“Ringers and singers are little home bringers”
18th century proverb
In the early part of Queen Victoria’s reign about seventy per cent of the population were nominally members of the Church of England, which had separated from the Church of Rome as a consequence of Henry VIII’s domestic problems. It retained an external resemblance to Roman Catholicism, although many people had a great fear of “Popery”, imagining it would bring foreign political domination.
The Oxford Movement was born in 1833 when a small group of young High Church men struck out at clerical complacency. Although their motives were good, their activities caused a division into High Church and Low Church, neither of which was very tolerant of the other. They were, however, united in their desire to see reforms. Their supporters renovated churches with great zeal, ripping out old furniture and replacing it with new. They swept away the old barrel organs and fiddlers of the eighteenth century and installed new organs to lead the singing. The old bands of singers were replaced with a sedate, robed choir. To complete their work, the reformers turned their attention to the ringing chamber.
Here they met considerable opposition. Events of the previous centuries had secularised ringing. There was firm hostility, not only from those in the belfry, but also from the congregation, to whom ringing had become part of the English heritage.
The reputation of ringers throughout the country was generally poor.
There were few centres of change ringing in the diocese and elsewhere the majority of bands performed only for the money they could earn, immediately squandering it in the alehouse when ringing was over. Conversion was necessary, and had to come. It is fortunate that it came from within the Exercise: had it been left to the ideologists, ringing would have followed the barrel organs and fiddlers into obscurity.
The movement for revision was spear-headed by men like Revd H. T. Ellacombe and Canon Wool more Wigram. In Practical Remarks on Ringers and Belfries Ellacombe advocated introducing a new class of men into the ringing chamber, teaching them change ringing and regarding them as church workers. From here the idea of territorial and diocesan associations was to develop. These days it is difficult to realise how radical this scheme was, for the societies then were very small and parochial. For instance the College Youths had fewer than a hundred and fifty members during its first hundred years of existence. An average band consisted of less than a dozen men, and this was the extent of their involvement with other ringers.
The Oxford University Society, founded in 1874, had been diligent in recruiting undergraduates, who later on became some of the leaders of the new territorial associations and guilds. In the south of the diocese, the border town of Slough had been attracted into joining the West Middlesex Association, also formed in 1874. The East Berks and South Bucks Society was started in 1879, gathering about two dozen ringers from Boyne Hill and Farnham Royal. Finally there was the Sonning Deanery Society, dating from May 1880.
The initiative for the Sonning Deanery Society had come from a small group of clergy. At a local chapter meeting held on 23rd October, 1879, they formed a committee for “the incorporation of the bell ringers of the deanery into a society for the encouragement of change ringing.” The three committee members who were most energetic in their pursuit of its objects were Dolben Paul, R. H. Hart-Davis and H. C. Sturges, who wrote 11 letter to The Reading Mercury published on 26th February 1880:
May I ask you to allow me a short space in your column to make known to your readers the foundation of a society, which has been lately formed in the neighbourhood of Reading, for the encouragement of the beautiful science of change ringing and the cultivation of order, moral tone and reverence in our belfries?
In a book which has lately been published, called ‘A Guide to the Steeples of England,” I notice that the churches of Reading and the neighbourhood are, for the most part, conspicuous by their absence. On asking the author of that book for the reason for this, I am told that Berkshire, though by no means deficient in fine bells, is yet singularly behind the other counties in its possession of real change ringers. It is in the endeavour to remove this reproach from our county that an Association has been formed under the presidency of John Waiter Esq., MP of Bearwood, and a committee of clergymen, which has the cultivation of this science immediately in view.
The Association at present embraces the churches of Wokingham (All Saints and St. Paul’s), Arborfield, Hurst, Sonning and Wargrave. Already some gentlemen living in these parishes have become honorary members of the Society, and others are earnestly invited to do the same, if only to forward the object it has in view with their subscriptions. Anyone within the deanery whose parish is not fortunate enough to possess a ring of bells, but who is capable of taking his bell through what is termed a plain course of Grandsire Doubles, is eligible to become a performing member of the Society on a small yearly payment.
Many persons are not aware of the vast difference which exists between what is called “round ringing” and “change ringing.” (Then followed an explanation of these terms). The science itself is of such a fascinating kind when once learnt, that a country squire who is a great rider to hounds and a keen sportsman, declared at a Church Congress not long since, that working his bell through all the intricacies of a peal of 5,040 changes in 2 hrs. and 40 mins. had given him far greater excitement and interest than he ever obtained in his best run or in his hottest corner at the cover-side. It is indeed a standing disgrace to our church that so little notice has hitherto been taken of the grand old bells which have been hung in our belfries, often at a cost of over a thousand pounds. Who would have supposed that our parishioners could so long have endured that six or eight rich musical notes, should for years have been struck in the scale which a child first uses on learning the piano?
All lovers of church bells may now hope that a better state of things is in store for us. We understand that a similar Association has been formed to embrace the churches of East Berks and South Bucks and we hope very soon to hear that Reading itself has formed a society for the same purpose.
Herbert C. Sturges (one of the Committee) ”
This gives some idea of the general state of ringing in the diocese ..
Apart from Oxford, Appleton and a few towers in the Maidenhead area, little change ringing took place. The time was right for a clean sweep and the enthusiasts were there to set it in motion.
The Sonning Deanery Society prospered and its initiators thought the. climate right to expand their idea. Their senior member, Revd. Dolben Paul, took action; On 8th October, 1880 he read a paper to the Diocesan Conference, meeting in Oxford. He asked permission to form a Diocesan Guild of Ringers, opening his speech with these words:
“I appear before this conference today as the mouthpiece and representative of the Society of Change Ringers in my own Deanery of Sonning at whose request I have undertaken to bring this subject before you. That Society, embracing all the churches in the deanery which have a peal of bells, has been established just a year and has met with considerable support in the neighbourhood. The rules and list of subscribers I have by me. The Maidenhead Deanery has also started a similar society, but there seems to be a feeling among the members of each that it would be a great advantage to enlarge our area and to form a Diocesan Society at which all others could be affiliated. Such a society has already been established in the Diocese of Winchester and I hope to show to the satisfaction of this conference that it is a sensible course for this diocese also to adopt.”
He went on to say that while almost every other branch of church work had been thoroughly overhauled and improved, the control of the bells had often been left in the hands of indifferent characters, usually recruited from the public houses.
A Society of Change Ringers, such as he envisaged, would recruit a better class of men and ensure their recognition as church officers. He used the word “change” rather than “round” ringers advisedly, thinking that by making the distinction, a more skilful and intelligent class would be introduced into the belfries: choirs had been improved in a similar way when a higher standard of music was encouraged. He suggested that ringers would meet together annually, with perhaps two or three hours’ ringing. Following this, there could be a talk under the presidency of some well-known layman or cleric of the diocese. He was sure that such a society could assist in framing rules for parochial associations to help forward the movement for better belfry management. In his conclusion, he sought the formation of a committee to set up the association.
The motion was seconded by Sir John Conroy, Bt., and was carried unanimously. The members of the conference wisely decided that they were not qualified to form the committee and asked for an open meeting to be held.
A few weeks later, Church Bells. at that time the only newspaper devoting a regular weekly column to ringing, contained an important announcement. A public meeting would be held at Reading on Saturday, 13th November and all ringers living in the diocese were invited to attend. It promised an exhibition of change ringing under Revd. F. E. Robinson’s conductorship, with a shilling tea to follow!
The Berkshire Chronicle and Church Bells were enthusiastic about the ringing. The proceedings were opened at St. Mary’s with 504 Grandsire Triples, rung by a picked band, consisting of J. E. A. Troyte, Master of the Oxford University Society, J. R. Haworth, G. Mash and E. Horrex of the College Youths, G. Holifield, F. White and T. Bennett of Appleton and Revd. F. E. Robinson from Drayton. This touch and those of Stedman and Grandsire that followed “afforded a treat to the ringers of the neighbourhood such as they have seldom, if ever, enjoyed before.” Meanwhile at St. Giles, the ringers of the area rang the bells with “great spirit !”
About a hundred people, including leading ringers from the district, were present at the meeting which took place after the shilling tea. Nearly twenty per cent were members of the clergy who were all anxious to see this new instrument of belfry reform off to a good start. Many of them had more than a nodding acquaintance with ringing, for they had learnt to ring, either in their youth or during their time at Oxford or Cambridge.
Sir John Conroy formally opened the meeting and then Dolben Paul proposed that a Diocesan Guild of Church Bell Ringers be formed. This was seconded by the Vicar of St. Giles, Reading and was carried unanimously. A second resolution was passed to create a committee and Revd. F. E. Robinson arose, armed with a ready prepared list of committee members, who were promptly elected. The meeting concluded after a discussion on the terms of membership. There had certainly been some good staff work! The proposers and seconders were all obviously well-briefed.
Who were the members of this committee?
Fundamentally it was soundly balanced, with seven clergymen and seven well-known ringers. Revd. F. E. Robinson, a College Youth, was an experienced ringer and conductor, although not then the acknowledged expert he would become. Revd. Dolben Paul, Rector of Bearwood, had far less practical knowledge of bells and ringing, but he did possess considerable drive and organising ability. Revd. H. C. Sturges, from Wargrave, was also a College Youth. He worked hard teaching his local band, and by dint of practising three times a week he was able to get them all through a 120 of Bob Doubles in six months: there is no record that he rang any peals, though.
Revd. R. H. Hart-Davis was Vicar of Dunsden and his practical ringing never progressed beyond the bell-handling stage. Like Dolben Paul, his ability lay in administration. Revd. S. F. Marshall and Revd. A. Drummond were founder members of the East Berks and South Bucks Society, and so obvious choices to serve on the committee. The last clerical member was Revd. H. Barter, Vicar of Shipton-under- Wychwood, and it seems likely that he had some ringing experience.
The lay members were better qualified. Capt. J. E. Ackland Troyte was the brother of the squire of Huntsham, Devon, who had written Change Ringing. John Troyte wrote The Change Ringer’s Guide to the Steeples of England and was Master of the Oxford University Society.
Charles Hounslow, from Oxford, was regarded by F. E. Robinson as one of his oldest ringing friends, and was known as “the grand old man of ringing” in the city. William Newell was held in similar regard by the Reading ringers, for he had worked hard for many years to establish a change ringing band in the town. J. J. Parker was aged about twenty-eight at this time and his enthusiasm for ringing and his skill as a composer were already evident. Edwin Rogers, from Boyne Hill, was the patriarch of ringing in the East Berks and South Bucks Society: he had persuaded the Farnham Royal ringers to take up change ringing, which led to the formation of the Society. The final man was R. E. Fiske, son of the Vicar of Northleigh, Oxon.
The committee held two meetings before the end of the year: Messrs Fiske, Parker, Hounslow and White did not attend either of them. Dolben Paul was elected secretary and treasurer and also chaired the meetings. The main topic for discussion was a set of draft rules. When these were ready, copies were sent to all the county newspapers, together with a notice of an inaugural general meeting to be held in Oxford on 17th January, 1881.
The Oxford University Herald gives an account of this meeting, held in the rooms of the Churchmen’s Institute, Broad Street with the Archdeacon of Berkshire in the chair. It is not clear how many people were present but it seems likely that there were considerably fewer than at the first meeting at Reading. Some minor alterations were made to the draft rules and then F. E. Robinson was elected Master and Dolben Paul Secretary and Treasurer. They were appointed till the first Annual General Meeting, which was scheduled for June, July or August.
A committee was elected with six honorary members and six ringing members. From the original committee Messrs Hart-Davis, Fiske, Parker and Troyte stood down and their places were taken by Revd. H. A. Harvey, Revd. H. Davies, J. Field and R. Smith.
With this meeting, the Guild was formally established, albeit only in name.
The above account of the formation of the guild was taken from “100 Years of the Oxford Diocesan Guild”, written by William Butler and published in 1981