The History of English Change Ringing

Bells have been associated with religious services from ancient times. Mention monasteries and most people think of a cold, dark and damp stone building with Monks being called to prayer by a bell tolling in the early hours of the morning. Before the days of the newspaper, telephone and radio, the bells in village churches announced services, death of a villager, arrival of the mail and sounded the curfew.

In Henry VIII's time, the dissolution of the monasteries caused the removal of many church bells as well as the monastery bells. These were often broken up and sold for scrap. At the end of these troubled times, during the restoration period, a new way of hanging bells was devised. The bell was mounted on a wheel with the rope passing around it. This allowed much more control of the bell's movement that facilitated the development of change ringing.

Change ringing began in England in the early part of the seventeenth century. The first Society of Bellringers was formed in 1637. Their records show that bellringing music which we still use today was invented around 1650 by Robert Roan (Society Master in 1652) created Grandsire Doubles and Bob Minor. Since then many tens of thousands of 'Methods' as they are called, have been created. Books were published describing the art of change ringing. Printer Richard Duckworth's "Tintinnalogia - or the Art of Ringing" written by Fabian Stedman (1640-1730) was the first publication on the subject in 1668; Stedman latter wrote "Campanologia" (1677, improved edition 1702)

The technique is thought to have spread from the London area across the whole of England. The ringing of church bells had become a popular hobby by the late 1600s. Competitions were held to see which band could perform the most pleasant sounding ringing. Newspaper records show that in Norfolk, the police had to be used to control the crowds supporting their village bands.

Before the 1700's, English churches used to have only 3 or 4 bells. Of the few with 6 bells in the 1600's, locally were those in the Cathedral and St. Swithun's Church in Worcester. St. Peter's Church at Martley, Worcestershire has the oldest surviving set of 6 cast as a ring, dating from 1673. During the last three hundred years the number of churches with four or more change ringing bells has increased to around 6100. The age of the bells hanging in the church tower may be anything from 400 years old to brand new. Often there are a mixture of ages as bells were added when finances became available. There are thought to be only 60 Bells in the UK surviving from before 1300 AD. The oldest dated bell currently known is in Lissett, East Yorkshire, dated 1254. One at Caversfield, Oxfordshire, can be dated by its donor's name to 1207-19. Locally the oldest surviving dated bell in Worcestershire, is at Grimley, dated 1482.

Of those 6100 Churches with change ringing bells 93% are in England and hence the name of English rather than British change ringing. Wales has 215 churches with change ringing bells and less than 20 in Scotland. There are Change Ringing bells in other countries, mainly as a result of colonisation by the British. By October 2008, the USA had 43 but the number is slowing increasing. Australia and New Zealand have 62 between them.