An account by Malcolm White - 2018
The desire to write an outline of the life of handbell ringing in Burnham came quite unexpectedly early in 2018, particularly as the writer has never rung any kind of bells! It was on a rather dull and cold January afternoon at St. Peter’s Church in Burnham, and a large number of handbells had been laid out.
During the afternoon there were several allusions to stories that were attached to various bells; and one such story seemed to stand out from the rest. It was told by one of the guests, Peter Wiltshire, who had brought a round circle of handbells all bound together. Peter said that the circle of bells had belonged to his mother’s grandfather James Sawyer in the late 19th century when he and his family lived near the railway line on a road now part of the Maypole estate in Burnham.
This story, alongside the glimpses of others about local Burnham bell ringers and the bells they had rung provided the inspiration that has led to this offering that the writer hopes will not just be informative for any interested in a slice of Burnham life, but may help us to see that we are all players who are responding to the shifts and changes taking place all around us – in whatever century and whatever field that may be.
This has been, and could only be, a collaborative work, drawn from many threads and in no way seeks to be definitive. Whilst therefore the deepfelt thanks of the writer to many who have helped in compiling this story is rightly given space at the end of this account, the responsibility for any technical errors and other omissions must entirely lie with the writer, for whom it has been a voyage of great interest and discovery.
The ring of bells belonging to James Sawyer, resident of Burnham
Jim Tilbury was born in Burnham in 1856, and later baptised at St Peter’s in 1874. Son of Mary and John Tilbury, himself one of a number of shoemakers in the village. Jim became an ironmoulder, most likely at Baldwin’s foundry to the east of the High Street and lived nearby in North End – literally at the north end of the High Street but which was also known as Bustle Row. Jim was involved in many organisations in Burnham but was certainly involved in handbell ringing in Burnham by the mid 1880’s – the earliest evidence of such an activity in Burnham that has been discovered so far.
William Cox was born in Burnham in 1848 living there all his life until his death at the age of 74; his obituary appeared in the Slough, Eton and Windsor Observer dated October 14th1922. In the obituary, he is described as being a bellringer for nearly half a century thus putting him at the very beginning of the revival of tower bell ringing in Burnham towards the end of the 1870’s. He is also described as belonging to the “old Burnham Hand Bell Ringers” which suggests that there were perhaps several different groups of hand bell ringers by that time. He worked at Baldwin’s the ironfounders in the village, so he most likely would have known Jim Tilbury.
James Sawyer was born around 1862 in Burnham and in his early years he lived in Church Street, just doors away from the Tilbury family. He and his father worked on the railways as labourers and platelayers and later lived in Fairview Road at which time he was working on the widening of the Brunel-designed railway bridge across the Thames at Maidenhead – his family recall that James would tell them with pride of his involvement there. There is also a family tradition that says, in the early years of the 20th century, James and perhaps a brother would take their family bells to Cliveden to play at celebrations given by the Astor family for their workers, and it is this circle of bells that is still in the possession of the family which had been brought to St. Peter’s that afternoon in January 2018.
Ernest Carter (born 1862) had been a bellringer since 1882 until his death in 1924 according to an obituary of him that was published in the “Ringing World”, the weekly magazine of the Central Council of Church Bell Ringers. A brief note at the same time in the local paper – the Slough, Eton and Windsor Observer - described Ernest as “well known in and around Burnham, and was associated, years ago, with the handbell ringers who used to practice their craft in Burnham.” (Oct. 18th 1924). Near to Ernest’s childhood lodgings in the Lent Green area of Burnham lived not only Fred Carter, whose family was to donate a set of handbells to St. Peter’s in the 1980’s that still bears his name, but also the Allder family who were strongly involved in bell ringing. The Ringing World obituary describes Ernest as being a good friend to George Allder in particular – and it is George who is mentioned on several of the St. Peter’s tower peal boards currently displayed in the tower and who was steeple keeper at the tower for nearly 50 years until his death in 1929.
George Allder, therefore, from the evidence above, had started tower bells in the 1870’s when there were but five bells and before the arrival of change ringing that took place in the early 1880’s. Further information about his family is shown in Dorothy Blackman’s book on Burnham War Heroes. She states that George Allder joined the Oxford Diocesan Guild of Ringers at its very beginnings in 1881, and that at least some of his children followed him up the tower; it was George’s his youngest son, John, who inscribed his name on timbers in the belfry when on home leave from the Army in 1915. John died in September 1918.
Fred Carter was born in 1861 in the Lent hamlet of Burnham and was soon to join Ernest Carter in the tower, only giving up as a ringer at the time of his golden wedding anniversary in 1932 after 47 years of tower bell ringing. Fred was a brickworker for many years in the pits to the west of Lent Rise Road, and was to live at Dewstraw Cottages, now known as 135-137, Lent Rise Road. His name was linked to that of Joseph Parker, who had been a leading tower reformer, composer, and teacher from the late 1880’s living in Farnham Royal. Fred was clearly a handbell ringer, for a set of bells belonging to Fred was donated to the tower at Burnham around the occasion of Fred’s retirement in 1932. A further donation of handbells were made to the Burnham Handbell Society by Fred’s family in 1981. Fred’s contribution therefore to the continuation of handbell ringing in Burnham is central. Fred died in 1937 and is buried in St. Peter’s churchyard.
Albert Pusey came from Chalvey and served as Mayor of Slough in 1955/56. His family had purchased a set of handbells in the early years of the 20th century, and the story is that they were used by the family from that time until the 1970’s – they are therefore the only group of people that we can be fairly sure maintained a tradition of ringing handbells throughout the nearly ‘silent years’ of handbell ringing that lie between 1914 and 1965. The bells were only handed on by that family to the Burnham Handbell Society in 1982 following Albert’s death. The Pusey bells are still rung by the Society today.
Cliff and Angela Blundell came to live in Burnham in 1960. Although committed to a growing family over the years and shouldering many different roles in encouraging co-operation and vision across every aspect of the local community (as well as making mountains of cakes and gallons of marmalade for numerous causes!) their passion for bellringing would remain with them throughout the years. To them we largely owe the refounding of the Burnham Handbell Society in 1965 and they continue to be enthusiastic members to the present day. They were among the founder members of the national Handbell Ringers of Great Britain (HRGB) that was established in 1967.
James Sawyer c.1927 with his granddaughter Edith (photo courtesy of Peter Wiltshire)
The origins of bellringing may go back to the Bronze Age, some 3000 years ago, when it became possible to make an instrument that recreated a likeness of the musical sounds experienced by people in their daily lives. The use of animal bells also goes back many centuries; one may think that this was mostly for the purposes of recognition, but the overall purpose of bells through the ages has been as an amulet – protecting places and assets (eg. a farmer’s livestock) from the vagaries of the evil spirits that could lurk in certain places and cause sickness or confusion. Bells, for this reason therefore, have had a long historical link with prayer and the spiritual life, not only in the Christian West but especially amongst more eastern traditions as those in Tibet and India.
A fascinating example of the use of handbells to protect the dead can be found in the famous 11th century Bayeux Tapestry; here a scene shows the body of King Edward the Confessor being carried at his funeral accompanied by two ringers warding off any unwelcome spirits. Placing that tradition of protecting people from evil spirits alongside the use of bells in church towers, we must assume that the ringing of bells before church services was initially for a similar purpose – to make every effort to keep unwelcome influences away from those congregating there – though it is now more often spoken of as inviting humanity to join in praise of the Almighty.
The earliest surviving set of such tower bells in the world were hung in the tower of St. Lawrence Church in Ipswich in the late 15th century, and they can still be heard there today. The use of bells for giving warning must also have a long history and is of course still with us in the use of bells or chimes on many a front door, though this presumably started with the idea that the visitor, by ringing the bell at the door, would be protected from the spirits that were considered to dwell under the threshold of the house (hence the tradition of carrying the bride over the threshold?). Beyond the domestic scene, we may note that the earliest evidence of a ship’s bell comes from the mid-15th century, and of course, the use of a bell by the town crier and the local school were surely symbols of important moments in the life of the assembled community.
At some point towards the end of the 17th century perhaps, a breakthrough in the manufacture of handbells made it possible to produce a limited set of handbells of an improved design that were both affordable and also roughly tuned to a musical scale; the first evidence of this is generally cited as that from Wiltshire around the start of the 18th century when Robert and William Cor started to produce a number of such tuned bells at their foundry in Aldbourne, a village some miles north of Marlborough. This may sound to be a rather remote place for such an innovation but the village was already a centre of production for fustian cloth that was taken to London for sale using the turnpike roads (and later the canal that opened in 1798) along the Kennet valley to Reading and thence London.
Profits however from the Aldbourne foundry business were never very stable. and although it survived until the early 19th century, the business went bankrupt in 1825. It was then bought by Thomas Mears who ran the Whitechapel Foundry in London that had already been manufacturing tower bells for several centuries (although Mears then closed the Aldbourne foundry transferring some of the workers from there to Whitechapel). In this way, the pioneering story of Aldbourne and the Cor brothers became part of what was quickly becoming a significant industry manufacturing handbells centred around not only London but also in the Midlands (Taylor’s of Loughborough especially) and the North (Shaw’s of Bradford for example).
Despite these more southerly origins of the modern handbell, by the middle of the 19th century there is no doubt that actual handbell ringing had developed much more extensively in the North of England. This in part could be put down to the extraordinary transformations that took place across the north following the impact of rapid industrialisation; the countryside was emptied of community life by enriched landowners and many families were forced into the new urban areas where those with vision created associations of academic learning and artistic enterprise in some of the most unlikely of places.
Tradition, however, suggests that it was at the Great Exhibition of 1851, held in Hyde Park inside the extraordinary iron and glass Crystal Palace, that the first idea of having musical band competitions arose; this then developed into the holding of a brass band competition at the Belle Vue Gardens in Manchester in 1853, which was so successful that on Sept. 24th 1855, the competition was widened to include handbell ringers for the first time. So it is recorded in an unnamed newspaper cutting of the time discovered in the Manchester Cultural Studies Centre by Peter Fawcett and quoted by him in his remarkable book “Ringing for Gold” about handbell ringing in Britain,
“Yesterday afternoon, 12 sets of handbell ringers, comprising 113 ringers, contended for 6 different prizes, at the Belle Vue Gardens; each has selected their own music, in accordance with the conditions made known some weeks ago… the judges would be guided in their decisions by the most exact and scientific performances of difficult, complicated and classical music, rather than by the effective performance of simpler and popular airs requiring less musical skill and practice”.
(Ringing for Gold p.47)
The bands were mostly of groups of 8 – 12 men, ringing upwards of 32 bells between them, though one group brought 53 bells to the competition. On the question of how the music was arranged, it appears that a number or letter notation was in common use at this stage, not dissimilar to the kind of notation familiar to tower bell ringers; the use of the more conventional musical staff notation found in orchestral music became more widespread as time went on. Again, to quote from Peter Fawcett,
“if any of the bands were connected with a church tower-bell band, then they probably used a number or letter system of notation. The ringers who previously had broken with the church and had then formed bands using military volunteer bandsmen and church band musicians and choir members, would possibly have used staff notation.”
(Ringing for Gold p.59)
The rising popularity of handbells was no isolated phenomenon: the demand for most musical instruments increased significantly at this time, both for use in the home and in public performance; for instance, London became a major manufacturing centre for the piano in the 1840’s lasting right through the century. This was likely due to a mounting interest in amateur musicianship as a mark of social and cultural ambition and was sustained by the mass production of instruments, as well as the publication of easier musical pieces playable in people’s homes.
Handbells shown being used at the funeral of King Edward the Confessor in the Bayeux tapestry: 11th century
A strange coincidence: Burnham has its own links to Aldbourne!
The comment above by Peter Fawcett about the difference in bellringing groups that were attached to churches and those that had “broken with the church” suggests that these were difficult times for many churches with their relationship to music and musicians, and this will be explored in this chapter as it reflects significantly on what may still be seen and experienced in churches to this day. It has been described as nothing less than the separation of what would become secular music from what might be called sacred music.
The reasons for this division are diverse but seem to centre around the growing sense that popular culture had become more interested in human self-expression (the Romantic movement in general) and thus increasingly divorced from the “sacred” divine foundations that were perceived to have undergirded the golden years of the late Middle Ages and the early Renaissance period (this was a slight problem for those who belonged to the Church of England, for this took them back to a time when the entire Western Church was effectively Roman Catholic). Evidence for this growing divide may be seen in the formation of music organisations like the Philharmonic Society in London in 1813 that were able to both play and commission new music quite independently of the Church, and by the realisation that even Masses written by such famous composers as Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert were more designed as works for the Opera House than as liturgical moments for the Church.
The idea of collecting music more appropriate for use in Churches is often thought to have started in the early 19th century with Bishop Heber’s selection of about 60 hymns (mostly composed by Heber himself) that were composed to be used in church services after the Nicene Creed in his Hodnet parish but were only published in 1827 after his early death as Bishop of Calcutta. Remember that at that time, the Psalms were the only texts that were permitted to be sung during services, so the focus on “ancient hymns” looking back beyond the more rationalistic Enlightenment period was understandable; these more recent hymns (of which Charles Welsey’s Methodist hymns were felt to be part) could receive no authorisation. So, as an interesting historical overview given in a 1909 edition of “Hymns Ancient and Modern” would put it, it would be “..in the recovery of treasures from the past, and in the call for a purification of the music” that the way ahead would be seen for music designed for use in the Established Church. In this role, the Society for Promoting Church Music was active from 1846 to 1851 with its emphasis on seeking out ‘solid’ hymnody, often drawn from music with a background of German origin, although old English tune books were also respectable sources as well.
The 1909 overview continues,
“The fruit of such labours soon became evident in a series of new hymn books growing in number and in worth. The exclusion of the old florid and valueless tunes went hand in hand with the banishment of the barrel organ or a clarionet, in favour of the pipe organ; with the expulsion of the old singers and the charity children from the west galleries and the installation of surpliced choirs in the newly recovered chancels” (p. 103).
The galleries indeed had a poor reputation, for that same 1909 overview opined that “the singers in the gallery tended to monopolise the music however incapable they were of either time or tune; and they sometimes seemed only to be contending as to who would sing the loudest” (p.93). The mention of charity children may be more surprising to our ears however, but they often formed a kind of choir in Parish churches where the person set aside to lead the music (the Clerk) was either incompetent or absent. Hymns still familiar to us today started life as charity hymns, such as “Praise the Lord, ye heavens adore Him” and “Lead us heavenly Father, lead us” (this one by the London Orphan Asylum). One can understand how such choirs would be dispensed with in the general attempt to improve the quality of sacred music in churches at that time. Mention should also be made here of the fate of songs being written in Methodist and Independent chapels, for although they had led the way in developing hymns that were modern they were considered by many musical reformers to be too emotional, a flight of fancy; it would be the ‘solid’ tunes that would became the flavour of the 19th century parish hymn books.
The impact of all this on a parish like Burnham could be considerable; we shall see that the West Gallery there was indeed dismantled in 1862, and no doubt the singers and musicians that had performed (however badly) were dispensed with. We shall also see that in the 1870’s the tower bell ringers were also put under the same reforming spotlight, and this may well have resulted in a number of those once connected with the Parish Church feeling that they were no longer welcome. Perhaps it was at this moment that a variety of groups of musicians emerged, including handbell ringers, to form those new patterns that were hinted at in Peter Fawcett’s book and might well be suggested by the evidence that will shortly be uncovered from a look at the activities of ringers in Burnham in the last decades of the 19th century.
We should not think of this whole episode, however, as purely a musical crusade among parish church reformers; there is a real tussle going on over the way life was developing during this part of the Victorian era. For instance, there is an interesting article on local attitudes expressed by Burnham residents of this period that appeared in “Round & About”, the bimonthly community magazine first published over 30 years ago. The article is written by Oliver Spencer, one of the original Burnham Historians, and he recalled some of those attitudes which had been expressed in the pages of St. Peter’s Parish Magazine around 1880 – attitudes that had led George Hanbury, a prosperous local landowner, to build the Mission Hall in Burnham’s High Street just a minute’s walk from St. Peter’s.
Oliver writes, “From time to time the working classes had been referred to in the pages of the Parish Magazine as ‘living in the barracks’, ‘the careless poor’, ‘intemperates’, etc. The Mission Hall was to be the place where they could come for spiritual improvement and recreational needs, and not feel embarrassed by the attitudes of their betters from the Parish Church.” (Vol. 82 June 1993 p. 14).
As an interesting comment on these perceptions, Oliver goes on to describe the bewilderment felt by those at St. Peter’s as to the background of the Mission Hall’s first full time worker, a certain Henry Williams.
“To many (Williams) appeared as a socialist, or freelance evangelist. Opinion was divided as to his religious adherence, some thinking he was a Methodist or of some other sect. At first, he apparently had no connection with the Church but what we do know is that sometime in the 1890’s he undertook a course at the Training College for stipendiary Readers based at Stepney (S.P.C.K.) ….”
after which it appears that relationships improved.
For a period of some 30 years, therefore, from the early 1860’s to the early 1890’s, social and cultural differences caused significant divisions to emerge even in what we might consider as a stable environment in a place such as Burnham. The truth is, of course, that these divisions were neither merely local nor confined to the Church; increasingly, it was a national concern about the impact of industrialisation, scientific enquiry, and self-expression and their impacts on the direction of society in general. But it was interpreted by many in Church circles as a wholehearted loss of holiness and centrality on the almightiness of God in all things, a direction that would have to be vigorously resisted if the Church was to be faithful to its calling. It can therefore be considered as a comprehensive collision between two ideological identities.
The desire in “sacred” circles for a return to medievalism was thus perceived as a restoring of a lost freedom for the English from the grip of the dark satanic mills of an increasingly voracious capitalism, and which would recreate true happiness amongst ordinary people and thus greatness for the country. Simon Schama puts the choice in the starkest of terms “….(it was) the beauty and coherence of the mediaeval town at the flowering of the English Perpendicular against the chaotic mess of bastard Greek, bastard Roman, and even bastard Egyptian town halls, cemeteries, workhouses and prisons.” (History of Britain Vol.3 p. 173).
The desire to recreate a mediaeval past was therefore in the hope of recapturing that which was felt to be slipping away, and the response took various shapes – one might think of the pre-Raphaelite painters, the Arts and Crafts movement, and in the revival of all things Gothic, both within churches and beyond (the Houses of Parliament, for example). Churches, therefore, sought to recreate those mediaeval patterns within the life and shape of every community. The impact on the layout of parish churches was dramatic; choirs were evicted from the west gallery and moved into the chancel to become a seated (and robed) body alongside the priest to recall patterns of monastic life; the bands of musicians that accompanied the old choirs were dismissed and an organ installed in their place if possible. Liturgical colours were introduced and the communion table, with candles and other suitable furniture became the focus of the liturgy. Alongside this transformation of the interior of churches, there grew a desire to form associations within the church that would draw people into the world which had been created by these changes. One can see this generally in the rise of groups, bands, and classes linked to the church including that of music-making. So, it is now time to look at the actual impact on the layout of the church at St. Peter’s in the 1880’s and its consequences for both the production of music and how all that might have affected its musicians, including its bellringers.
St. Peter’s Church, Burnham from the south west 2018
The outcome of the movements described above for a church building like St. Peter’s would surely be noticeable, and indeed they can be summarised in the sketch below;
It is not clear how the church interior appeared during the years before 1862, but according to the accounts by the Burnham Historians and corroborated by the NADFAS report, the restoration of that year, guided by the efforts of the Churchwarden, Samuel Christie-Miller and the incumbent the Revd. Thomas Carter, did away with the west gallery, installed the choir pews, provided a new baptismal font (near the south Porch door) and laid out the arrangement of new nave pews that are in use today.
The first of the stained-glass windows was installed in 1864 by virtue of a donation from Lady Anne Grenville (a major owner of land in Burnham). This can be seen in the north transept of the church; she was also the donor of the funds required to create the reredos in the Sanctuary beneath its stained-glass windows which were themselves installed over a period from 1877 to 1888 following donations from various wealthy Burnham residents. We can get a taste of the way such changes were understood in a description of the funeral of Lady Grenville at St. Peter’s where she is described as one who had contributed so largely “towards the restoration and beautifying” of the church (quoted in the NADFAS report p. 2/24) and this is surely a good summary of the overall purpose behind all of these activities.
It should be noted that in the field of music making, the choir did indeed become robed during the time of Robert Rumsey as Vicar at St. Peter’s (1878 to 1900) and during this time, there were also wholesale changes to the bell ringing arrangements. Not only was the tower belfry rebuilt in stone but an extra bell was added in 1892. This was followed by a further two bells to make a total of eight in time for Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee celebrations in 1897, although these last bells had to be hung above the other six and this, it was reported, made ringing all eight quite difficult. By 1899, a chancel screen had been erected that would separate the Nave from the choir and clergy established in the Chancel; a gift of another wealthy resident of Burnham, Miss Cornelia Katherine Tollemache who had arrived in Burnham in the early 1890’s. She not only provided for the screen but also provided for an enlarging of the clergy vestry (then situated adjacent to the present North Transept) and an upgrading the whole heating system to the church. Lastly, reflecting the thoroughgoing transformation of the way the life of St. Peter’s was to be understood, Church groups multiplied “like mushrooms” (Burnham Historians’ description) during this time – as well as musical groups, there is mention of a Women’s clothing club, a Penny Bank Children’s Club, and both a Girls’ and a Young Men’s Friendly Society. It is worth noting that most of these changes were made possible through the sponsorship of a small group of the wealthiest amongst local people and that this would have inevitable consequences – for, as the last decades of the 19th century progressed, the wealthy were perceived to be seeking to strengthening their own cultural position, despite the growing calls nationally for equality of opportunity as seen by the provision of universal education, the movement for workers’ rights, and a widening of the electorate which all took place around this time.
With this background in mind, we must introduce local bellringers like William Cox and George Allder, for most likely they were tower bell ringers in the 1870’s before the changes we have just thought about came into being. Although there are no actual records at St. Peter’s as to a group at this time, there is a traditional and widely accepted view that before the mid-19th century the reputation of tower bell ringers was that of an independent group who did very much as they pleased and spent any income they received in nearby alehouses. The website of the Oxford Diocesan Guild of Church Bell Ringers includes a description of the changes that followed when supporters from both the Evangelical movement and the Oxford movement cast their eye on things as they were at that time:
“….they 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”. (quoted from www.odg.org.uk/history)
And changes did come to local towers in the Burnham area: Slough was at the forefront of the creation of Ringing Associations that encouraged more stringent standards of behaviour and the adoption of change ringing rather than the older pattern that was sometimes called round ringing. Ringers from Slough had joined the West Middlesex Association in 1874, whilst tower bell ringers like Joseph Parker from Farnham Royal were instrumental in setting up the East Berks and South Bucks Society in 1879 to include ringers from Boyn Hill in nearby Maidenhead, and Farnham Royal. Joseph Parker was clearly an influence on the tower at St. Peter’s for his change ringing bell compositions were rung in its tower and his name appears on peal boards as a ringer too. On those very boards still hanging in the ringing chamber of the church we also find the names of George Allder, Fred and Ernest Carter, all of whom are also known as handbell ringers.
We should not be surprised at the link between handbells and tower bells, for the traditional story about ringing towers is that each steeple would keep a set of handbells in the tower that matched the pitch of the bells there (hence perhaps a set of six, eight or even twelve handbells). These could be used for practice purposes by the ringers to reduce the impact of the sound of the bells on the villagers in the vicinity of the tower. It would be quite easy to see how it might be that tower bell ringers developed an ability to take their bells elsewhere in the community either to gain extra income or add their sound to any regular celebration within that community (not unlike the activities carried out by the present Burnham Handbell Society over many years). We can understand, therefore, that changes taking place to the way tower bell ringers operated at St. Peter’s around the 1870’s might well affect any group of handbell ringers drawn from amongst their midst, especially if they felt the loss of what they perceived as their previous freedoms. The likelihood of several handbells groups appearing at this time is supported by the discovery of an interesting advertisement that appeared in the Burnham Parish magazine during 1886, where a Church Handbell group can now be distinguished from others who were clearly playing in the vicinity. The discovery was first made by Mr. Tony Packe - one of the original Burnham Historians - in notes dated 1963, of which sadly only a part copy now remains.
‘Advertisement “Bell Ringers: Practising on hand bells: be pleased to attend at houses and ring by invitation. Wish it to be particularly understood will not call anywhere uninvited as other ringers have done and been mistaken for Burnham Church Ringers. All communications to:- Jim Tilbury, Bustle Row, Burnham.”’
This Jim Tilbury came from an influential local family associated with the Independent Chapel in Chapel Street, a short stretch of road which ran from the north end of the High Street to where Almond Road now leaves Gore Road. His roots in a non-conformist tradition may explain why he was baptised at St. Peter’s some 20 years after his birth - perhaps when he was taken on by the Parish Church to be a (paid) member of its handbell group - of which by 1886 he was clearly acting as Secretary. Jim is also described as an ironmoulder so would surely have known William Cox, for he is described as an ironmoulder at Baldwin’s Foundry to the east of the High Street in Burnham. William Cox, it should be remembered, was also recorded as being a member of the old “Burnham Handbell Ringers” and this therefore links him to others like Ernest Carter, George Allder, and Fred Carter.
It is thus tempting to suppose that somewhere around the late 1870’s a review of tower bell ringing and its organisation took place at St. Peter’s and that this, following on from the dispersion of musicians and singers in the years preceding led to there being various groups of musicians in the locality. Some would be of musicians (including tower bell and handbell groups) retained and overseen by the largely unelected Church Vestry committee and some would be groups that operated beyond that kind of oversight. Of the former group, we may put William Cox and those names above (of the “Old Burnham Handbell Ringers” run by Jim Tilbury perhaps) and in the latter group we may put James Sawyer (who was certainly ringing in the 1890’s but whose name is never connected to St. Peter’s). Just as today’s St. Peter’s Society of Church Bell Ringers (formed in 1932 after the paying of ringers had come to an end) is a direct descendent of those in the Diocesan Guild of the early 1880’s, so today’s Burnham Handbell Society would therefore be a direct descendent of a group that would include those like Ernest and Fred Carter, William Cox, and Jim Tilbury. Indeed, that very name was taken from a brass plaque attached to an old handbell carrying case which had been inscribed “Burnham Handbell Society”. The case was discovered when the old handbells were removed from the bell tower at St. Peter’s in the early 1960’s.
It becomes of interest therefore to see if it is possible to date any of the bells currently in the possession of the Burnham Handbell Society to the days of William Cox and Jim Tilbury and detect whether the bells themselves show any physical evidence of the narrative that has been outlined so far. There might be two ways in which dates can be arrived at; firstly, by reference to any invoice held at the foundry where they were made, and secondly the markings upon the bells themselves that traditionally record the name of the master bell founder at the time of casting. Time has not allowed any investigation of past invoices held by the Foundry, but with care it might be possible to distinguish foundry markings on the bells, although this would require considerable research before too much certainty could be reached. What can be said at this stage is that, according to the Whitechapel Foundry, some of what are now known as the “Main” set of handbells were quite possibly cast around the late 1870’s, based on their being tuned to a standard pitch that was phased out in the mid 1880’s. A more detailed description of this possibility is given later, and a complete listing of all handbells currently in the care of the Society is shown in Appendix 3.
Tower peal board, St. Peter’s 1897: showing some of the major tower bell ringers who were also pioneers of handbell ringing in the village.
We should now try to gain an idea of what it was like to be living in Burnham at the end of the 1870’s when so many changes were taking place with consequences not only in the parish church building as we have seen, but beyond the building and across the wider community – and how that may have affected the formation of any handbell groups that might begin to operate independently of the church and its cultural worldview.
We have noted the increasing desire to extend equality of opportunity to a wider segment of the community, and a notable example of this was the passing of the 1870 Education Act which provided for the education of all children at primary level. This opened up the written word to almost everyone, creating whole new horizons for learning and increased participation in community life by those formerly handicapped by a lack of literacy skills. Life in general was changing significantly for the many agricultural workers in and around Burnham; for during the 1870’s Britain endured a collapse in its agriculture sector as cheap imports of grain flooded in from the prairies of the United States, as well as Australia and New Zealand. This caused local commodity prices to fall with the inevitable lowering of wages and increased unemployment. With many families out of work, and a government wedded politically to a policy of Free Trade (which served industrial manufacturers well), there was widespread emigration from the land – some to local urban areas to look for work in factories and others to find a new life by moving to those very places responsible for their plight - America, Australia, Canada, or New Zealand. This in turn required new uses for the land no longer used in agriculture with golf courses being especially popular. This included the Burnham Beeches Golf Club which opened in 1891.
These significant and overarching changes inevitably put strain on the existing systems of government and led to the 1867 and 1884 Parliamentary Reform Act which gave the vote to a much wider range of people, even in more rural areas like Burnham (this would lead to the creation of directly elected parish councils instead of unelected Parish Vestries; in this way Burnham Parish Council came into being in 1894). This in turn led to a canvassing for the hearts and minds amongst the new electorate, spawning a multitude of new organisations by those wishing to influence what this new more participative society would look like. Sporting clubs were very popular - the Burnham Football Club was founded in 1878, followed by darts, bowls and boxing to name three – although it appears that at least part of the purpose behind some of these activities might well have been the opportunity it provided for betting which had for many decades been a favourite pastime of the wealthy. Many of the clubs operated out of, or were linked to, local public houses, of which there were of course a great number (a dozen perhaps) in the High Street alone in late Victorian Burnham.
In the light of this significant transformation in the way local communities were developing, we should not be surprised for instance to see the Church wishing to create alternative spaces for the local people that did not orbit around places where alcohol could be the ruin of family life – and indeed the widespread activities of the Temperance Society at this time underline this. Indeed, a local branch of the Church of England Temperance Society opened in Burnham in 1883 where, in March 1884, there was a Robert Sawyer who gave a talk to members in that recently opened Mission Hall (mentioned previously and built by George Hanbury particularly for the working people of the village) advocating the repeal of grocers’ licences and the closing of public houses on Sundays. Action was not restricted to mere talk, however, for as an alternative to activities based around the local alehouse, a Lads’ Drum and Fife band was started by the Temperance Society in 1888. According to the Burnham Historians, the Vicar at the time, Robert Rumsey was its President and it proved to be popular for several years. Mention of such a musical band is significant, for Drum and Fife bands were popular across the country in the mid-19th century and in other places were often associated with brass bands and handbells. Thus, Peter Fawcett in his book “Ringing for Gold” already mentioned tells the story of the national competitions for these three musical groupings held every year at Belle Vue in Manchester from 1855 to 1928. Such proliferation of musical groups and associations fits very well into the pattern already suggested as taking place in Burnham around the 1880’s.
The location of where people lived is also of some interest here, for most of the cottages in the village were owned by wealthy landowners living to the north and east of Burnham; such cottages were therefore rented out to those working for their owners. For those working on the railways for instance, like James Sawyer, we should not be surprised to find his family in the 1890’s living ‘beyond the village’ (still a factor for some people), down by the railway in Fairview Road. And although we do not know where William Cox lived, it is an interesting coincidence that a number of the handbell ringers of that time – both Ernest and Fred Carter, and George Allder, for instance – also lived for some part of their lives in the Lent area of Burnham which no doubt lay outside the lands owned by the wealthy.
Indeed, the Lent area of Burnham appears to have been very close to a number of working brickfields, often owned by entrepreneurial farmers, extracting the brickearths that were laid down in past glacial ages. The main area lay from Dewstraw Farm in the north across to what is now Stomp Road to the east and down to what became Eastfield Road and Milner Road to the south. The area became largely worked out in the mid 1920’s but it gave men like Fred Carter continuous employment for 49 years before he retired. In the photograph book “Around Burnham” complied by Dorothy Blackman and Daphne Chevous, there are some wonderful photos of the Carter family. There are several of the family group outside Dewstraw Cottages, now 135 and 137 Lent Rise Road, with captions mentioning his long years of working in the brickfields, and that he was a bell ringer at St. Peter’s (this information had first come from family notes written by a daughter of Fred Carter’s who became Edith Goodrham on her marriage; her account is held by the Burnham Historians). For many diverse reasons therefore, these late Victorian years represent a new stage of community life in which a number of handbell groups around Burnham could be sustained for a generation. But, like any phase of life, the events of the early 20th century would be like a chill wind that would make such a situation impossible to sustain.
Fred Carter’s home in Lent Rise Road: 2018
There is a general feeling that the popularity of handbell ringing suffered a severe decline after the early years of the 20th century. The reasons for such a decline are perhaps many, but it is certain that after the First World War, the social patterns of communal life that had supported bellringing teams in the towns and villages of Britain up until its outbreak never returned – indeed, many of the musicians themselves never returned. There were changes in employment opportunities, too, which had taken place as a result of the enormous social and industrial upheavals caused by the War which meant that pre-War associations of men working together had largely dissolved by the 1920’s. Then there was the advent of radio that changed the whole experience of access to music, and although the Burnham Electric Cinema never showed ‘talking’ movies, its opening in 1915 ushered in a new level of access to entertainments that was increasingly accessible to all communities. By 1922, for instance, there started two regular bus services for those living in Burnham – one to Slough and one to Maidenhead – so the increasing accessibility of people to performances of semi-professional music and the arts generally put great pressures on local music making. One should also remember that good quality gramophone records were increasingly available by the late 1920’s and these recordings reduced the interest in the making of music at home. On a national scale, we should not be surprised to discover that in 1926, the Belle Vue National Handbell competitions closed and were never reintroduced.
And in Burnham, too, it will be noticed that a number of the long serving band of ringers in Burnham died around this time, and it would not be surprising therefore if we were to find that there was a decline in the ringing of handbells in the community. But this did not herald the end of handbell ringing in the locality, for there are several pointers to a tradition of ringing that continued.
One such pointer lies in the story of James Sawyer; his family retained the story of James and perhaps other family members entertaining the workers at Cliveden and elsewhere in the early 20th century, and this may well have continued beyond World War One even if there was a reduction to playing at less grandiose locations. We will also hear of the Pusey family in the Chalvey area of Slough who had only purchased a set of handbells in the early 20th century, but whose bells were still being used by Albert Pusey until the 1970’s. But the really interesting piece of evidence on the continuing use of handbells around Burnham, comes from a reminiscence by a Mr.Knight, of Alice Lane in Burnham. Published in “Round & About”, he recalls memories of the annual Hospital Parade in Burnham that took place at the beginning of September each year (early descriptions of these parades show them as being called Hospital Sundays). He wrote,
“Everybody joined in; people came from miles around – fire brigades from High Wycombe, Beaconsfield, and Marlow, joined the parade. The masonic lodges, Scouts, Boys’ Brigade, bell ringers and bands – local shops and organisations entered floats. It would stretch nigh on 2 miles, up the High Street and round the Village. The parade ended at Hall’s Meadow with all the fun of the fair.” (Round & About: Aug/Sept. 1981 Vol.12)
Mr. Knight mentions that these parades stopped with the start of the NHS in 1948, though it is possible that the parades have been continued in various forms until the very recent past. After 1948 and for a duration of perhaps three years, the parades were called Bell Parades where money was raised to pay off any outstanding amounts following the recasting of all the tower bells at St. Peter’s in 1949. In 1953, it was renamed the Coronation Parade and the tradition seems to have continued in the form of the Burnham Carnival Parade that was held in July of each year until very recently. In all likelihood, Mr. Knight’s memories must have stretched back to the years before WWII, and indeed, as the evidence of photographs in both “Yesterday’s Town: Burnham” and “Around Burnham” suggest, there had been Parades from 1903 onwards. It may well be that traditions like this in the locality helped the ringing of handbells to continue right up to, say, the outbreak of World War II.
Searching the local papers for further evidence of such hospital parades in Burnham, there are signs that they had come to the attention of the Slough Observer by 1908. For in June 1908, there was a report of the decision by St. Peter’s Church in Burnham to “hold a church parade this year in aid of the Windsor Royal Infirmary” bringing them into line with other local communities in Slough and Windsor who had clearly been holding such parades since the 1880’s. The idea behind all of these parades was that the funds raised would help to offset the costs of those persons from each parish who had needed to seek medical treatment at the Infirmary but who had been unable to pay. The parades were lively occasions with many different groups participating but, even by 1912, it had become noticeable that Fire Brigade tenders from beyond Burnham, who had previously been such a welcome presence at the parades, were showing signs of being reluctant to come. The reason appeared to be that all the money raised went to the local hospital and no part shared with any fund that supported firemen and their families who might fall on hard times. So, St. Peter’s Church Council made a further decision, reported in the Slough Chronicle dated July 26th 1912, that “the major proportion to be directed to King Edward VII Hospital and some portion to be given to the Burnham Nursing Fund and for Convalescent Homes, and a small subscription be sent to the National Fire Brigades Union Widows and Orphans Fund to which our Fire Brigades are affiliated; and in the event of any of our men being disabled through accident or otherwise whilst on duty an allowance would be made.”
That year the sum of £55 was raised. The amendment clearly worked for even in 1928, when a total of £67 was raised, the local newspaper reported that in attendance at the Hospital Parade that year were fire engines from “Burnham, Marlow, Datchet, Gerrards Cross, Beaconsfield, Uxbridge, Slough, Windsor Castle, and Langley”, with music provided by the Flackwell Heath Silver band, the Maidenhead British Legion band, and 100 Scouts with a Bugle and Fife band. Although handbells are not mentioned in any but Mr. Knight’s personal reminiscence, there were clearly large enough parades each year in Burnham during this period for a variety of musical accompaniment to be accommodated.
Perhaps the donation of the original Carter bells in the 1930’s – either when Fred retired from tower bell ringing in 1932 or even when he died in 1937 – signalled that the end was coming in Burnham, but we have seen that family groups like the Pusey’s in Slough would probably continue ringing right through to the 1970’s. An interesting reminiscence shared by a Burnham resident, Mr. John Clements, suggests there were other local groups who continued ringing during these post-World War I decades. He recalls that when he was a teenager in the early to mid-1950’s, he was part of a youth group where four of them rang “changes” on 8 handbells loaned from the tower at St. James, the Parish Church in Fulmer. They would go out before Christmas and ring their changes and sing Christmas Carols at the homes of film studio executives who lived nearby. John left the group in 1957 but his links with bells continued; he went on to marry a young tower bell ringer at St. Peter’s, Helena Hebbes by name. What might be considered strange, however, is that although St. Peter’s in Burnham had a set of handbells in the tower that would have been there for many years, they were not apparently used much in practising tower bell ringing: at least, Freda Belson, who learnt to ring tower bells under George Gilbert during World War II has no memory of such a use. There are, however, very faint echoes of a continuing use of handbells in Burnham during these years; a member of the Goodrham family still living in Burnham mentioned in passing during a telephone conversation that she remembered Edith Goodrham playing handbells, and she only died in the late 1970’s.
Of course, there are stories still to be told that would shed light on how the practice of handbell ringing ebbed and flowed during this period, but we shall probably never know the complete truth, not least because almost all those with first-hand knowledge have now passed away. But we can be sure that it was with at least some sense of what had taken place in past years that, after their arrival in Burnham in 1960, Cliff and Angela Blundell were keen to rekindle the ringing of handbells in the community and indeed would go on to recreate the Burnham Handbell Society some five years later.
The recent story of handbells in Burnham surely starts in September 1960 when a small group of ringers met together to practise Bob Minor on handbells in the tower at St. Peter’s Church Burnham. The ringers, including the Blundells, used a set of handbells that had been stored in the tower at St. Peter’s for many years – initially perhaps a set of 13 bells that had been used by tower bell ringers for decades to practise their change ringing, but now supplemented by the further donation of eight bells from Fred Carter in the 1930’s. Some months after September 1960 the Ringing Master of the time, Gordon Limmer, suggested that this whole set of 21 bells should be cared for by Cliff and Angela Blundell, and thus begun a separate identity for handbells that would lead directly to the rebirth of the Burnham Handbell Society. By 1964, these 21 handbells had been overhauled by the Whitechapel Bell Foundry supported by a grant from the Burnham Tower Bell funds, and thus in 1965, armed with a diatonic set of 17 bells starting at 22C, together with 19F♯, 15C♯, 12F♯ and 8C♯, the Burnham Handbell Society was reformed.
There is an interesting record of some of the detailed thinking behind the re-creation of the Society contained in a document which, although written some 25 years later and which was itself superseded within a few years, gives a good insight into the vision behind the refounding of the Handbell Society (though it appears to overlook the original 1930’s donation of Carter bells).
“Using a set of 22 (sic) musical handbells, originally purchased from the Whitechapel Foundry in, probably, the 1870’s, the Burnham Handbell Society was reformed in May 1965 after being in abeyance for a number of years. The original purpose of the re-formed society was to interest young children in bell ringing until such time as they were old enough to learn to ring tower bells, particularly at St. Peter’s Church, Burnham. Since May 1965, the Society has been regularly involved in training local people, both children and adults, to ring tunes on handbells and introducing many of them to tower bell ringing. The Society has also run workshops for young people in both schools and youth organisations, older people at day centres, residential homes or clubs, people with physical or mental handicaps as well as people recovering from mental illness…. The Society has given concerts in a variety of venues and has raised funds for local, national, and international charities by carolling with the handbells around a wide neighbourhood every Christmas since 1965. Since 1965, the Society has increased the number of bells from the original 22 to 105 currently held by them. This number comprises 3 sets owned by the Society, of 61, 14, and 14 bells respectively; and one set of bells held on behalf of the Kingsway United Reformed Church in Slough. In the event of the Society being disbanded, all property belonging to the Society, as listed in the attached inventory will pass into the safe keeping of either the Parochial Church Council of Burnham, Bucks, or the Burnham Community Association until such time as a new group, with purposes similar to those of the present Society, is formed.”
Mention has already been made of the suggestion that the oldest bells could have been cast in the 1870’s and the evidence for this claim seems to rest on an undated note sent from the Whitechapel Foundry as a result, no doubt, of a question being asked about the age of some of the bells. That note is shown here (right).
The text clearly shows the number of bells taken to the foundry in 1965 as being 21, rather than the 22 stated in the text above. In addition, the intention that young hand bell ringers should be encouraged to move on to tower bells echoes a similar sentiment from an earlier age if the evidence given in an article about the early life of Gordon Limmer is anything to go by: for it was stated that, in April 1925,
“he had to leave the church choir because his voice was breaking. In common with many other choirboys Gordon moved up into the tower and started ringing.” (Round & About No. 36, Sept. 1985).
Perhaps it was for this underlying hope that young people would likewise make the transition from handbell ringing to tower bell ringing that the preference in the Burnham Handbell Society has always been for ringing from music written out in number notation – for this could be immediately transferable should a ringer move on to tower bells. This ease of transition would not be available for someone who had rung from music written out in the conventional staff notation as is commonly used in choirs and other musical groups.
The inaugural gathering of what would become the thus re-formed Burnham Handbell Society was in May 1965, and by January 1966 a small group of handbell ringers including Sandra and June (about whom nothing more is now known) with Angela and Cliff Blundell started to practise with these 21 bells. The band began with ringing some set changes and also did some plain hunting as these are both ringing patterns familiar to tower bell ringers. In July of that year, some members of the church choir at St. Nicolas Taplow who were at that time ringing with Cliff and Angela discovered 10 bells from the tower at Taplow which no-one had noticed, or used, for many years. The Rector at that time, the Revd. Christopher Hare, agreed in 1967 that the bells should be given to the Society and were recast to increase the range of the existing Burnham set to a total of 29 bells.
An early friend of the Society who gave considerable help to the newly reformed handbell group was a friend of the Blundells named Bill Birmingham. Bill had been a teacher at St. Peter’s Primary school in the late 1940’s where he was described as being “an enthusiastic bellringer” (Round & About No. 48. Sept. 1987) but had then moved on to teach at Ragstone Road Church of England Secondary School in Slough (now known as the Slough and Eton Church of England Business and Enterprise College). He also became a Churchwarden and Ringing Master of the bell tower at St. Mary’s Church, Slough. Bill would often loan out his own set of handbells to the Society when parts of the growing Burnham set were unavailable. Bill also gave copies of his bell music to the Society, all written out in a number notation that he had developed from his own experience of tower bell ringing. This format would fit well with the Society’s tendency to use number notation for all of its bell music.
From the beginning, there was a desire to increase the range, and thus numbers, of the Burnham handbells, and parents of young ringers were invited to offer loans for the purchase of new bells. By 1973 sufficient funds had been raised to be able to purchase 8 new treble bells that would allow ringers to have a full 3 chromatic octave set of bells (a total of 37) at their disposal. In the meantime, several other local sets of bells had been looked at.
Firstly, in March 1969, the Society had looked at the Hitcham bells (a diatonic set of 12 bells from 18A♭); these bells are currently (2018) at the Foundry awaiting instructions as to how to proceed.; and then, in Feb. 1973, the Society looked at a set belonging to Mr. Clare from Eton College, but as the set would require significant renovation work, it was decided to take the matter no further. Later, in June 1975, there was news of the existence of a set of bells that had been stored at the Slough Congregational Church for many years, whilst in December 1975, it was learnt that a Mr. Albert Pusey in Slough also had a set of 14 handbells. During this period, contacts with local uniformed groups, youth groups, and community organisations had created a steady round of opportunities for both welcoming new ringers to the Society and for receiving invitations for them to play – in schools, community groups, Burnham Abbey, the House of Prayer and Nashdom Abbey, as well as at local Churches for special occasions, services, etc.
There were also regular visits to Ringing days across the area, as well as opportunities to enter several bands into ringing competitions at the annual Slough Arts Festival. Around the end of the 1970’s until the early 1990’s, there were also connections with the BBC through Maurice Plaquet which quite often resulted in some of the handbells being loaned for use during the recording of television and other performances.
It was at the 1977 AGM that the order was placed for 24 new bells at a cost of £2000; these would make up the chromatic 5 octave set that is now known as the main set. The Whitechapel Foundry indicated that the order would take 30 months to complete, and they duly arrived in April 1980. There was an opportunity for people to make a donation towards the cost of these new bells and their storage – in return, an inscription of their choice would be engraved on a bell; eleven of these new bells have been inscribed and the details are given in Appendix 1.
It was in March 1981, that the Society heard more of the story of the Carter bells; the reader will recall that a set of 8 bells had been given by Fred Carter to the Burnham tower in the 1930’s, but now it was clear that a further set of 12 bells might be available. This came about following the death in 1981 of Mrs. Ivy Morley, the youngest daughter of Fred Carter. The story seems that when Fred died in 1937, some bells still in his possession had passed to one of his sons, Frank, and thence to Frank’s son, Bob. For a while, they were lost to view, but in 1981 they were rediscovered by Mr. Ted Goodrham, another of Fred Carter’s grandsons, at a house in Caversham. It was Mrs. Morley’s intention to give a bequest to St. Peter’s Church, so it was agreed by all that the bequest would be these 12 additional bells and a further donation (£350) to cover the cost of their refurbishment. Since then, three further bells have been added to this Carter set; at the 1987 AGM, it was decided that 2 new bells should be ordered, and although the AGM agreed to have these bells “similarly engraved”, only one bell was treated in this way.
A further extra bell was added to the Carter set through the generosity of the Misses Nancy and Gill Treleaven in 1992 at a cost of £153.93. The details of these additional bells can be seen in Appendix 3.
Returning to the early months of 1981, some members of the Society were able to inspect the 16 bells kept at the Slough Congregational (now United Reformed) Church that some members had first become aware of in 1975 and which were to become known as the Kingsway bells (after the name given to the URC church at its opening in the 1980’s on a site opposite the old Congregational Church). Ten years later, an agreement was made between the Kingsway URC Church and the Society whereby the Burnham Handbell Society
“should look after their handbells on condition that they (Kingsway) should have first call on them, that we (St. Peter’s) insure them, and make an annual report on them”.
Finally, in 2010, the Kingsway URC Church agreed that Cliff and Angela Blundell should purchase these bells outright, and so they are no longer in the care of the Society. During the same year as the Society had sight of the Kingsway bells, they also had the chance to view the Pusey bells, interestingly described in Cliff Blundell’s journal as "hanging on a rod suspended from pulley blocks in the ceiling". These had been used by Albert Pusey’s family, mainly to ring carols, since the early 20th century. After Albert’s death in 1982, it became possible for the Society to purchase these bells at a cost of £200 using a grant given for this purpose from the Slough Social Services. They were then refurbished at a cost of £436.43, the cost being borne by the Society.
The Society was thus in the fortunate position of being able, by the end of 1982, to have the three sets of handbells at their disposal – the main five octaves set, together with the Carter and Pusey bells. Such a range of options were needed, for by the mid 1980’s the number of groups using the bells on a regular basis had been increasing, so that in addition to a new group at Manor Park Day Centre, there were regular practices by bands at the 2nd Priory Brownies, Priory Combined School, Farnham Royal St. Mary’s Church, and the Burnham Day Centre, as well as 2 BHS groups which were now using the bells for regular practices.
Sometimes handbells, perhaps because of their appearance of being made of special materials or the mere enjoyment of the sound that they can make and despite being stored in bulky and heavy storage boxes, attract the interest of others; this happened in March 1990, when 9 bells were stolen from inside the tower. Only by the good fortune of one of the Society members hearing some of them being played, were the police able to recover most of them – 1 remained missing, but of the others only one needed repair!
Most of the 5 octave chromatic handbell set on display: 2018
Adult members of the Burnham Handbell Society at the HRGB annual rally in Liverpool: 1999.
In recent years, further sets of handbells have been discovered in nearby bell towers or rescued from storage; in 2000, the Blundells went to see a chromatic 2-octave set of Taylor bells at St. George’s, Little Chalfont, whilst in 2007, they went to nearby Flackwell Heath to look at a similar 2 chromatic octave set of Shaw bells there. It is not known what happened to those sets, but in 2009, both the Carter and Kingsway bells were on temporary loan to local groups in Hedgerley and Penn Street who wished to start bell ringing. Finally, a set of bells used for many years by the Slough Blind Society were taken into the care of St. Mary’s Church in Langley around the mid 2000’s; they are awaiting refurbishment at the newly established Bells of Whitechapel (started after the closure of the original Whitechapel foundry in east London in 2017).
There had been from the beginning a desire to both offer groups and individuals in the wider community the chance to ring bells, and also to use the opportunity of ringing in pubs and hotels around Christmas to raise money for local, national and international charities. Indeed, at the AGM of the Society on October 15th 1992, a clear statement of just such activities was approved by the meeting. The statement affirmed that the purpose of the Society was “to encourage the enjoyment of handbell ringing and to make charitable gifts from money raised by handbell performances”. The evidence of such intentions is amply shown by the fact that, for the 16 years where it has been possible to abstract from the annual reports the amount of money raised for charities through carol singing, it can be confidently stated that over that period some £13,000 has been distributed – a very noteworthy and commendable situation.
The annual reports from 1992 to 2010 also gave figures for the number of days that Society members were involved in such activities; on average over this period, there are 61 such “event days” each year. This all requires a lot of administration and preparation of music scores; at the 1999 AGM, it was recorded that the enormous total of 729 sheets of music were now written out for bells and kept in the Society library.
During the early years of the new century, the Society lost several longstanding and key members of the group, notably Mary Shapcott and Sheila Birtchnell who died in 2003 and 2004 respectively. Both of them had been among the first adult members of the Society in the 1970’s, and Sheila had also been Secretary for many years. Other regular adult members of the group apart from Cliff and Angela Blundell included Debbie Mitchell, Grace Pullinger, Jo Eden, Gail Winter, Alan Shannon and Gill Treleaven. The Clangers under the care of Ruth Lewis had started ringing around the beginning of 1998, inviting children from Year 3 upwards to enjoy the experience of ringing bells with others. In December 1998, they had their first outing - to Milton Keynes for the 2nd annual “Ring in Christmas” praise. This group continued with succeeding generations of young people until quite recently, with at least some of the group going on to be proficient in a number of artistic and musical activities.
Sometimes there were also glimpses of what could happen in the future - for instance, in February 2006, the Society members played nursery rhymes at Baylis Court Nursery School in Slough, and a group of Asian parents expressed a keen interest in having a go and finding suitable Asian music for use on the bells. This was not followed up but is a reminder of what might be possible.
At the 2009 AGM of the Society, it was felt that the present structure of the Society needed to indicate a closer link with the Parochial Church Council of St. Peter’s Church in Burnham, and at a meeting of the Parochial Church Council in November 2009, a proposal for the St. Peter’s Church Council to accept ownership of the Society bells and their associated equipment was approved.
At the same time, a new group called the Gore Ringers started up in Burnham following the purchase of a 2 octave set of bells by Sheila Warburton, a former member of the Society. Since that time, this group have continued to reach out to others and encourage them to try their hand at ringing, so that they can call upon some 9 ringers when asked to perform; they continue the long-standing practice of accepting invitations to ring in the community, especially in care homes where the use of chimes as well as the conventional bells has allowed residents to participate more fully.
Establishing new groups takes time; there are many more facets to learning to ring a set of bells as a team than perhaps an outsider could easily comprehend. For not only must each person learn the basics of ringing and handling a bell but must come to read and understand how the music is written; for any musical score demands a range of knowledge about notation, timing and expression. Most modern music, too, deliberately involves a variety of techniques for handling and playing the bells – and so a ringer will practice damping, weaving, martellato, four-in-hand, and using mallets, for example, in attempting to play what is now an enormous repertoire of modern arrangements available to play. And then there is the forging of the team itself, so basic to the enjoyment of playing music and growing in confidence, that requires the skill of a conductor or small group of more experienced ringers willing to give time to the wellbeing of the whole group.
At the present time, both the Society and the Gore Ringers have a regular place at St. Peter’s on the second Sunday of every month during the All Age service; they ring on alternative months to complement the regular musicians, called Keynotes, who play at such occasions. Keynotes players, in their ability to play a variety of instruments - flute, clarinet, saxophone, violin, trumpet, and bass guitar - and being led by a keyboard supported by a small group of singers, are themselves perhaps an echo of the parish band that we last saw being evicted from the church’s gallery in the mid-19th century…..
This reminder of returning patterns by which communities decide on appropriate ways of expressing their culture should be of some comfort to those who feel that communal musicmaking around Burnham using bells could now be seriously on the wane. Technology has certainly allowed music to be so much more readily available than in past times, but the natural desire for humans to express themselves as artists or creators, both socially and individually, will surely give ongoing opportunities for groups to come together to make music, whether within a faith community or in the wider secular setting. For the writer of this brief overview, at least, this kind of optimism was amply displayed at a handbell rally in April 2017 attended by a number of the Burnham ringers. It was the national 50th anniversary rally for HRGB (Handbell Ringers of Great Britain) held at Exeter University and it was quite clear that whatever ups and downs handbell groups may face in the future, there is now an accumulation of a very significant storehouse of skill, imagination, and sheer love of creating music that will surely be a fountain of sound that will ring out for many years to come.
Handbell practice offered to local uniformed organisations was a regular part of the Society’s life.
The Clangers on their first outing to Milton Keynes 1998
The younger and not so young learning together: playing in Burnham High Street before Christmas 2004
These were mostly created when the main set was extended to cover a full 5 octave chromatic scale in 1980, though one bell in what is now the Carter set was inscribed in 1988. Each inscription is listed with the detail of the bell on which it was made, and any additional information given where possible concerning the person(s) recorded there on the bell.
Large bells, purchased around 1980:
29C: “In memory Ronald L. Birtchnell”: Ronald (d. 1975) was husband to Sheila Birtchnell, who was one of the first adult members of the Society in the 1970’s and was Secretary for many years. She died in April 2004. Both Sheila and Ronald are remembered with a memorial near the tower door of the Church. Their daughters, Sharon and Rosalind also learnt to ring bells whilst at Burnham.
29C♯: “George William Soper 1889 – 1970”: George was a local Scout leader, who lived for many years on the corner of Taplow Road and Hag Hill Lane. He was not a bellringer.
28 D: “Maurice Plaquet”: Maurice lived in The Fairway in Burnham for many years and was a member of Burnham Rotary. Through his business of supplying musical instruments to the BBC, etc. he often asked to borrow bells from the Burnham Society in the 1980’s and 90’s. The inscription also shows his business logo which is based on an unusual musical expression of his initials M.P. It appears that Maurice was a pioneer in the business of hiring out musical equipment and his links with the BBC began when he worked as a session drummer in the 1950’s. Maurice serviced such shows as Top of the Pops, Wogan, the Rock Gospel Show and The Two Ronnies.
A label has been affixed on one of the custom-made bell boxes used for carrying part of the Main Set that carries the name of Maurice Plaquet – suggesting that he also donated funds to purchase this item.
8 treble bells purchased in 1980
05F: “Thank you Evelyn for our happy years together Love Eric”: Eric Shapcott was a brother to Mary Shapcott, who took up handbell ringing with the Society following her retirement from teaching in Slough. Eric also arranged a musical setting for part of the Communion liturgy that is still used at St. Peter’s.
05F♯: “In memory of Dorothy and Reginald Shapcott”; they were the parents of Mary Shapcott.
04G: “In loving memory of Robert Sydney Campbell dear husband Winsome”: the Campbell’s lived in what is now Burnham Lane, in a house at the back of which there was a paddock that would become the location of Hurst Road. Winsome was a member of St. Peter’s Church and for many years would lend her donkey to be used on Palm Sunday for the traditional walk.
04G♯: “In memory of Alan and Elizabeth Poole”; at present no details known.
03A: “For Dorothy and William Fairclough”: the parents of Joan Haley, who has been for many years a teacher in the Burnham area with a keen interest in music, including more recently being a member of St. Peter’s Choir. Joan was married to Brian Haley, whose children, Martin and Pippa, both learnt the handbells when growing up in Burnham. William Fairclough spent his last years living at Dewstraws when it was still an Abbeyfield Home.
03A♯: “In memoriam Ethel and William Haley”: the parents of Brian Haley, who was one of those instrumental in creating the Burnham Team Ministry in the early 1980’s. Brian lost both his parents when he was still young, became a teacher finishing as Deputy Head of Langley Grammar School before he died in 1999. Brian was for many years a server at St. Nicolas Taplow and then at St. Peter’s.
02B: “John Welch (Burnham chorister 1905-17)”: John and his young family must have come to Burnham from Watlington around 1905 when he was 28. He sought exemption from being conscripted in 1916, on the basis that he was the only gardener left at a Burnham property called “Dulverton”, but when his appeal was refused he must have left the following year (1917) leaving his wife Edith and two children. There is a Welch grave near the tower in St.Peter’s churchyard.
01C: “Penhale”: the Penhale’s were the parents of Mrs. Kate Bidgood, who in 1962 took on a woolshop on the corner of Milner Road and Eastfield Road. She was well known there, running the business for 21 years. It was one of her sons, Jonathan, who operated his own recording studio above the shop, where in November 1982 some members of the Handbell Society made a rather unsuccessful attempt at recording some Christmas music. A journal entry made at the time reads, “Spent 2 hours recording with Jonathan Bidgood and Isanne…. Not entirely satisfactory, but we did get 6 carols on tape, some with rhythm accompaniment….the record was played as one of the worst Christmas records ever broadcast!”.
In 1990, Kate Bidgood helped to establish the Burnham Women’s Institute and became its first President, with her sister-in-law, Lorna, as Secretary. She died in December 1998. Kate’s parents had lived on Huntercombe Lane North just north of Wendover Road, and recently the site of the house has been redeveloped into a small close of houses, sited appropriately on a street named Penhale Place.
Carter set 5F♯: “In memory of Arthur C. Faulkner 1901 – 1987”. Ordered in 1987 as part of a 2-bell extension to the set, Arthur Faulkner was the father of Angela Blundell.
Included in the current adult membership of the Burnham Handbell Society are:
Included in the current membership of the Gore Ringers are:
The lists here only show details of the three bell sets currently in the care of the Burnham Handbell Society, although at any particular time, the bells may be in use by ringers from either of the two ringing groups at St. Peter’s. The lists do not cover handbell sets or chimes that are in the personal possession of any of the ringers, neither does it include sets that have been administered by the Handbell Society in past years, but which are no longer in their care.
It is a simple truth that without the active support of Cliff and Angela Blundell, this story could not have been told, for not only have they encouraged so many others over past years to take up the art of bell ringing, but in so many ways they have also been curators of the wider story of bell ringing in Burnham. It was from Cliff Blundell’s personal journals, for instance, that I was privileged to obtain a first-hand view of many of the events since the first days of the reformed Burnham Handbell Society, and all the photographs of ringers in this narrative have been drawn from amongst the many in Cliff and Angela’s possession. To them both, therefore, we all owe a debt of thanks and myself in particular, of course. But that wider story has come into sharper focus through the insights and labours of a considerable number of others; Peter Wiltshire in demonstrating his great grandfather’s bells, and Mary Bentley, Daphne Chevous and Joan Haley, members of the Burnham Historians, in their willingness to research those Burnham individuals or families that were most connected with the story as it emerged. Other conversations, too numerous to mention, have helped me to gain a wider picture, and to each and every one I offer my thanks. I am especially grateful to Emma and Sheila Warburton for their interest in helping me with background information relating to both the bell tower at St. Peter’s and the wider history of handbell ringing in the United Kingdom as well as giving me the chance to witness the Gore Ringers in action. Alan Glover, the Archivist at the “Ringing World” was more than generous with his time, too, in looking through the digital records of the late 19th and early 20th century editions of that magazine, and this provided me with valuable contemporary evidence of ringers when the writing of this story was at that early stage of its development. Finally, I want to acknowledge the help given me by the Revd. Bill Jackson (Vicar at St. Peter’s, Burnham in 2018), Pauline Poole, Brain May and Barry Marsden (LLM at St. Peter’s) through their loaning to me of resources or in their passing on of information that they had in their possession.
Most of the resources used in compiling this story are indicated in the text itself, but it would be worth listing in one place the most significant of these.
The local newspapers (The Slough, Eton and Windsor Observer and Slough Chronicle). A very useful digital library of these local newspapers is freely accessible online at www.sloughhistoryonline.org.uk. The search index allows you to look for reports on local events that might otherwise now be forgotten. Unfortunately, the digital library only covers a restricted number of years and any further research would need to use the microfiched editions of the paper kept in the Slough Library, which due to issues of time and access the present writer has not pursued.
NADFAS (National Association of Decorative and Fine Art Societies); in 1999, the local Beaconsfield NADFAS group published a comprehensive two volume report on the monuments, features and fixtures within St. Peter’s Church and tower which they had compiled during the previous two years. It lays out clearly some of the available information on the architectural changes wrought in the late 19th century at St. Peter’s that form a central part of the story about the formation of handbell groups at that time. A copy of this report is kept in the Cornerstone office of the current Vicar of St. Peter’s, the Revd. Bill Jackson.
Publications by the Burnham Historians: this group has for many years been at the forefront of bringing together material about Burnham and its people before it is forgotten or lost. Mention has already been made of the personal help given to the writer by individual members of the group, but there are three publications by the group that have been especially useful in preparation of this story. They are: “Yesterday’s Town: Burnham” (1984), “Around Burnham in old Photographs” (1993), and “Lent Rise; A School and its Community” (1998). Dorothy Blackman was a member of the Burnham Historians but she was the sole author of detailed research into those local families who lost members during both World Wars. It appeared in 1995 with the title “Burnham, Cippenham and Hitcham War Heroes” and copies of all these volumes are available in the local library.
Also available in the Burnham Library is the complete bound set of “Round and About”, first published in 1979 by the Burnham Community Association and issued every two months since then. Its pages often contain glimpses of events and people that would otherwise have been lost for ever, and its volumes will continue to be a very useful resource for anyone interested in community life in Burnham.
“Ringing for Gold” by Peter Fawcett published 2016 by D and P Bedford, Canterbury, UK. This gives a unique insight into the history of handbells and those who rang them although its special focus is on groups that have either played in the North of England or the bands and individuals who were involved with the UK Handbell Championships that were held in Bellle Vue Manchester from 1854 to 1928.
Not accessed but worth mentioning in this list is the material relating to St. Peter’s, Burnham during the 19th century and now kept at the County Archives in Aylesbury. A list of such material is published in the NADFAS report on St. Peter’s Church, a copy of which is kept at Cornerstone.