History of Handbell Ringing

Tune ringing became popular in the 1700’s when the more musical tower bell ringers discovered that there were far less limitations to ringing handbells than ringing swinging tower bells – and there were likely to be more of them. They found that they could ring tunes, firstly carols and hymns, then chamber music and on to the popular classics. By the middle of the I9th century tune ringing had reached its heyday. At Belle Vue Gardens, Manchester, handbell ringing competitions were held from 1855 – 1925, to which special excursion trains ran, and bands from throughout the North of England played on up to 200 bells. Owing to the First World War and the invention of radio, apart from a very few large teams who kept going in the North of England, team membership dwindled and interest generally waned.

For more detailed facts and a wider look at ringing see Ringing For Gold written by Peter Fawcett Ringing for Gold is a 384-page hardback book with 174 historic photographs and illustrations about the annals and development of hand-bell tune ringing from it’s birth in the mid 1500’s. Is it hand-bell or handbell; historically the hyphenated form hand-bell was used and Peter uses it in that way thoughout his book. Handbell is a more modern form and is geneally accepted now as the appropriate spelling.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries tune ringing on handbells was extremely popular across the industrial towns of Yorkshire and Lancashire. Teams played with large sets of bells, often upwards of 150 bells per team. During the period 1855 to 1925 large handbell contests were held at Belle Vue, Manchester. Following the first World War many teams died out and many sets of bells have remained in store cupboards for long periods since.

The Hand-bell Ringing Bands of Huddersfield and District

A hundred years ago every area had its own band of ringers – and these bands preceded brass bands by 300 years.They played a major part in the origins of the brass band – a fact that has startled brass band writers – and has given hand-bell bands their rightful place in musical history.

Perhaps the most famous of the hand-bell bands were those of Crosland Moor United. Hand-bell ringing began on the moor in July 1890 with a set of 50 bells. Within 10 years they were using a long set of 172 bells. The first conductor and founder was Thomas Cartwright from Holmfirth. The isolated Pennine villages right down to Worcestershire held the origins and beginnings of the hand-bell bands – the first musical involvement for working men. Holmfirth was one of these, and where Thomas Cartwright – who was later to become Mayor of Huddersfield – learned his craft. Thomas passed on centuries of traditional knowledge of the ringing of tunes to the young men of Crosland Moor from the beginning in 1890 until 1896.

The first Crosland Moor band was formed to provide a ‘respectable rational recreation’ for the area’s youth, and consisted of a group of boys around 15 years old. Their first rehearsals were in a former slaughterhouse, known locally as ‘Th’owd Killin’ hoil’. After their appearance at the 1891 Belle Vue competition they became known as ‘Wark’ ‘us lads’ (work-house lads), a name that stayed with them even though the membership of the band became older.

In 1899 conductorship passed to Albert Townend who was a remarkable man. Born in 1873, he was a violin teacher and member of Huddersfield Philharmonic Society – and a manager baker with Bellarby’s in the town. His musical knowledge and expertise was to be the key to the monumental success and fame of Crosland Moor.

This began with the band’s first win of the British Open at Belle Vue, Manchester, in 1901. For a band to be declared champions they had to complete a hat-trick of wins in the competition. The three years up to 1900 were won by Almondbury hand-bell ringers who then went on a year’s tour of the USA. Crosland Moor then went on to become double champions – 1901-02-03 with one year out (as customary) and champions again 1905-06-07. No other band of any kind in the history of British open contest (brass included) had achieved this before or since – a unique record which stands to this day.

March 1911 saw Albert Townend and his band on stage at the London Hippodrome, but this was no one off concert. It was for two appearances daily, afternoon and evening, for a week! The band’s repertoire included William Tell and Martha overtures. In the audience at the Hippodrome were concert agents who asked Albert if his ringers would undertake a tour of Australasia.

The band set sail on the Orient Pacific RMS Ormuz on August 18, 1911, arriving at Dunedin, New Zealand on October 3 and returning on June 23, 1912 having travelled 34,510 miles. One of the band’s members Harry North loved Australia so much he decided to stay there and did not return to Huddersfield. It was noted that many ex-Huddersfield residents came to support their concerts. The local press in the towns they visited enthused about the musicianship of these people from Huddersfield. One Christchurch correspondent wrote: “The Huddersfield Bellringers have reduced bellringing to fine art, and, having conquered everything there was to conquer at home, have Alexander-like, sought new worlds. Their reception at the Antipodes has been worthy of their merits, for they certainly provide a revelation in their own particular line of musical casuistry… The Huddersfield [hand-bell ringing band] displays a marvellous exactitude, and secures a wonderful tone.”