The Ministry of Bells and Bell-Ringing

It was in 400 AD when Paulinus of Nola established the use of bells in Christian churches. They were common first in Northern Europe where itinerant Celtic missionaries used to carry a bell, the ringing of which, it was believed, kept evil spirits at bay. The belief persisted once a bell was established in a church or chapel, even though one of its main uses became calling people to worship. As time went on, the single bell was supplemented by others which could produce a harmony of different sounds when rung in various sequences.

Most people had no personal time keepers until relatively recently. From the Middle Ages until the present day, parish church bells not only rang for the times of worship, they assumed an importance as time keepers for the community, and as callers to parishioners to celebrate national and international events. In the Red Book, Thomas Brayshaw’s huge compilation of historical events relating to Giggleswich church, there is an entry dated 1731 from the Church Wardens’ Minutes, stating that there shall be 4 “public ringing days”, namely on 29th May (Royal Oak Day), 5th November (Gun Powder Plot Day), the king’s coronation and on Christmas Day when, from a later entry in the Red Book, the ringing of the “Virgine’s chime” took place early on that morning. By the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century that list of ringing occasions had been considerably enlarged. It included the Queen’s Jubilee and then her death, the relief of Ladysmith (Boer War), the death of Gladstone and so on.

Bell ringing also was used to warn of present and imminent disasters, while the “passing bell” (in Giggleswick) was rung after the dead had been placed in their grave. Another Church Wardens’ Minute from 1731 decreed that no bell should be tolled between Burial Day and the Passing Bell without the special orders of the “deceased party”. The passing bell was a sober reminder to listeners both of their common humanity and of their own mortality. In 1624, John Donne wrote in his Devotions XVII, “And therefore, never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee…”

Sundials, invented in Egypt c.1500 BC, are reputedly the earliest form of time keeping. Giggleswick Church like many other ancient churches has an old sundial on its south wall (above the south door). Sundials were only useful when the sun was shining. Every community kept to its own time according to how it read the periods of light and dark. The word “clock” from the Old French word “cloche” meaning a bell, first appeared in general use around the 14th century. The sexton, whose time keeper was probably an hourglass, or a candle marked in hours, was, in many English parishes, in charge of striking a single bell to mark dawn, midday and dusk. The dawn bell, rung when the first streaks of light appeared in the east, was often signalled by a cock crowing. There are references in the Bible, literature and art. St Peter betrayed Jesus “twice” when the cock crew “thrice” (Matthew 26 v75, Mark 14 v72, Luke 22, v61). Hamlet’s father’s ghost faded away at the crowing of the cock, “the trumpet of the morn”. The evening bell rung at dusk was known as the curfew bell, when everyone stopped work and retired for the night. The word “curfew” from medieval Anglo-French, means “cover fire”, telling people to dampen down the fire before going to bed. From Gray’s Elegy we read, “The curfew tolls the knell of parting day…” As we see from Jean-Francois Millet’s painting, in Catholic Europe people on hearing the curfew bell, would stop their work, and before they left for home, pray the Angelus (Hail Mary). Protestants elsewhere said the Lord’s Prayer. Bells were rung for celebratory events, but also in times of disaster. It is thought that the church bells of London were rung from parish to parish as the Great Plague raged through the city in 1665-66, killing over 75,000 of its citizens. The song “Oranges and lemons, the bells of St Clements…” is alleged to have its origins then.

Mechanical clocks, invented in Europe in the 14th century, soon appeared in monasteries. These clocks were superseded by the pendulum clock invented in 1656. Church bells, as in Giggleswick, were eventually connected to the time-keeping of the visible church tower clock and were automatically set to strike the quarters and full hour throughout the day and night. This meant that bell ringers ceased their ringing a few minutes before the bells automatically struck the hour for the beginning of the church service. Today, in various communities, but not in Giggleswick, as a result of complaints from noise pollution, some church bells only strike the hour and/or are silent at night.

In his excellent article, Giggleswick Church Bell Heritage in the North Craven Heritage Trust Journal, 2008 issue (see Acknowledgements), David Parry, a former Giggleswick “tower captain” (leader of the bell-ringers) points to the evidence provided by his own individual research and from 16th-century wills that money had been provided in the 1550s towards the acquisition of a Great Bell for Giggleswick Church. It is very likely, the author concludes, that before 1556 there had been one or maybe 2 bells already installed in Giggleswick Church. The earliest known records indicate that there were 3 bells, the treble bell (1742), the Second Bell (1654) while the largest, was the Tenor Bell (1742). This information came to light when in 1850, the bells were taken down, sent to be re-cast and increased from 3 to 6 bells. In 1872, attempts were made to encourage the Giggleswick bell ringers who only engaged in “call changes” to learn “change ringing” This eventually happened some years later, in 1886. Then follows what David Parry calls “the golden period of Giggleswick bell-ringing”, which lasted at least until the beginning of the 20th century.

In the renovations of 1890-2, the old ringing chamber near the Minstrels’ Gallery was removed. From 1892-2000, the bell ringers, standing on the stone flags, rang from the ground floor. Their “ringing chamber” was just a room adjacent to the west door and in front of a glass screen. The west door, which can still be seen from outside the church, was available for access. Thomas Brayshaw in the Red Book tells us that after the 1892 church renovations were complete, there was installed in the church tower “a fine clock, presented by the Masters and Boys of Giggleswick Grammar School, which replaced the curious old one, which had works partly made of wood and is now in the School’s Museum….” The appearance of the new clock is fully described in a separate leaflet, pasted elsewhere in the Red Book. Here are extracts, relevant to this Bells topic. “The main wheels will be suitable for the dial and the large bell: the clock will be fitted with Lord Grimthorpe’s gravity escapement, compensation pendulum….The hours will be struck on the large or tenor bell and the St Mary of Cambridge Quarters, or Chimes will be struck on 4 bells.”

The bell ringers’ relationship with their vicar was not always harmonious. There is an entry dated 1838 from the Church Wardens’ Minutes: “…there was a strike amongst the bell-ringers, which was terminated by their demand for an increase of wages from 14s.8d to £1 each being agreed to.” In 1900, the bells were rung to celebrate the appointment of a new vicar, the Revd Theodore Percy Brocklehurst. He remained as vicar until his death in 1933. A highly educated, musically gifted man with a strong, adversarial personality, he on occasion deliberately courted controversy. In the Red Book, there is a newspaper cutting dated 1903 describing how the bell ringers reacted angrily to the vicar’s demand on a notice he had pinned to the belfry door that they, like the choir, give their services free. They had understood the new ruling would take effect “after Easter”, and since it was not yet Easter, they were ignoring the demand. In response, the vicar locked them out of the belfry. They somehow managed to ring one bell until 5 minutes before the service. One long-term member resigned.

To keep in practice, the Giggleswick bell ringers went over to ring at Settle Church. Eventually, the vicar got his way and according to another notice in the Red Book, a replacement team of bell ringers was formed. Amongst them, there were former as well as new members. The vicar, who appointed himself as “president” of the bell ringers, produced a pamphlet of Rules “to be observed by the Ministers of the Belfry”, a copy of which is pasted in the Red Book. Amongst the many Rules, we read that there were to be 8 ringers and 3 probationers. The bells were to be rung regularly for the services of the church an hour before they were due to take place. The Revd Theodore Brocklehurst died in 1933 after over 33 years as vicar of Giggleswick. At the end of his obituary in The Craven Herald, a copy of which is pasted in the Red Book, there is the comment that 2 years previously (1931), a lady had left £200 for the acquisition of 2 more bells for Giggleswick Church, increasing the total to 8 bells. Mr Brocklehurst was able to see to the refurbishment of the older bells and the installation of the new ones, making way for a new period of bell ringing in Giggleswick Church.

During World War II, from 1939-45, church bells over the country were silenced for the duration of the war for fear of guiding enemy aircraft to important locations. After the war, the bell ringers re-formed and continued to ring as their forebears had done for centuries before. In Giggleswick Church, various repairs were carried out in the 1960s, but it wasn’t until the early years of the new millennium that there were major changes regarding where bell ringing took place in church and indeed, regarding the nature of bell ringing itself. Bell ringers today, are, by and large, peripatetic and no longer ring exclusively for one church. This has been the case since before the end of the 20th century.

Present day

Now in 2020, I am indebted to Ian Boocock, the present tower captain for contributing the following information. There are 6 bell ringers licensed to ring at St Alkelda’s Church. From 2000, the bell ringers have been ringing from a modern ringing chamber, built above a newly installed toilet, above and behind the sealed west door. They have a weekly practice night, as in the Revd Theodore Brocklehurst’s time, on Thursdays at 7.30pm. On a Sunday, they rotate between Settle and Giggleswick churches and generally ring at the service where the priest in charge, the Revd Julie Clarkson is celebrating Holy Communion. They also ring for weddings, funerals and for other services when requested by the PCC. At St Alkelda’s, they make everyone feel welcome whatever their standard, be it a beginner or an advanced bell ringer and are always looking for new people to learn to ring.

Ian learnt to ring in 1999 at Horton in Ribblesdale Parish Church. Ian is a “Millennium ringer”. At the time the Central Council of Bell ringers was advertising in newspapers and on TV / radio for people to learn to ring so that bells would be rung throughout the country for the millennium. Ian, who has been St Alkelda’s Tower Captain since 2006, would have been ringing at all the local towers around about this time. He also describes the countrywide fellowship and inter-church ringing exchanges that go on amongst English Parish Church bell ringers. The country is divided into areas which have associations and guilds of bell ringers. Giggleswick comes under the Yorkshire association, which is then split into branches, Giggleswick’s being part of the Western branch. During Ian’s time as bell ringer, most ringers in the local area have always rung at several churches for services etc. The Giggleswick team is joined regularly by ringers from Settle, Long Preston, Kirkby Malham, Horton in Ribblesdale, Clapham, Bentham, Bury St Edmunds and Watford while Giggleswick ringers ring at other churches too. This is not just a local, but a nationwide practice. As is the custom of many bell ringers, Ian when on holiday, goes to the local church to be invited to ring there. Giggleswick Church likewise welcomes many visiting bell ringers too. Bell ringing in Giggleswick is set to continue for many years to come.
Kathleen Kinder 05/20

Acknowledgements & References

Ian Boocock is the co-author with Paul Clark, tower captain at Settle Church, of the article on bell ringing at

https://www.achurchnearyou.com/church/939/
http://www.northcravenheritage.org.uk/NCHTJto2009/Journals/2008/GiggleswickBells.htm (David Parry)
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Church_bell

Photographs – Nigel Mussett (8 Bells), David Parry