A bellringer’s flagon in Hadleigh church Suffolk
Ringing in the 1700’s It has been said that to be a ringer in eighteenth century England was to be a layabout and a drunk. This is an exaggerated view, but the standards of behaviour were indeed low. The Commonwealth had discouraged ringing, and from the early 1700s the clergy had virtually vacated the belfry, and ringing was carried out by locals who, in most cases, saw an easy opportunity for earning an extra shilling or two. Ringing being thirsty work, the additional income transferred itself with remarkable speed from the church tower to the village inn. In town, mainly because of the higher standards of ringing imposed by the various societies and guilds, the situation did not deteriorate to such an extent. Again, because of the denser population near the church, ringing in town was restricted mainly to church feasts and service ringing, and only the most important secular occasions were commemorated with the bells.
But in the rural areas any and every opportunity was taken to ring. Those who rang did so mainly as a hobby and usually for gain attendance at church services was considered no part of Bellringing! The arrival of the mail coach from London was often signalled by the bells, or the squire’s birthday celebrated in similar fashion. The village fair was always started off with a spell of ringing, and what with the never ending series of births, marriages and deaths in the community the ringers were rarely at a loss for an excuse to perform, for which the tavern keepers were duly grateful. The standard of behaviour in most belfries became appalling. Cursing, swearing and smoking were normal, and in many towers a barrel of beer was always ‘on tap’ in the ringing chamber. But this must be viewed in the light of prevailing custom, and was not as scandalous as some writers infer.
Beer was the normal drink of most people in days when the water supply was anything but safe and tea and coffee were only for the well-to-do. The Temperance Movement originated in the efforts of brewers to get people to drink beer rather than the pernicious gin that caused such havoc, and, in its early days, the movement did not advocate total abstinence. Beer drinking was taken for granted, as shown by a charmingly candid entry in the parish accounts of a church in Lancashire: ‘Spent on ourselves when we met at the Abbey Arms to decide how much to give to the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel.’
We thank Shire Publications Ltd, for there kind permission, to take excerpts from John Camp’s excellent booklet Discovering Bells and Bellringing ©