Published on November 23rd, 2014 | by Bill Dargue0
On the Fifth of November the bellringers took time out from their weekly practice session to climb to the top of the church tower to watch the fireworks display at Pype Hayes Park.
Quite a sight!
For most of English history, Church and State were closely linked. Bellringers were paid to ring for national events. In 1587 ringers in London received one shilling each for sounding out the bells at the beheading of Mary Queen of Scots. For the celebration of the capture of Guy Fawkes and the Gunpowder Plotters in 1606 ‘at the time when the Parliament House should have been blown up’, the ringers were paid 10 shillings each, a decent sum of money when a farm labourer’s weekly wage was only 2 shillings.
The ringing of bells in English churches was known from Anglo-Saxon times, but by the 17th century it had become a secular activity. In both rural and urban churches towers vied to have more bells than their neighbours and bands of ringers took part in competitions to outshine each other. Contests were usually accompanied with copious eating and drinking at the local pub followed by the presentation of a ‘good hat’ or a pair of gloves to each ringer in the band that performed the best.
By the 19th century bellringers were notorious for their bad behaviour. Swearing, smoking and a barrel of beer in the church tower was quite usual; some towers were notorious as the meeting place of the village riff-raff. There was often antagonism between the ringers and the clergy, some of whom locked the tower to prevent the ringers gaining access – usually to no avail. There was certainly an element of class conflict in this. At High Wycombe in 1832 the bells were rung to celebrate the passing of the Reform Bill granting a wider voting franchise, but some days later when the Bishop visited, the ringers refused to turn out as he had voted against the Bill in the House of Lords.
The reconnection between bell towers and the religious life of the church began with the Victorian reform of the Church of England. In 1839 a national spring clean of churches was undertaken, including bell towers. Rectors took back control and appointed tower captains who were responsible for the behaviour of the ringing band and the standard of ringing.
By 1900, a new generation of ringers had emerged and bell ringing was once again a respectable part of the church. Many installations also improved, making bells easier to ring and triggering more complicated methods which required a greater degree of concentration and not to be attempted when fuddled with alcohol.
During World War 2 all the church bells were silenced, to be rung only if there was a German invasion. Many people were disappointed when Peace was declared that bells were not rung. However, with a six-year break in ringing and many ringers away at war, there were not enough ringers left to carry out the joyful task.
In recent years there has been a great revival in bellringing as a religious and leisure activity. Indeed Birmingham is one of the most active and well respected parts of the country for both the quantity and quality of its bellringing.
A £3m Lottery Grant to celebrate the new Millennium led to 150 separate bell restoration and augmentation projects across the country with some 5000 new ringers trained. 95% of all the church bells in the UK, including Castle Bromwich, were rung on 1st January 2000.
Here at Castle Bromwich we welcome anyone interested in learning this ancient art or in helping us to restore our bells to modern standards. Keep up to date with our progress on our website – cbbells.webs.com – or just Google ‘Castle Bromwich bells’.