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Bells in Australia

Bells in Australia

Handbell ringing in Australia

Written by Philip Bedford (former HSA President) in 1997


A handbell set is the name given to the musical instrument which was developed in England in the Middle Ages from the earlier organica tintinnabula (organisation of little bells of different tonal pitches) and the cymbala (9 to 16 small bells of different tonal pitches suspended on a cross bar). Both the tintinnabula and the cymbala had previously been popularly used in religious worship throughout Europe from well before the time of the Norman conquest of England in 1066 AD, until the 15th century. (Indeed the cymbala can trace its history back with little developmental change to the pien-chung of China 2500 year before!).


In the Middle Ages there was a minor revolution both in handbell design and use. Sets of bells covering up to 1 1/2 octaves (a diatonic set of 12 plus one or two accidentals) were produced independent of a frame, with leather looped handles on each, and were rung two to four bells per player with three to six players per set; and were used to produce secular music as well as sacred music. The revolution was completed in the mid 17th Century when the brothers William and Robert Cor added leather pegs to the handbell clappers to soften the tone, and springs to keep the clapper from resting on the bell. The popularity of handbell ringing increased rapidly. When Handel emigrated to England in 1740 he heard handbells being rung in several of the homes into which he was invited. This, together with the ringing of so many church bells caused him to name Britain "The Ringing Isle".


Ringing style developed through two-in-band (one bell in each hand), to four-in-band (two bells in each hand rung at right angles to one another) and then, in 1867 to off-the-table (each ringer having from 2 to 12 bells each, rung upwards from a padded table on which they had been lain, usually in approximate keyboard order). Indeed during the 19th Century, handbell ringing became so popular in England, that special trains were run to take the spectators to the annual British Open Handbell Competition at Belle View in Manchester. The British Open was first held in 1855 and it was at a forerunner competition in 1850 that P.T. Barnum signed up the Lancashire Ringers, renamed them the Swiss Bellringers (!), then took them to the United States for ten years to tour with his Company. It was in 1863, only three years after their return to work in the Lancashire cotton mills that all the cotton crops in the USA were destroyed during the American Civil War. "…This caused a great amount of distress in the cotton spinning districts of Lancashire, so George Coppin brought the Lancashire Handbell Ringers (to Australia) as a speculation….", and here they toured on and off for a further eight years until they returned, still ringing, via Honolulu and the USA to England.


Whilst in Australia, not only did the Lancashire Handbell Ringers tour through all states giving "a performance (which) is most extraordinary", including making a side tour off to India in 1865, but they also helped local tower bellringers ring their full circle swinging big bells, including, as the Age at the time reported, ringing on the St Jarnes, Melbourne "church bells, several peals in the Grandsire method in the art of change ringing, being the greatest achievement ever accomplished in any of the Australian Colonies". Nor was their tower bell ringing restricted to change ringing. As the Adelaide Observer reported in 1866 they "visited the Town Hall.... for the purpose of practising upon the Albert Bells. Several chimes …. were performed upon six to eight bell, and..... Home, Sweet Home' was also played, the chiming being in general very correct, and of a superior character throughout. It was performed by means of the ropes, two bells being allotted to one ringer."


However the Lancashire Handbell Ringers were not the only ones to tour Australia from about that time. Six other groups are known to have done so:


The Lynch Family, who first toured Australia in 1867, were billed on a return tour in 1892 "as instrumentalists, vocalists and humorists, giving campanologian.... performances ...... with handbells, clockbells, or musical glasses". The Adelaide Register reported them as "producing such melodious sounds as to completely enrapture their bearers."


The Quintrell Family, "this family of bellringers and musicians", toured throughout South Australia in the 1890s.


The Corrick Family (C. 1900 - C. 1913) were welcomed back to Adelaide in 1906 by the Adelaide Review as "orchestra, singers, dancers, bellringers, humorists, and entertainers"


The Barrett Brothers, two young NSW evangelists, toured Australia between 1901 and 1907 and "visited city and country circuits using Gospel handbells and glasses to accompany their singing, drawing (the) largest congregations this side of Heaven".


The Steele-Payne Family, who toured throughout country and urban Australia between 1901 and 1915, had "the greatest array of musical instruments possessed by any company in the world - massive organ chimes, a peal of 100 handbells, flautophone, marimbaphone, Russian sleighbells, the glassophone, and the only giant Namimba ...... in the world."


Bryant's Bellringers (C.1924 - C.1932) from Sydney were reported by the Hobart Mercury in 1924 as "one of the brightest entertainments we have had for a long time."


Besides the touring groups, local community handbell teams also appeared in Australia from the late 18th Century onwards as many handbell ringers with their bells emigrated to Australia. They could be found from Cairns to Kalgoolie ringing mainly in the off-the-table style. That style reached its apex in the first part of this century but then, owing to the First World War, which decimated the male dominated teams, and the invention of the radio and other forms of prepacked entertainment, handbell tune ringing all but died out in England and in Australia, and it was not until relatively recently (1967 in England and 1983 in Australia) that handbell societies were formed in these two countries and handbell ringing started to become popular again.


The Brookhampton Bellringers from the deep south of Western Australia is the only Australian team known to have an unbroken ringing history from the late 19th Century/early 20th Century to the present.   They still use the traditional off-table ringing style.  


The bells, music and equipment of the St Paul's Ringers from Maryborough in Queensland have had a similar unbroken history. When the Maryborough Bell Ringers' Club dispanded earlier this century they gave their bells, palliasses, music and other equipment to the St Paul's Anglican church in Maryborough where they were then used for tune ringing by the St Paul's towerbell ringers. It is interesting that the Brookhampton Bellringers is one of only two teams in the world known still to use the original "off-the-table" method of ringing in which the bells are placed mouths downwards upon the tables and are picked up with the hands turned inwards and rung on the up stroke as the hands are rotated back to their normal "holding an icecream cone" position. (The other team is the Fredsklockorna, the only existing Swedish handbell team, who were taught to ring in the 1890's by an English touring team - the Royal Poland Street Ringers). Other "off-the-table" teams in Australia these days eg Kevinwood Ringers (NSW), Mount Torrens Handbell Ringers (SA), St. Andrews School Bellringers (SA) ring in what is now the internationally accepted "off-the-table" method with the bells lying on their sides with the handles facing towards the ringers.


Handbell ringing is now flourishing again in Australia, with community teams, school teams, teams of people who are intellectually or physically challenged, and church teams all becoming popular. All three styles of ringing so far mentioned are also currently in use plus a fourth, the American style (a hybrid made up by combining the two-in-hand motion with the off-the-table bell layout). In 1994 the Handbell Society of Australasia hosted the sixth International Handbell Symposium - 600 ringers from Korea, Japan, USA, Canada, and the UK, meeting and ringing their 2200 bells en masse for five days at the Adelaide Convention Centre, playing Bach and Joplin, Lloyd-Webber and Gregorian Chant.


Handbell ringing has two almost unique characteristics which make it ideal as a medium to teach musical performance and appreciation to "non- musical" adults and children. Unlike an orchestra in which each instrument has a complete range of notes within itself, a set of handbells is like the separated notes of a piano being shared between several people. From an individuals' points of view it is far easier to ring bells than play a piano, it teaches them co-ordination both within themselves, and between the others in the team; rapidly gives them a sense of timing and rhythm; and, most importantly, through the relatively quick and recognisable results - achieved in conjunction with their peers - gives them a sense of achievement in something musical.


The second almost unique characteristic which the art possesses is that in two of the four main styles of ringing found in the world today the traditional music is written numerically and is much easier to read (and sight read) for children and adults with no musical background. It is also a good leaping off point for the teaching of staff notation, and again will produce relatively quick and recognisable results thus re-enforcing a sense of creativity and achievement. (Benjanmin Britten wrote the handbell part in Noye's Fludde in a variation of the traditional number form - as many professional musicians have found to their chagrin!)




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