Handbell Subscription (1833)

The ringers' archive holds the below subscription; a request to the "gentlemen of Saffron Walden" for a set of handbells while the tower was being repaired and ringing suspended. This was in 1832/3 when the upper part of the tower was renewed and the present spire added.

Handbell subscription - detail

[ref. ringers' archive Misc. 39]

Handbell subscription - detail

 

The subscription reads:

To the Gentlemen of Saffron Walden

As the Ringers of this town have been prevented from practicing the Art of Ringing upon the Church Bells through the tower being under repair, they have purchased a new Peal of hand Bells to practice upon, for fear the Ringing should decline; and as these Bells were a considerable expense to them, viz, upwards of 7-0-0, they beg leave to call upon the Gentlemen of Walden and hope that they will favour them by a Subscription.

The subscription was initiated with a contribution of 5s by the mayor and raised a total of 4-16-6. The collection was made by one of the ringers, William Rumble, with Richard Miller signing the completed document.

The first page of Richard's Miller's account book for 1829-40 has an entry that reads "Feb 14th 1833; Paid Mr. Mears for hand Bells as per Bill - £7 8s 0d. On the opposite page, an undated entry reads "sold Ashdon Ringers 14 hand Bells and Box to put them in for the sum of £2". It would seem that the bells of 1833 were acquired to replace a set of bells that the ringers thought were no longer up to the job.

Later references to the handbells

We have a record of the transfer of ownership of the bells from the old Company (pre-1881) to the Society in 1897. An entry in the minutes of 16 February reads "The handbells which formerly belonged to the Company were purchased by the Society for £3, from Messrs. F. Pitstow, E. Pitstow and J. F.Penning".

The minutes regularly make mention of the ringing of handbells in the club-house - especially on Great Ringing Day. The handbells came into their own during part of the Great War, when no ringing was possible after sunset due to "lighting restrictions...on account of hostile aircraft [Zeppelin and Gotha raids]". Bell News of 3 Dec 1915, reports that "On Friday evening, November 26th, at the residence of Mr AE Pitstow, on handbells, a quarter-peal of Grandsire Triples and 336 Bob Major. FJ Pitstow, 1-2; AE Pitstow, 3-4; F Pitstow (conductor), 5-6; F Dench, 7-8. First quarter-peal in Saffron Walden, and by all the band."

The first peal on handbells rung in Saffron Walden was in 1923 - this was followed by three more in the late 1930s.

The handbells prior to 2012

The Society's present set of handbells are those of 1833. We have seventeen bells - two full octaves (tenor No. 21 in D) with two accidentals - and they are kept in a custom-made box with gold lettering reading "Hand Bells of the Saffron Walden Ringers". Each bell has a founders mark of "H+S". They are therefore the product of founder, Henry Symondson (sometime tuner for John Briant of Hertford, the founder of Walden's back eight) who founded handbells in London's Tottenham Court Road between 1825 and 1839. The dates match - so it seems that Henry Symondson may have been subcontracted for the bells by Thomas Mears.

Unfortunately the bells were in a poor state of maintenance and in need of significant work - they were rarely used.

Handbells Handbells

Handbell restoration - 2012

On the rare occasions that the handbells were used, the subject of restoration was often raised. However the cost, coupled with general lack of use, quickly closed the debate. In the last year or so though, the bells have been used at several worthwhile events: The Debden youth group, the Essex ringing course, tower open days and the Cultural Olympiad 'Sparks Will Fly' event in the museum gardens. This last event, with the bells on public display, was somewhat of an embarrassment - the much tarnished metal and broken handles were very visible! Something had to be done. Shortly after the successful 'Sparks Will Fly' event, Uttlesford District Council launched a Diamond Jubilee grant scheme, aimed at local Community/Voluntary organisation projects. Thus we had the catalyst for restoration action.

A team comprising Roger Collins, Hugh Maddams and Patrick Draper was formed to drive the restoration. Discussions with, and quotes from, Whitechapel and Taylors foundries followed and a grant application was submitted but sadly rejected. But now we were not to be defeated; some form of repair was quite clearly essential if the bells were to be used at all, even though the costs were difficult to justify and, even more challenging to find from society funds. We approached Winston Girling of Stowmarket - one of only two private handbell restorers in the UK. After much discussion we decided to have the bells cleaned and to replace all leathers and fittings. But how to find the funds? Amazingly the team found sponsors from within the band, for each of the 17 bells, and the majority of the required finance was raised in no time at all.

We now have a splendid looking set of shiny handbells. We are indebted to everyone in the band, not only for their financial generosity, but the enthusiasm and commitment that ensured project completion, preserving the society handbells for many years ahead.

Founders mark

Founders marks on the 2nd

Restored set

The full restored set

Sources

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