HRGB was formed in 1967 and celebrated its 50th Anniversary in 2017 – but musical handbell sets have been around a lot longer than that.
Historical records indicate that the first handbell was made by Robert Cor at Aldbourne, Wilts, England about 1694. He was joined by his brother William in 1696 and the craft was later passed on to other members of the family who carried it on until the mid-1700’s. The work was later taken over by Robert Wells and his sons, whose bells were identified by the initials RW inside the casting.
In his excellent book on handbells Ringing for Gold, author Peter Fawcett describes a set with Shakespearian connections in Stratford-upon-Avon which were cast around 1725-1727. Those bells showed the marks of the file where they had been tuned – before the invention of the tuning lathe.
As time went on, other foundries began producing handbells for a growing market and there have been over 60 founders of handbells from the days of Robert Cor up to the mid 1960’s. Some of the early handbells, which were used to practice change ringing, can still be found in churches in England and America where towers housed sets of bells, in bell museums and among bell collectors. Although the leather handles may be cracked and worn from age and use and the clappers may need repair, the bell castings are generally in good condition and provide fine examples of the early bellcraftsman’s art.
It was not until the development of the modern machine lathe that handbells began to develop into musical instruments.
By using a lathe to turn the bell castings down to pitch it was possible to raise the quality of tuning, increase the musical range and produce bells in quantity to meet the growing demand. Handbells began to be identified with music and ringing teams were heard in performances in towns and villages. With the sound of handbells ringing throughout the concert halls in England, it was inevitable that before long the sound would bridge the Atlantic and be heard in America. There is evidence in Australia, America and Canada that handbell ringers from the UK visited these countries in the latter part of the 19th century to wide acclaim.
Today’s handbells are very much a precision instrument.
Handbells are still cast in England but more frequently now in America and some other countries. The difference between English and American handbells is striking; the former are produced still using traditional craft-based techniques and materials such as leather for handles while the US versions use plastic handles and mass production methods. A phrase previously coined by Whitechapel is “Making molten metal into liquid sound” and this sums up why we love handbell music so much.
Many old handbell sets are to be found in church towers and the history of these is not always apparent. At one time foundries would present a set of handbells to a church when they bought a new ring of church bells but over time bells are lost or replaced so their vintage and origin remain a mystery.
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.
An art that falls conveniently between pealing and musical ringing is ‘lapping’ in which ringers sit or stand in line, each with two bells, usually with bass note C. They ring down the line a couple of times then start to shift the bells, with each ringer alternately swapping over their two bells and, during the next round, ‘swapping them’ with their adjacent ringers. Much hilarity usually results but after some practice a good speed can be achieved with a pleasant sound – and the whole thing is visually impressive to an audience too.
A set of handbells with no sharps or flats (the equivalent of the black keys on a piano is known as a diatonic set. These are the sets most often used in church for pealing and there is some music published for 12 or even 8 bells. However, the choice of music is far greater if some or all of the sharps and flats (which go to make up a chromatic set) are available.