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Bell History

Bell History

A little general history about bells and handbells

Philip Bedford (former HSA President) in 1986


There is no record of when the bell was invented. There are pictures from early Chinese dynasties which clearly show bells, not the open method version beloved of bell ringers but the "Noddy" variety. Indeed they have been used by different civilisations in religious rites even before the development of a written language. They are mentioned in Exodus as part of Hebrew worship and they are shown decorating the robes of priests.


The early founders of the Celtic church in Britain, Saints Aiden, Cedd and Patrick, brought with them four sided bells similar to Austrian cow bells. St. Patrick's bell is still in his shrine in Dublin. In fact, handbells were the first bells to have appeared in England, the Romans using them to summon their servants. The large portable handbells which succeeded them were made of riveted iron plates immersed in molten bronze.


When the Christian church was recognised by Constantine in Rome, and came out of hiding, founders began to increase the size of bells and priests hung them on the outside of their churches. Paulinus at Nola in Campania is supposedly the first to have done this, and from his act derives the words campanile and campanology.


One of the rules of the church from this time read "Let all priests at the appointed hours day and night toll the bells in their churches then celebrate divine worship". This regular tolling became very important to people in early days. It was the only way they had of telling the time. The word clock derives from the Dutch word for bell "klok". The French "cloche" is also similar. In France in the thirteenth century bells were rung at 6.00 a.m. (Matins), Midday (Midi) and 6.00 p.m. (Vespers). These bells were later called the "Ave Maria" bells or the "Angelus". In Britain 'Midi' was called "None" or noon as it is today. Strange that this should be from the Latin 'none' for nine being nine hours after the first office 'Prime' at 3.00 a.m. So noon is really 9 o'clock not 12 o'clock!


In medieval times bells were steeped in superstition. This was probably because of their long association with religion. They were baptised, and once baptised had the power to ward off evil spells and spirits. Bells were hung in doorways to protect visitors and the visited from the evil spirits which always wait around the door awaiting the chance to slip inside. A visitor would ring the bell to drive the spirits away then pass inside - which is the likely origin of the present day doorbell! This custom also lead to the "Passing bell" which was rung to drive away spirits who stood at the foot of a bed and about the house ready to seize a person's soul as he died. The local ringers who were paid to ring the passing bell were paid more for a big bell than a small one, not because the big one was harder to ring but because it kept the spirits further away and gave the departing soul a better start. The sound of consecrated bells was also believed to dispel thunder and lightning and to calm storms at sea for all of which demons were believed to be responsible. When a tempest broke out bells would be rung in an effort to clear the storm. This happened for example at Sandwich in Kent, in the "great thundering" of 1502 and again in 1514 ' The "great thundering" was still in use against hail in Southern France in the nineteenth century as it was in Cornwall for those in peril on the sea.


After Bells had moved outside the church in Paulinus' time, handbells continued their development within the church. A cappella chanting (voices only) was replaced in popularity by more elaborate modes of liturgical accompaniment which included bells, stringed and wind instruments and small organs. Many mistranslations of the Latin "cymbala" used both for cymbals and bells in early times exist in psalms today, e.g. "Praise him upon the loud cymbals (big bells), praise him upon the well tuned cymbals (tuned handbells)." Early illuminations show small chimes of handbells hung from rods and in the early middle ages instructions for sung masses included the use of bells to double up on the tenor line. Perhaps church choirs have always been short of tenors (singers not bells). (In those days the tenor carried the tune.)


It was during the later middle ages that the organ finally ousted the wind instruments, strings, harps and bells, and it is likely that the bells were relegated to cupboards and boxes, perhaps in the towers, to be rung again during the 16th and 17th centuries by tower bell ringers who found it more agreeable to sit in the comfort of a local inn and practice their changes than to spend hours in a cold church tower..


Tune ringing became popular in the 1700's when the more musical tower bell ringers discovered that there were far less limitations to ringing handbells than ringing swinging tower bells - and there were likely to be more of them. They found that they could ring tunes, firstly carols and hymns, then chamber music and on to the popular classics. By the middle of the I9th century tune ringing had reached its heyday. At Belle Vue Gardens, Manchester, handbell ringing competitions were held from 1855 - 1925, to which special excursion trains ran, and bands from throughout the North of England played on up to 200 bells. Owing to the First World War and the invention of radio, apart from a very few large teams who kept going in the North of England, team membership dwindled and interest generally waned.


Twenty five years ago (Webmaster’s note: i.e. approx. 1961) in England, most handbell owners were tower bell ringers or Societies, and they rang tunes on their bells only during the Christmas season, but gradually the art of tune ringing has revived. Music teachers and other leaders have realised the potential of bells and many schools and organisations now include tune ringing in their curricula. A Rally of local teams was organised at Norbury, Cheshire in 1966. This was so successful that those who took part decided to form a Society and the Handbell Ringers of Great Britain was thus born at Ashton-Under-Lyne in 1967.


In the United States of America the handbell tune ringing revival got off to an earlier start. Handbells were probably first heard there during the mid- nineteenth century. The American impresario, PT Barnum, imported the 'Lancashire Ringers' from England but called them 'Swiss Bell Ringers'! and a number of other itinerant teams performed to the public throughout the Eastern States. However, modern handbell tune ringing in the U.S.A. and their Society, the American Guild of English Handbell Ringers, owe their present standing to Mrs. A.A. Shurcliff who in 1926, after returning from a trip to England, complete with a small set of handbells given to her by English tower bell ringers, rang carols on Beacon Hill, Boston. The sound was heard and liked by others who sent to England for further handbell sets. Interest snowballed under the guiding hand of Mrs. Shurcliff. The New England Guild was formed in her living room in 1937 and 1954 saw the birth of the American Guild of English Handbell Ringers, also at her home. Tune ringing in America has never looked back.


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