How HRGB Started

“Wouldn’t it be grand if all these handbell bands could get together for a day sometime. I’d love to meet them all and listen to them.”

This casual comment was made in 1954, after supper, sat by the kitchen fire. The comment by Tom Bolton, leader and musical director of Silverdale Handbell Ringers near Carnforth was to linger in the mind of Tom Ogden of Moorside ringers (see photograph below) for many years.

Tom Ogden’s work took him all over the North of England and as he went on his rounds he made contact with handbell bands that he had heard of. He visited Crosthwaite in Keswick,  Saddleworth in Yorkshire and Norbury near Stockport in Cheshire. Following an article in The Ringing World about all the bands he knew,  he received a letter from Ecclesfield Handbell Ringers (a band that he had not heard of) and the two teams exchanged visits.

From time to time,  the suggestion of holding a handbell gathering was raised amongst the Moorside Ringers but something always seemed to prevent it – the schoolroom was booked for another function,  someone was on holiday. So the idea,  first raised in 1954,  lapsed…

Norbury Handbell Ringers of Hazel Grove,  Stockport can trace their ringing history back to the early part of the 20th century. In 1937 they purchased a set of 140 handbells for £35 from Lepton Handbell Ringers, one of the bands that had played in the contests that had taken place at Belle Vue,  Manchester between 1855 and 1926. There had been some remedial work carried out on the handbells in the 1940’s but by 1966 it was clear that the bells were out of tune with modern concert pitch.

Norbury played many concerts for local organisations and had found that this tuning issue meant that they were not able to participate with other musical groups in joint activities. After much discussion it was decided by the band that they would try to raise the money to have the bells overhauled and retuned.

An assessment of the condition of the bells by the bellfounders, Mears and Stainbank (later Whitechapel Bell Foundry) resulted in a quotation of £350 for the work and a completion date of mid-1967. This gave the ringers 18 months to raise the funds. The team continued its schedule of concerts but in addition organised coffee mornings, benefited from a bowls match and a cricket match and eventually raised around £240, the balance coming from their own accounts.

The team was featured regularly in the local press over the 18 month period as the fund raising events took place and this brought their activities to the attention of Tom Ogden. An approach from Tom to Bill Hartley of Norbury, led to an offer from Norbury to host a get together of handbell bands.

And so the seed was sown, 12 years after the first idea had been raised.

An advertisement in The Ringing World elicited considerable interest and 13 handbell bands accepted the invitation to attend. Tom and the Chairman of Norbury Handbell Ringers, William (Bill) Hartley, discussed arrangements for the day and a date of Saturday 8th October 1966 was set.

Bill Hartley, kept detailed notes of potential attending teams and there was interest from across the country – from Ealing in the south to Lancaster and Skipton in the north.

The morning of 8th October did not start well. There was a thick fog over Hazel Grove and an immediate fear that many of the teams travelling to the event would be delayed or would not even begin their journeys in such weather. Undaunted,  the ladies began preparing refreshments for later in the day and the gentlemen began preparing the hall of Norbury School in School Street, Hazel Grove. And by 2.00pm, the fog had lifted, 150 ringers and observers representing 13 handbell teams had assembled.

The opening remarks for the afternoon,  made by Bill Hartley,  are still in the HRGB Archive in their handwritten form and it is interesting to note that elements contained in these remarks set the basis for the objectives of Handbell Ringers of Great Britain and our handbell rallies 50 years on.

Bill’s remarks included:

▪ The need to keep the interest in tune ringing on handbells alive
▪ The need to encourage smaller teams
▪ The cost of handbells
▪ A request for permission from all attending teams to make recordings of the event
▪ A proposal that each team in turn play one piece of music

Bill introduced each team with a resumé of the team’s history and bells and each team played its nominated piece in its own style. This is still the basis of many regional rallies.

To close the afternoon session, each team was asked to ring ‘middle C’ – and it became very obvious why Norbury was raising funds to re-tune and overhaul their bells! Unfortunately there are no photographs of the day’s events but the tape recording is available, albeit in reel-to-reel format.

At the end of the afternoon, all ringers were invited to partake of tea with a charge of 2s 6d (12½p) per head – the only recorded charge for the day.

A discussion between all the team leaders present took place over tea, one outcome of which was that there should be a repeat event in 1967.

So the seeds were sown for the formation of HRGB. Almost all the teams stayed for the evening and each team played pieces from their repertoire. The closing time for the evening is not recorded but looking at the number of pieces included, it must have been late into the evening.

And as Tom said – “I, among many, look forward to meeting and listening to my many ringing friends again. In the meantime I would say: help and encourage your young people, teach them all you can,  answer their queries,  no matter how simple they may appear to you,  we all had to learn from scratch, and keep up your ringing 'Strike True' for no matter if we as individuals never make the headlines,  this is something in the British way of Life that we can hand down to posterity, and be proud of it.”