Church Bells

Speakers: Brenda Hooper and Peter Hunt

16 May 2017

The May meeting was a talk about, and a demonstration of, church bells. Brenda Hooper (Hon President of the Society) told us the history of church bells, and Peter Hunt (Captain of Bellringers) described the bells in All Saints' church. At the beginning of the meeting we listened to the church bells ringing and the evening concluded with two tunes played on the hand-bells.

The sounds of bells have been heard through the ages in many aspects of our lives: calling us to prayer; warning of danger; waking us up; or telling us the time of day. The first account of a bell can be found in the Bible when Moses ordered bells to be placed on the hem of the High Priest’s robe[1]. Bells were first used in Christian churches around the 5th century and the Venerable Bede mentions a bell in Whitby for waking and calling the nuns to prayer[2]. The first mention of a bell in Thurcaston appears in the will of John de Mershden in 1425. He wrote, “if the parishioners of Thurcaston wish to make a large bell out of the medium-sized one they shall have £6.”[3]

Peter Hunt talked more about the bells in All Saints' Church, of which there are eight. The oldest and largest is the tenor bell, number 8, which weighs about the same as a small car. This is a very special bell known as a “Royal Heads Bell” decorated with the heads of King Edward III and Queen Philippa. The next largest, number 7, dates from 1614. Bells 3,4,5 and 6 were cast at Taylors Bell foundry in Loughborough in 1898, numbers 1 and 2 by Alfred Bowell of Ipswich in 1919. Peter went on to explain a little about ringing changes: a system using permutations which mean the bells never sound twice in the same order. If there are six bells this means 720 changes without repetition, if there are eight this increases to 40,320. One such has been rung at the Loughborough bell foundry and took 18 1/2 hours. A “peal’ consists of at least 5,000 changes lasting about 3 hours, a quarter peal is rung on special occasions taking approximately 45 minutes.

Brenda told us a little of the history of bell ringing: by the early 1800’s some belfries had become places for smoking, drinking and other unsociable activities. Thurnby Church saw disagreements between the vicar and the ringers when the vicar tried to stop them ringing the bells to signal the start of the hunt meeting. This dispute went to the Ecclesiastical court where the Judge concluded that the vicar’s permission must be obtained before church bells could be rung[4]. This law still stands.

Finally we heard a little about the hand-bells. Twelve bells were purchased in 2008 and a further thirteen in 2015, providing for changes of key and enabling a larger repertoire. We heard two tunes played: Bach’s “Sheep May Safely Graze” and “The Happy Wanderer”.

The hand-bell ringers rehearse in the Harrison Room on Thursday mornings and welcome new members.

[1] Exodus 28 v 31-35

[2] The Ven. Bede, Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum. Ed A. Holder, 1895, Bk 4 Chap 23, p 207

[3] S.L. Ollard. Fasti Wyndesoriensis. The Deans and Canons of Windsor. Windsor 1950

[4] Rev. W.H. Pinnorck LLD. Cambridge. Church Key, Belfry Key & Organ Key. J.Hall & Son, 1870.