Bells and Bell-ringing

The sound of bells ringing is deeply rooted in British culture. Almost everyone in Britain lives within hearing range of bells. They provide the grand soundtrack to our historic moments, call out for our celebrations and toll sadly in empathy with our grief.

A Bit of History

The earliest archaeological evidence of bells dates from the third millennium BC, and is traced to the Yangshao culture of Neolithic China. These pottery bells later developed into metal bells, the earliest of which are dated to about 2000 BC. Early missionaries used small hand-bells to call people to worship and such bells came to Britain with the spread of Celtic Christianity.
Large bells in England are mentioned by Bede as early as 670 AD, and by the seventh or eighth century the use of bells had become incorporated into church services. The first record of a complete ring of bells comes from the tenth century.

Most early tower bells were hung on a simple spindle and chimed by Deacons pulling a rope, but ringers began to experiment with new ways of hanging a bell to get greater control. The first improvement was mounting the bell on a quarter wheel with a spindle serving as the axle and the rope attached to the rim of the wheel. As this method grew popular, bells then began to be mounted on half wheels.

In the Reformation of 1536 the desecration of the churches often lead to the removal of bells. Years later, when restoration took place, many bells were re-hung and by this time the latest technique was to mount them on a complete wheel. This meant the ringer could control when the bell struck by pulling it from a balanced, upright position to swing at the correct time. Thus ringing ‘full circle’ as we do today became possible and the fashion for ‘change ringing’ began. The final refinement, which is a particular feature of English bells, was to add a ‘stay’ and ‘slider’ which allows the bell to ‘stand’ in the upright position.

The development of change ringing led to increased interest from the lay people who took over the belfry from the clergy. Then in 1668 came the publication by Richard Duckworth and Fabian Stedman of their book Tintinnalogia. Stedman followed this in 1677 with another famous early guide, Campanalogia. These two books are the foundation of modern ‘method ringing’.

Bells in the Benefice

All four of the churches in the Mid Fosse Benefice contain bells. Listing the heaviest first:
St Giles, Chesterton, has 3, weighing up to 8½cwt (430kg).
All three bells here were cast in 1705.
Holy Cross, Moreton Morrell, has 3, weighing up to 7cwt (360kg).
The heaviest bell was cast in 1609 and the other two in 1616.
St George, Newbold Pacey, has 4, weighing up to 7cwt (360kg).
All four bells here were cast in 1707.
St Laurence, Lighthorne, has 6, weighing up to 5½cwt (280kg).
The heaviest bell was cast some time between 1410-1420 and the others in 1890(2), 1913 and 2006(2).
The three bells in Moreton Morrell are hung ‘dead’; that is, they don’t swing at all. Instead they are sounded by ropes attached to the clappers which run to a manual at the back of the church, thus needing only one person to control them. However, the heaviest bell is cracked and so only two are used at present.

Illustration 1: Chesterton’s three bells, hung for chiming.

In Chesterton, the three bells were re-hung in 2009 as a chime (that is, they do not have wheels). They are not chimed regularly for services, but are sounded for Christmas, Easter and harvest-time, and when requested for weddings and such-like.

The four bells in Newbold Pacey are challenging to ring due to the age and design of the installation. Fund-raising is currently under way to enable the bells to be rehung and to add another bell to make them up to a ring of five, as well as to improve the fabric of the tower. Currently there is no regular ringing here but they are sounded for special services and when requested. However, once augmentation is complete it is planned to commence regular practice sessions and service ringing here.

Illustration 2: Lighthorne’s two new bells, waiting to be hoisted up the tower. The wheels can also be seen.

Prior to 2006 the bells in Lighthorne had been unringable for many years, but that year saw them re-hung and augmented from four bells to six. Volunteers, all of whom were new to ringing, formed a new band and training started. The Lighthorne Ringers later renamed themselves to become the Mid Fosse Ringers in recognition of their desire to have all the bells in the benefice sounded. Lighthorne is currently the centre of bell ringing in the benefice. The tower contains a simulator (a computer with associated sensors and a sound system) to allow silent practice to take place. The Tower Captain, Mike Rigby, has undergone special training and is now a member of the Association of Ringing Teachers, accredited to teach bell handling.