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History of Sonning Deanery ringing

The Sonning Deanery Society of Change Ringers was one of many ringing societies founded in the late 19th century as part of the ’Belfry Reform’ movement. Paradoxically, it was formed a year ahead of the Oxford Diocesan Guild, of which it became a part. This page gives a very incomplete history, which may be extended in future.

Belfry Reform Sonning Deanery Society Absorption into the ODG Promotion of change ringing Development Peals Social events Striking competitions A terminological oddity History of officers

Belfry Reform

The industrial revolution had drastically changed social conditions, and the church had become lax in many ways. In the 1830s a group of young High Church men launched what become the ‘Oxford Movement’ to reform the Church, to sweep away old practices, and to ‘restore’ of church buildings. They removed box pews, musicians’ galleries, and the iconic triple-decker pulpits, and they introduced robed choirs and organs.

The reforms hardly touched the ringers who had operated more or less independently of the church since before the Reformation, but their ways were in similar need of improvement. They spent much of their time in the ale house, and even drank and gambled in the tower. They often rang when they felt like it, with scant regard for the church. This led to increasing tension between clergy and ringers, and a couple of decades later, the reforming clerics turned their attention to ringers. One of the first was Rev. HT Ellacombe, an engineer turned priest who was Rector of Clyst St George in Devon. He improved things in his own Parish and then with others, notably Cannon Woolmore Wigram, he stirred up more clerics to do likewise.

This ‘Belfry Reform’ movement really took hold when churches started to band together to support each other, and they encouraged their ringers to form guilds and associations that would promote good practice. Across the country the ideas took root, and in a few short decades many of our modern ringing societies were formed, pretty well covering the country. . . .  Back to top

Sonning Deanery Society

Map of Sonning DeaneryOn 23rd October 1879, the Chapter of the Rural Deanery of Sonning resolved:

‘That the Bell-ringers of the Deanery be incorporated in a Society for the encouragement of Change Ringing, and that the following be appointed a Committee for carrying this resolution into effect:– Revds Dolben Paul, R. H. Hart-Davis, H. C. Sturges, J. F. Eastwood, and J. Fanklin Llewelyn, together with Mr. A. Hill, of All Saints Wokingham, and Mr. R. Blake of St. Paul’s Wokingham.’

Of the priests at that meeting, Paul (Bearwood), Hart-Davies (Sonning) and Sturges (Wargrave) were all ringers. Eastwood was curate at All Saints Wokingham (but as far as we know not a ringer, though he was tower secretary from his arrival in 1879 till his early death three years later). The only laymen on the committee were Hill and Blake. Robert Blake, 46, was the sexton and Tower Foreman at Wokingham St Paul’s – an obvious establishment choice to be part of such a body. In contrast, Albert Hill was a young man of 24, though he was clearly an able ringer and he become Foreman at Wokingham All Saints a few months later.

At the inaugural meeting of the Sonning Deanery Society, on 26th January 1880, Arborfield, Hurst, Sonning, Wargrave and the two Wokingham towers became founder members (shown bold in the diagram). Other towers joined later. Sandhurst (St Michael) in 1881, Finchampstead in 1885, Barkham in 1906, Twyford in 1909, Binfield in 1911, Waltham St Lawrence in 1922, Shottesbrooke in 1976 and Sandhurst (Immaculate Conception) in 1989. Binfield, Easthampstead and Warfield, were in the Maidenhead Deanery of the Church until 1921. White Waltham was in East Berks & South Bucks Branch of the Guild until 1985.

It is interesting to note that of the six founding towers, all but Arborfield now have eight bells, whereas of the eleven non-founding towers, only three have more than six bells – Twyford and Easthampstead with eight, and Warfield with ten. . . .  Back to top

Absorption into the ODG

FE RobinsonThe Sonning Deanery Society prospered. Its senior members were keen to expand their idea, and within a year, Revd. Dolben Paul read a paper to a meeting of the Oxford Diocesan Conference on 8th October. This led to a public meeting in Reading on 13th November, with all ringers in the Diocese invited. After some excellent ringing, and a shilling tea, 100 people attended the meeting, and Dolben Paul's proposal to form a Diocesan Guild of Church Bell Ringers was carried unanimously. So Sonning Deanery became a Branch of the Oxford Diocesan Guild.

When the meeting came to elect a committee, Rev FE Robinson rose from the floor with a prepared list of names of who should be on it. The list included 7 clergymen and 7 well known ringers, and of course it included Robinson himself who was both a ringer and a clergyman. A couple of months later, at the inaugural meeting in Oxford on 17th January 1881, Robinson was duly elected as the Guild’s first master, a post he held until his death 29 years later. He retired to Wokingham in 1908, and was immediately elected as Sonning Deanery Branch Chairman. His grave  is at All Saints Wokingham.

See also the history of the ODG . See current map of the ODG . .  Back to top

Promotion of change ringing

Change ringing was at the heart of the Belfry Reform movement, and the resolution to form the Sonning Deanery Society was typical in making it an objective. Full membership of the Society required that ‘he can take his own Bell in a Set of Bells in a Plain Course of Grandsire Doubles’, as stated on the membership certificate. (Grandsire Doubles was normally the first method learned, but it is now less likely to be so.) Some ringing societies still require change ringing ability prior to election, but the Oxford Diocesan Guild of Church Bellringers does not do so (as reflected in its title), so modern ringers can become full members before they learn to ring changes.

Change ringing was not just a desirable addition to reform, it was the vehicle through which the clergy aimed to achieve the reformed behaviour of ringers. Note the order of objectives in the Sonning Deanery Society’s inaugural document:

‘This Society has been formed for the encouragement of Change Ringing, and the cultivation of order, moral tone, and reverence in Belfries.’

It might seem odd that the reforming clergy should insist on change ringing as the means of improving ringers’ behaviour and moral tone, since it had evolved outside the church’s influence as a mainly secular activity, and it bore no recognisable relationship to any liturgical music. Ringing a bell is essentially a craft activity, requiring good physical co-ordination – skills that working men of the era used to earn a living. Change ringing adds a completely different dimension. Varying the order of the bells continually while ringing requires greater co-ordination to swing the bells at different speeds, and it also needs an intellectual input, since it relies on complex rules that must be memorised and interpreted continually while ringing. The reformers must have felt that an activity requiring engagement of the mind as well as the body would bring with it the other more worthy mental habits and attitudes of the professional classes.

This close link between change ringing and moral tone is clear in the early records of the Branch. At the 1882 AGM in Wokingham, the secretary reported that change ringing had been introduced to all towers in the Deanery and that ‘Churchyard Bobs had been buried once (and it is to be hoped) for ever’. Churchyard Bob was one of several derisory terms for rounds ringing. He spoke of ‘the great changes in the tone of the ringers, and the even greater change in the tone of their bells’. In the following year, after the AGM service at All Saints, he made similar remarks:

No one could doubt that the Guild was doing a most useful work for the Church. The hearty service in the church, and the general goodwill expressed was of itself evidence of a higher tone among ringers, and of a greater care for a long neglected corner of our parish church.’ . . .  Back to top


The Society sought to encourage mutual support between the ringers throughout the Deanery. To this end it soon established the custom of holding ringing meetings at different towers. Wokingham remained the focus of Deanery ringing for several generations, with the Annual Meeting held in Wokingham until 1970, since when it has rotated round different towers. In the early years, the meetings were held in The Terrace Room, but later they alternated between St Paul’s Parish Rooms, and All Saints Church House (opened in 1902). In the early years the service prior to the AGM usually had an invited clergyman to give the address but later it became usual for the host priest to give a short address.

Originally the only elected officers were the ‘administrative roles' of Chairman, Secretary and Treasurer, all held by clergymen in the early years. There was no equivalent of the Ringing Master who plays a lead role in a modern ringing society. Ringing events were organised and run by a committee of all the Tower Foremen . It sounds egalitarian, but in practice it was down to individuals to take a lead. Albert Hill (Foreman at All Saints) was one of the committee that brought the Society into existence, and he seems to have played a significant role in shaping the society’s development. At the 1891 AGM, he was one of those advocating that a small group of experienced Branch ringers visit neighbouring towers to help advance their change ringing. At the 1893 AGM, he and J Ford (Foreman of Sonning) offered advice ‘as to the simplest method of instructing beginners in the art of change ringing’.


Initially were just two officers, the Chairman and the Secretary (who also acted as Treasurer) but over the years more were added as the need to perform more functions while sharing the load was recognised. There is a separate page showing how the pattern of officers has changed over the years, in terms of their roles, who performed them, and their length of their service together with a full list of officers. . . . .  Back to top


1923 peal bandThe first peal rung entirely by members of Sonning Deanery was, at Sandhurst on 11th March 1899 – 5040 Minor, in two and a half hours. It was only the second peal rung on the bells. The five Sandhurst ringers were joined by Sam Paice from All Saints.Wokingham.

The picture here is believed to be of a Sonning Deanery Branch band that rang a peal of Grandsire Triples at St Paul’s Wokingham on 25th January 1923, conducted by William Houlton. Identifying the ringers was an interesting piece of detective work. The posed shot suggests a special occasion. Seven ringers in the picture, plus one behind the camera, suggests an eight bell performance. The style of dress points to the inter-war period, and the window behind the ringers was identified as at the west end of the south aisle at St Paul’s, not far from the tower entrance.

The band was (L-R): William Houlton (8), Bill Paice (5), Frank Lush (4), Bill Brooks (3), George Cole (2), Samuel Adams (6), William Boyles (1), (behind the camera) John Rance (7) . . . .  Back to top

Social events

Skittles trophyThe Branch marked its centenary in 1980 by holding a barn dance and later in the year a formal dinner. Further social events followed in subsequent years, including barn dances, skittles evenings, quizzes and rounders or cricket matches against EBSB Branch. After the bell restoration at Wokingham St Paul in 1988, Pete Jordan (who was Vice Chairman the following year) used parts of the old bell frame to make the 'St Paul's Challenge Trophy', which was awarded to the winning team in the then annual skittles match. Some years later the matches became less popular and the trophy lay unused for twenty years.

In 2019 the Branch sought a new use for the trophy, and Pete Jordan (by then vice master of the Winchester & Portsmouth Guild) suggested donating it to the Bradwell ringing course, which holds an annual competition. This was approved at the Branch AGM, and Pete collected the trophy to take it to its new home.

Striking competitions

8-bell trophySonning Deanery Branch ran its first annual 6-bell competition in 1961, and its first 8-bell competition in 1975. At the AGM in February 1988, John Harrison of All Saints Wokingham presented the Branch with a pair of matching engraved trophies for the 6-bell and 8-bell competitions. Each trophy is a cast bronze replica of a bell, with an inset relief of two ringers, mounted on a turned mahogany base. See more detail. . . .  Back to top

A terminological oddity

The term ‘Foreman’ was used in the early years of the Sonning Deanery Society for what is normally called a ‘Tower Captain’. The term 'Foreman' appears in Sonning Deanery, but hardly anywhere else. There is a reference to EG Foster as Foreman on a 1948 peal board at St Laurence's Reading, but that is only a few miles from Sonning Deanery. The term 'Foreman' was used at All Saints, Wokingham in 1873, and we know that Wokingham played a key role in founding the Sonning Deanery Society. We may speculate about a possible connection. All Saints Wokingham still has a Tower Foreman, but most other churches in the Branch have reverted to using the more usual term ’Tower Captain’. . . .  Back to top

This brief history is adapted from material  in Living Heritage: 300 years of bells, ringing and bellringers at All Saints Wokingham by John Harrison
and also from material in 100 Years of the Oxford Diocesan Guild, by William Butler.

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