Minor methods and in Surprise Major methods both singly and spliced, but also in a large number of Major methods with which the ringers had previously had no practical acquaintance whatever.

The difference is a striking one. If a hundred years ago men like John Cox and Henry Haley had been told that bands would be found in the future who could not only ring peals of Superlative and London Surprise double handed, but could also ring peals in methods they had never practised and had hardly looked at until just before the peal, they would have answered with a flat and contemptuous denial probably expressed in for­cible language. These men knew quite well that such things were beyond their capacity, and they could not imagine any others being able to do them. Yet they have been done.

What then? Are we to conclude that our present day ringers are all that much the cleverer than the men of olden times? That would be flattery which defeated itself by its own extravagance. There is no doubt that the average ringer of today is superior to the average ringer of the past, but it is by no means certain that the best of modern ringers are any better than the best of bygone times. What has happened is that a great deal more is known now about the theoretical side of change ringing, especially of the construction and struc­ture of methods, and at the same time modern education has enabled men to apply this knowledge (often uncon­sciously) to their practical ringing.

The first handbell peals of Superlative and London and Bristol Surprise Major were only, achieved after long practice and patient endeavour by men who added to their experience on handbells of the simpler methods, the knowledge they had gained in the belfry of the general structure of the more complex. The later tendency has been to rely much more on the construction of the method (as expressed in the position of the places) and much less on the work which the individual bells have to do. This tendency has naturally been most marked in the handbell ringing at the two universities and finds its logical outcome in the system of handbell ringing described in our columns a fortnight ago by Mr. G. F. Woodhouse, in which the need for any knowledge of the work of the individual bells is entirely eliminated.

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 in­ evitable, 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.