Background

27 June has, in Saffron Walden, long been known as "Great Ringing Day" - a tradition stemming back to 1623 with the death and bequest of Thomas Turner, mercer, who directed in his will of 10 June 1623, that 33s 4d should be bestowed on the ringers each year on the day he was buried; - but first there should be a service followed by ringing in his memory. The story goes that Thomas, "having lost his way in some woods, was guided in the direction of the town by bells which happened to be ringing at the time". Whether there is truth in the story or not, Thomas Turner must have had good reason for making his bequest.

Extract from Thomas Turner's will Thomas's Turner's tomb bespoiled of its brasses

The above extract from Thomas Turner's will, reads as follows:

"encrease of dyet of and for the poore people of the Almshouse in Walden upon eyrie xpmas daye and other twentie shillings parcell thereof to be bestowed yearelie upon a preacher which shall make a memoriall sermon upon the daie of the yeare whrin I shall be buryed And thirtie three shillings fower pence parcell thereof to be bestowed yearelye upon such psons which shall rinse the bells of the Church of Walden upon the daie of the yeare on which I shal be buried And six shillings eight pence parcell thereof to be given yearelie upon the same daie to the pishe Clarke of the Towne of Walden afforesd for the tyme being for his paines in preparing the bells And fyve dozen of penny bread to be bestowed weekelie eyrie Sndaie after Dyvine service ene-ed uppon the poore people afforesd of Walden by such pson and psons as"

Turner was buried in the North Chapel at the top of the steps leading to it from the north aisle (picture above). The inscription and brasses were, as Benton comments, "ruthlessly despoiled... in the eighteenth century". However, Holman had earlier recorded the details on the inscription as follows:

In this Isle before the Doore lye 2 grave stones of black marble, on the one effigies of a man in a dresse of the times, his hands folded, on plate of Brass this Inscript. in capitals : ' Here lyeth interred the Body of Tho. Turner the younger, mercer, bachelor, eldest sone of Tho. Turner the eldr mercer, & one of the Assistants & treasurer of ye incorporacōn of this Towne of Walden, who in his life tyme yealded much releife to the poore, & at his Death (for contynuance of good & charitable uses) did give xxl per Annum, for ever. He was aged 56 years. Buryed ye 16 of June, 1623.'

Thomas Turner, as convincingly argued by Stacey, was almost certainly buried on 16 June 1623 and not on 26 June as previously thought. 26 June is likely to be the date that probate was granted.

27 June is the date that became known as Anniversary Day - the anniversary of the setting up of the Walden Company of Ringers on 27 June 1800 (Rule 8 of the Company's Articles of Agreement of 1800 states that "Every Member Shall meet at the Church on the 26 of June by a quarter After 6 Oclock"). By the late 19th century the dates of 16, 26 and 27 June had become intertwined into a single event on 27 June and from the 1890s known as, Great Ringing Day, and funded by the Thomas Turner Charity - see poem written in 1892 by JF Penning a key member of the Society.

Turner's annual bequest of 33s 4d (which was funded by the purchase of an estate at Henham, Essex) was sufficient, in the early days, for a ringers feast - breakfast, dinner and supper for 20 or so ringers (see Society history page and Benton and Stacey for detail) and it's not surprising that it became known as Great Ringing Day! In 1808 the amount of money paid by the Charity was increased to 56s 4d - today it amounts 53s 6d i.e. 2.67 which unfortunately doesn't go as far as it used to!

Brief history of the event

Great Ringing Day became a major event in the Essex ringing calendar with the bells being rung almost incessantly (the Society minutes often boast - "the bells were kept going all afternoon" or "all evening"). The minutes paint a picture of its heyday in the late 19th and early 20th century:

  • a sub-committee was set up each year to prepare for the event including the sending out of invitations, advertising in Bell News / Ringing World and arranging lunch and the "meat tea", and ensuring a reporter be present (the event would be reported in the local press and, more often than not, in the Ringing World - occasionally including the text of the whole sermon).

  • it was originally held on the day itself (27 June) unless it fell on a Sunday, but gradually, in the 1930s, it was moved to the nearest Saturday.

  • visiting ringers came from the surrounding towns and villages (Cambridge, Stortford, Stansted, Royston, Hitchen, Glemsford and Lavenham). Numbers varied but peaked at over 100. 

  • the day typically kicked-off with ringing at 09:00 (although in earlier days it is thought that it started as early as 06:00!), a service at midday (conducted by Rev FE Robinson in 1898), followed by lunch, (at the Abbey Temperance Hotel but in later years the Rose & Crown Hotel) afternoon ringing, and the "meat tea" at the Cross Keys Hotel and then more ringing until around 21:00 and finally back to the Cross Keys where handbells would be bought out for yet more ringing!

The tradition continued through the Great War although clearly with reduced attendance (10 local ringers and a dozen visitors in 1916 - names all listed in Ringing World). Following the war the numbers attending lunch was back up in the 40s.

Much was made of the event in 1923 - celebrated as the Tercentenary of the Society. An article in The Times of 15 May led the way and the Ringing World covered the event itself with a two-page spread - the service was attended by 250 people and the dinner (for 70) was paid, through subscription, by the townspeople of Saffron Walden! 

The fame of GRD reached "down under" in 1930; The Sydney Morning Herald published, in August of that year, a brief article describing GRD from the angle of a visitor to the town.

In 1931, Great Ringing Day was cancelled due to death-watch beetle damage to beams supporting the frame - the Vicar not being prepared to carry the risk. However the usual service was held and the local ringers rang a touch "at their own risk", thus meeting the terms of Turner's will and thereby ensuring the usual payment from the charity. 

During the later 1930s, numbers attending the day had fallen off - the minutes describing attendance as "disappointing". In 1940, with the advent of war once again (but before the years of imposed silence), the minutes record the decision "to meet at 4 PM at the tower and, if sufficient members and friends were available, to ring until 6 PM". The holding of the normal service continued through the ringing ban (bells were only to be rung in event of invasion) and in 1942 the sermon "consisted of a severe censure of the Ringers for what he [the Rector] called the dirty condition of the belfry. W[alter] Parish reported that he cleaned out the belfry on the Tuesday before Great Ringing Day and about 3 months previously, but complained that workmen had used the room as a workshop...also fire-wardens used the room and that pails of sand, water and other firefighting implements were stored there. On being asked if he received 2 per annum for this work, Mr. Parish replied that he had received no payment since the outbreak of war".

With the end of the war, and by 1947, Great Ringing Day was once again in full swing with tens of visitors from the surrounding counties and in 1948 Look and Learn, the children's newspaper published a short piece. However, by the 1960s it would seem that the townspeople of Saffron Walden were complaining, understandably, of the 9 hours of ringing that was Great Ringing Day and the Society kicked off a PR campaign in the press. Ringing was now reduced to the afternoon and evening and by 1966 it was only attended by "local ringers and the clergy".

Sadly, with the enforced 7-year silence of the bells, due to the condition of the spire, between 1973-1980 (although of course, the tradition continued with the use of handbells), Great Ringing Day finally lost its "greatness" and is now a mere shadow of what it once was. But it still takes place each year, more often than not it is celebrated with a special service conducted by the Rector, a peal attempt by the Society and an evening barbeque - and the payment into our account, from the Thomas Turner Charity, of 2.67!

Poster advertising Great Ringing Day events for 1981 - the first following the completion of the tower restoration

 

 

 

 

 

 

[ref. ringers' archive Misc. 53]

Poster for GRD 1981

Sources

  • Will of Thomas Turner Essex Records Office (1623) – ringers' archive [Coll 1a]
  • The Bells and Ringing Annals of Saffron Walden – Rev. G. Montagu Benton (1921) – ringers' archive [Coll 1b]
  • Notes on Walden Church – William Holman (c. 1720) (manuscripts kept in Colchester Museum)
  • The Saffron Walden Society of Change Ringers – H.C. Stacey (1976) – ringers' archive [Coll 1d]
  • Articles of Agreement of Society of Ringers of Walden (1800) – ringers' archive [Misc 29]
  • Society Minutes (from 1881) – ringers' archive [M 1-4]
  • Bell News
  • The Ringing World
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