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For whom the bells toll

For bell ringers, ringing church bells is a great way to serve God, make new friends and enjoy mental and physical exercise, writes Dr Jonathan Oates. The necessarily conscript audiences, however, do not always appreciate the music (or the work that goes into it), especially if it seems loud and prolonged. Certainly this was the case at St Stephen’s Church in Ealing in 1921.

The eight bells in the church had been blessed by the rural dean in 1912 and were regularly used by both the church bell ringers and by visiting teams of ringers. For instance in May 1921 there had been two hours of ringing on a Saturday by the Ancient Society of College Youths (one of the oldest and best known teams of ringers). It was common for the church team to ring a peal for 40 minutes prior to the Sunday service, and this is a feat which requires a great deal of practice and skill on their part. In the years after 1912 a good team had been quickly established and, unusually for the times, it was of both men and women.

‘It might almost be termed cruelty’

In the autumn of 1921 there were critical letters and other complaints made to both the local press and to the vicar. One man who had lived in the parish for 15 years was very aggrieved, writing ‘It does seem extraordinary to me that on the slightest provocation the inhabitants of the St Stephen’s parish are subjected to what might almost be termed cruelty’. He cited as a particular annoyance the occasional two hours of ringing on Saturday afternoons, adding that church bells ‘at the best of times are rather a melancholy sound’.

St Stephen's Church
St Stephen’s Church

Another complainant asked: ‘Why do they have this tremendous bell ringing?’

If it was to summon the faithful to worship on Sunday, then why could not just one bell be rung and then just for a minute? Other churches did so and attracted the same number of people. An anonymous Anglican thought that bell ringing might annoy nonconformists who did not have the same bell ringing traditions as the Anglican Church. In the interests of harmony between the different branches of Protestantism, he thought that there should be some form of appeasement.

The new Vicar, the Rev. Maynard, had the matter discussed at the next church meeting at the end of November. The parish had spent money on the bells and so wanted them to be rung. The ringers needed to ring at regular intervals and the church was grateful that they had a willing and capable band of ringers who rung without payment. It was also stated that three quarters of an hour was the minimum time needed to ring the shortest of peals. Yet the church was surrounded by many houses and many people’s nerves had been strained due to the recent war. The decision was taken that on Sundays the bells should be rung only on alternate weeks. It was thought that this was a reasonable compromise.

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