Leeds nostalgia: Charting the appeal of hand bells

Peter Fawcett's book Ringing For Gold documents 400 years of hand bell ringing.
Peter Fawcett's book Ringing For Gold documents 400 years of hand bell ringing.
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Hand bell ringing might not have the same, er, ring to it as, say brass bands or even morris dancing but one man is determined the old English tradition regain its rightful place in the pantheon of our esteemed heritage.

Even so, it’s taken retired gardener Peter Fawcett nigh on 35 years to complete and publish the book, Ringing for Gold, which tells the story of hand bell ringing and attempts to expel a few myths about the past-time and explain its Yorkshire roots.

Peter, 63, from Cleckheaton, said: “I have tried to impress upon people that this is something to be proud of, it’s their history. It’s one of the oldest forms of British music and it’s really important to the overall history of music and the evolution of it and in a sense it’s also to do with its future.

“This is not something that’s dead, it’s a living tradition and modern music traces its roots back to hand bell ringing.”

Mr Fawcett, who first became interested in the oft-neglected tradition in 1974, said the modern brass band was, in fact, based upon hand bell ringing bands.

“Even today you can see with the way that a brass band is set out that it basically copies the format of hand bell ringing, in that they are formed in a U-shape, with a treble, tenor and bass in the same positions.

“Brass bands came about long after hand bell ringing, which has been around for hundreds of years.

“It used to be something which was practised in almost every village. Bells were readily available and their use spread and bands formed and they had competitions with one another.”

Two of those festivals, Saddleworth Rushbearing and Sowerby Bridge Rushbearing, still exist today but they are the last vestiges of a tradition which once held sway across most of the country.

Mr Fawcett, who reformed Clifton Hand Bell Ringers in the 1970s, said: “The tradition had all but died out but after the First World War, those who remained did all they could to make sure it survived and they succeeded, largely by starting youth bands to continue the tradition.

“The book charts the development of 400 years of the art of hand bell ringing and it’s spread throughout the world. It is the first definitive book on the subject.”

Leeds United hand bell ringers – not to be confused with the football team of the same name – operated in the 1860s and 1870s, their headquarters were in York Road.

At the British Open Championship in 1869, they came third and the following year fourth.

Mr Fawcett said from its origins in England, hand bell ringing had spread throughout the world.

“There are nine countries where it is popular including the USA, Australia, Japan and Britain where it all began four centuries ago.

“Hand bell bands were the first public subscription bands of the working class masses.

“The main developments all took place in Yorkshire in the 19th and 20th centuries.

“Bradford also had the largest bell foundry in the world in the 19th Century, right up to 1912.

“Yorkshire is famous throughout the world where hand bell ringing is concerned.”

He went on: “From its beginnings in country areas, hand bell ringing spread among the towns and villagers up and down the Pennines in the 1700s. The formation of bands began around 1812.

“The Echo Arena, Liverpool last August saw around 450 hand bell ringers from around the world meet for a symposium of the artform.

“Bells range in size and weight from 5cm across and weighing just a few grams to 50cm and weighing a few kilograms and there are more than 2,000 kinds.

“With bands using from twelve bells playing simple tunes to big bands with five chromatic octaves of up to one hundred and fifty bells, and will play anything from classical music to classic rock. Each bell is finely tuned to concert pitch like the notes on a piano.”

He added: “The halcyon days of the art were from 1855 to 1926, when bands of ringers competed in the British Open, held at Belle Vue, Manchester. Up to 25 bands and 10,000 enthusiastic supporters turned up.

“Hand bell ringing is an important part of our musical heritage, I wanted to ensure it received proper recognition.”

Ringing For Gold (published by Donald and Philip Bedford, Kent), is priced £30, available from akaneandphilip@yahoo.com.au or Mr Fawcett at peterfawcett0@gmail.com or by ringing him on 01274 869564.