The following report has been kindly supplied to us by the Langport History Society.
History of Bells and English Church Bell Ringing
Langport & District History Society Report Feb 2018
The Society's February meeting at Langport Library featured a presentation by Tom Harris, Tower Captain of Staplegrove Church, Taunton on the history of bells and English church bell ringing. Despite the wintry weather, there was a large audience, including many guests, presumably fellow bell ringers.
He began with the known origins of bells in South East Asia around 3,500 years ago, and their various uses, as a simple indicator of the location of animals (something still in use today for domestic pets) to more social, ceremonial and religious uses. Ranging in sizes from hand bells to huge beer-barrel-sized bells, as their musical potential became more understood and developed.
Gradually the practice spread westward into Europe, and, by the early centuries AD, the apparent aversion to the use of bells in churches was overcome, initially in Italy, and around 600AD, the Pope decreed that every church should have a bell. The next phase was the use of multiple bells in churches from around 1000AD especially in Southern Europe.
Bells at this time were generally fixed, and struck by a clapper, though over time, forms of movement were introduced, such as swinging bells, which greatly increased their musical potential. Levers were attached to bells, and then forms of half and full circle-wheel structures. Tom showed us example of bells in various churches around the UK, and then produced a full-circle unit, which he demonstrated, with the assistance from a member of the audience.
He described how the idea of musical tune in bell ringing was, and remains, an essentially English custom, and was taken around the world by the British through the Empire. Henry VIII's dissolution of the monasteries in the 1530s provided a new supply of redundant bells, which could be used for experimentation. Rules and techniques for the complex art of bell ringing evolved, such as those published in a monograph by Fabian Stedman around 1670.
Tom briefly explained the procedures for casting bells, and their tuning, and regaled us with many fascinating anecdotes of bells and bell ringing throughout history, such as famous huge bells in Burma and Russia, concluding with a lively Q&A session, and him generously distributing copies of his own pamphlet on bell ringing.
The next meeting will be at Langport Library on Monday 5 March, when Philip Unwin will return to describe the incredible journey of the SS Great Britain. It is free to members (annual membership is £12): non-members are welcome, admission £2. Anyone interested in joining the History Society should contact Sue Standen (01458 273471, email@example.com). Follow the History Society at @langporthistory, and on its website: https://sites.google.com/site/langportheritage/home.
6th Feb 2018
Cocklemoor Car Park, Langport