Old Handbells

So You've Found Some Old Handbells?

Many thousands of handbell sets have been cast over the years so it’s not surprising that old sets turn up in attics, church towers, cellars etc. Many sets of bells have a history attached to them going back over hundreds of years - such as the Peace Bells.

Old bells may be in a different pitch to modern ones (in 1910  John Calhoun Deagan persuaded the American Federation of Musicians, to adopt A=440 as the standard universal pitch for orchestras and  bands. It was also accepted by the United States government and generally throughout the world).   Bells cast in older pitches may still be playable as a set but will not match in well with other sets - and handbell teams enjoy playing together at rallies or in massed ringing.

Bill Butler’s useful book Musical Handbells can be used to identify the source and age of many old bells from markings and the shapes of components.

Most people want to know “Do they have a value?” And that is very difficult to answer. Much will depend on their age and condition but generally we estimate that a used set in good playable condition and in modern pitch will fetch about 50% of the 'new' price - depending on the financial climate at the time. Since Covid, many teams have had to close or reduce in size and this has affected the market for bells - large sets are particularly difficult to re-home. It may be possible to find a local experienced HRGB member who can advise you - contact the HRGB Secretary.

You might decide to have the bells inspected (there will be a small inspection fee for a full report, usually credited if you go ahead with a refurbishment). For English bells the renovation of old handbells requires the application of considerable skill and knowledge in order to satisfactorily accomplish the desired result of an 'as new' set, particularly if the bells are to be re-tuned to modern pitch. John Taylor and Bells of Whitechapel are the principal UK sources for ‘factory’ based refurbishments, replacing leather handles and caps with new, hand tooled leather of appropriate grade and thickness.

Other sources of refurbishment come along from time to time but we recommend checking with other customers’ experiences before entrusting your handbells to them.

If you want to sell the bells you will need to advertise them; this can be done through HRGB’s small ads facility on this web site (no charge) and through the pages of our twice yearly journal Reverberations (contact the editor for more details). Other ways of advertising are via the Ringing World (the weekly journal for Church Bell Ringers) via Ebay and other online auction sites or through a local auctioneer.

Below: HRGB's Woodroyd Bells after refurbishment