Hand Bells

A History of Handbells

Bells have been traced back as far as the 5th century BC in China but bells of various shapes and types have been found all over the world. They’re mentioned in the Book of Exodus as part of Hebrew worship and are shown decorating the robes of priests. In Britain the Romans used them to summon servants. The founders of the Celtic Church St Aiden, St Cedd and St Patrick brought with them four sided bells rather like Austrian cow bells. St Patrick’s bell still being in his shrine in Dublin.

When the Christian Church was recognised by Constantine in Rome and came out of hiding the size of bells was increased and priests hung them outside their churches. The bells were tolled at regular times --- 6 o’clock for matins, noon for midi and 9 o’clock for vespers. Apart from the religious significance they were the only way the country folk knew the time. Outside the church, bells were hung on cattle to tell their whereabouts and horses pulling tradesmen’s wagons to warn approaching traffic.

In medieval times bells were steeped in superstition—they were baptized and it was believed they could ward off spells and evil spirits. A bell was hung in doorways to protect visitors and the householder from the evil spirits who lurked in the doorway trying to enter. The visitor would ring the bell and frighten them away --- the likely origin of our own doorbell.

Gradually the organ ousted the wind instruments, the harps and the bells in church services which were relegated to cupboards and chests before being rediscovered during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries by the tower bell ringers. They had evolved a unique way of ringing in sequence and started to use the hand bells to practice this method of ringing often in the comfort of the local inn rather than the cold church hall.

In the eighteenth century hand bell ringers discovered they could play tunes firstly carols and hymns, then wider religious music and popular classics. It became a very popular pastime in the nineteenth century particularly in the north where there were rallies of  mass hand bell ringing.

We understood that all our bells had been cast at the Whitechapel Bell Foundry but have discovered through their records that the original octave came from Warner Bell Foundry in Cricklegate. A dedication on the original bell carrying case states                                                                      

“In memory of Betty ROBERTS Head Mistress of Down Hall”. So maybe the bells were given to Matching Church when the school closed.

The Whitechapel Bell Foundry is listed in the Guiness Book of records as Britain’s oldest manufacturing company, having been established in1570 (during the reign of Elizabeth 1st)  and in continuous production since that date. The business concentrates solely on the manufacture of bells and their fittings, two of the most famous being the Liberty Bell and Big Ben, cast in1858 and the largest bell ever cast at Whitechapel.

Originally we had an octave but over the years we have added to our collection and now possess more than 20 bells which are quite expensive. The small A costs over £100 and the G over £300. We take great care of  the bells hence the gloves but don’t polish them because if you clean them too vigorously the bell will wear away and the sound will be changed. The Whitechapel Bell Foundry have details of our original bells so when a new one is purchased it is in the same key. Hand bells are made out of a mix of 77 percent copper and 23 percent tin. They’re cast in a sand mould using metal patterns which closely resemble the finished bell.  A set of bells is assembled by matching the castings for tone and in the tuning process each bell is tuned on a lathe and burnished to give a highly polished finish. Each set is regarded as a single musical instrument and tuned as such. The clapper is held clear of the bell by felted springs and the handles are made of leather which gives maximum comfort to the hands of the ringer. You will notice we continually bring the bell up to our chest which we call damping. It stops the sound continuing on and spoiling the crispness of the following note.  Sometimes it’s quite useful being a woman!

In 1991 Irene Pointer came to live in Matching Green and discovered there was a set of hand bells lurking in a cupboard at St Mary’s Church. (History repeating itself )! She managed to find enough people who expressed an interest in learning how to play and this we still do on a weekly basis. Four of that initial group still play every week. So we are carrying on a long tradition, in every respect . It gives us an opportunity to create music as a team. So now we hope you will sit back and listen to our music bearing in mind our mixture of age and experience and ignoring the occasional wrong note. I’m sure you will recognise most of the tunes so please sing along with us and enjoy the music.  

Julie Smith