I'm teaching a United Methodist Women's Group tonight. They wanted to know a little about the history of Hand bell Ringing and get some hands on experience. I'm gonna type out my notes in my blog so I can get them fresh in my mind :)
The most familiar image of bells in churches are in Old Church towers. All across The British Isles and Europe you can find churches with bell towers containing many bells. The art of ringing Bells in towers is called Change Ringing and involves the playing of complex sequences of bells. With a 6 bell tower there are 720 different combinations of ring patterns (6!=6x5x4x3x2x1).
In the Middle Ages ringers became obsessed with finding algorithms to ring all the possible combinations of 7 bells (5040 patterns). In Change Ringing a full peal is reached when 5040 changes have been rung. This normally takes approximately 3 hours to do and is a feat involving intense concentration on the part of the ringers. Many bell towers have a Peal Board documenting whenever a Full Peal is rung on bells. The first documented Peal was rung on 2nd May 1715 at St. Peter Mancroft Church that just happens to be in my home town of Norwich, England.
If you have 8 bells in a tower the number of different combinations increases to 8!=40,320. As far as I can tell this complete set of changes has only been rung once. It was achieved in Loughborough in 1963 and it took 18 hours of continuous playing.
Needless to say the people who live next too church towers with bells were very glad when they found another way to practice!
Bell towers are notoriously cold and drafty places with difficult access and so to make rehearsal easier the ringers would use hand bells and ring them in the back room of the local pub. To ring a tower bell takes 2 hands, but to ring a hand bell only takes one, leaving the other one free for holding a pint!
Soon people began to realize another advantage with hand bells. One person can ring 2 bells at the same time meaning less people are required. People began to experiment ringing other melodies with the bells - mainly only a single pitch at a time because of the poor quality of the sound of the bells. Needless to say the Purists were shocked that folk melodies would be rung instead of the mathematical algorithms! Tower Bells became to be considered Holy and Hand bells Secular.
There is not a lot of music that you can ring with only 8 bells, so slowly sharps and flats were added and the range of the bells extended. Chapelwood has 2 complete 5 octave sets of bells which is 61 bells in each set.
Soon every village in the U.K. had a group of ringers who would gather together and ring for fun - often in the local pub and it was through an American encountering one of these groups that hand bells came to the U.S.
P.T. Barnum(!) was in Lancashire with his circus and heard a group of 5 hand bell ringers playing music and in 1845 brought them to the U.S. To add an air of mystery he dressed them in Swiss costume and sent them out on the Vaudeville circuit where they were very popular.
The first American hand bell choir was the Beacon Hill ringers. The tower bells in Boston's old North Church needed repair and 2 church members travelled to London to the Whitechapel foundry in 1923 to oversee the repairs. One of them, Margaret Shurcliff became the first American to help ring a Peal of bells (5040 changes) in an English Church tower. To mark the occasion the Foundry presented her with a set of hand bells to take back to the U.S.
The Beacon Hill ringers were founded in 1937 and slowly Hand bells spread across New England and then into other parts of the U.S. and back into the Church.