What form of band music is over four hundred years old, has its origins in England and is now popular all over the world? – Answer: Hand-Bell Ringing.
The story of this dark horse of music making is related in a new book: “Hand-Bell Ringing, The Living Tradition, RINGING FOR GOLD”
This fascinating book is the culmination of 35 years painstaking research by the author, Peter Fawcett, in which he chronicles the rise in popularity of the art of hand-bell ringing from it’s beginnings in the 16th century. It is as much an account of life in the industrial villages, mainly in the north of England, such as Holmfirth and Ripponden in Yorkshire, Glossop in Derbyshire and Oldham in Lancashire, during the last 400 years, as it is the history of hand-bell tune ringing. During his research, Peter “was amazed to discover that nobody had written anything on a subject which has so much popularity”.
Peter relates the story in his straight talking, down to earth style which brings the main characters to life, and describes perfectly the rise in artistry and accomplishment of the hand-bell bands of the 19th and early 20th centuries as they contest with each other to become the champion band of England at the Belle View entertainment complex in Manchester and the Crystal Palace in London.
Hand-bell ringing even predates the brass band movement, with whom the hand-bell ringers had a good relationship – most of the time. Both grew from the need to provide music in village churches and for street entertainment and dancing during the ’wakes’ – those holidays for the working people in the industrial areas when they could relax and let their hair down. The 19th century saw the growth of industry and the development of hand-bell bands from small 12 bell groups ringing simple popular tunes, to the champion bands using 150 or more bells and performing music from the classical repertoire of Overtures and Opera. This development is admirably described by Peter in his book which is enhanced by the liberal use of photographs of the bands and their charismatic conductors. So proficient did these bands become that they were supported by local industry, the population of their villages and lauded by the local newspapers.
Thousand of people would travel by special excursion trains to the competitive performances by the many top bands of the day, Uttoxeter, Holmfirth, Shelley, Liversedge, Dewsbury, Almondbury, Crosland Moor, Huddersfield and Saddleworth, the return of the winning band being marked by cheering and tower bell ringing in their home village. Their fame spread beyond the shores of England and many bands made extensive tours of America and Australasia. The stories of these exploits make fascinating reading. The 1914-18 war started the decline from the earlier peaks of perfection. But the art of hand-bell ringing did not die out completely despite the changes in social condition and the Second World War.
The author is at pains to point out that hand-bell tune ringing is not music of the past – but a living tradition and a modern music with ancient roots which produces a unique purity of sound which can equal that of other musical instruments – with an exciting visual element which has to be seen to be believed. Now, hand-bell ringing is increasing in popularity once again, but not limited to the northern industrial areas of Britain. There are hand-bell bands of all sizes and abilities throughout the country, it is hugely popular in the USA, Canada, Australasia, Japan, Hong Kong, Korea, Taiwan, and Singapore, and is gaining popularity in Germany, Estonia and Finland. There is an international organisation which promotes a biennial symposium, the latest of which was in Liverpool this year at The Echo Arena, where around 450 ringers from around the world made music on more than 2,000 musical hand-bells.
Ringing for Gold contains meticulous detail and anecdotes within its pages, such as the story of the cigar presented by the Mirfield ringers to a local scrap metal merchant for buying the band’s old bells, and there are touches of humour throughout. Peter deserves our congratulations for his hard work over many years searching out the details and stories for our enjoyment. Reaction to the book’s publication has been a positive one with copies being shipped around the world. The President of the Handbell Ringers of Japan, Mrs Sun-Joo Shin even wants the book translated into Japanese.
Edited by renowned International hand bell musician and arranger Philip Bedford Ringing For Gold is a hard backed book 384 pages and 150 historic photographs and illustrations and is published by Donald A. and Philip Bedford , 44 Nunnery Fields, Canterbury, Kent, CT1 3JT, U.K. Email: [email protected] Tel: +44(0)1227 454662. Special offer price £30 plus postage, and from all good book shops.