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A Nostalgic Look at Church Bell Ringing (Campanology) in 1930s Hunslet, Yorkshire

Updated on December 26, 2016
My grandad, Frank Trigg, with my mum, Audrey, as a baby in the late 1920s
My grandad, Frank Trigg, with my mum, Audrey, as a baby in the late 1920s

The days before computers and gaming consoles...

Back in the 1930s, many of the hobbies and pastimes which we take for granted today did not exist.

In an era when no-one even had a television, let alone a mobile phone, laptop computer, gaming console nor any of the electronic devices which are commonplace today, people enjoyed various hobbies and social activities.

My grandad, Frank Trigg, studied the art of bell ringing - campanology - as a young man in the 1920s and could often be found at his local church, both practising and playing at the Sunday morning service.

After he and my grandma, Ivy, had two children - my mum Audrey and her little brother, Ken (pictured below in the early 1930s) - grandad continued to go bell ringing in his leisure time to unwind from his job as an upholsterer and furniture-maker.

My mum Audrey and her little brother Ken in the early 1930s.
My mum Audrey and her little brother Ken in the early 1930s.

Sunday morning at the bell tower

On one occasion, my grandma suggested that grandad should take Audrey and Ken to the church bell tower to let them watch the bell ringing, which took place every Sunday.

Mum recalled grandma saying, "Take Ken and Aud with you and I'll have a nice dinner ready when you return."

My grandma, Ivy Trigg, as a young woman
My grandma, Ivy Trigg, as a young woman
My grandad as a young man.
My grandad as a young man.

It was a fine spring morning and my grandma (pictured on the right) thought it would be fun for the children to go with their dad to the church.

Mum recalled, "Dad was a little dubious about the wisdom of taking two young children with him, but mum insisted and so the three of us went walking to the church on a lovely morning."

Mum said the church seemed very large to her - she was only six years old at the time and Ken three years younger.

It was Hunslet Parish Church (St Mary's) in Leeds, Yorkshire, UK, and the year was 1934. The church nestled in the not-so-scenic surroundings of the city centre, in the shadow of the Leeds Steelworks, where clouds of smoke billowed out of the tall factory chimneys.

She recalled, "Dad said we must be 'quiet as church mice' while we were there and we chorused, 'We will, daddy!' as we went to the back of the church and up a long, winding, funny kind of staircase. It seemed to our little legs as if we were going right to the top of the church."

Mum said the winding little steps, snaking up to the bell tower, were like nothing she and Ken had ever seen before.

The church had been built in 1862 and consecrated in 1864, replacing the original church, which had dated from the 17th century. Mum recalled how the old, stone staircase was the longest and most arduous climb of her life as she and young Ken struggled to follow grandad up to the top, their little legs aching from the effort.

The Leeds Steelworks, with Hunslet Parish Church behind.
The Leeds Steelworks, with Hunslet Parish Church behind. | Source
Hunslet Parish Church
Hunslet Parish Church | Source

"At the top of the stairs was a tiny, circular room or platform," mum remembered. "A little seat was at one side, away from the steps. Then in a half-circle, facing the seat, were four long, very thick ropes, each with a beautiful, coloured, soft tail, about 3ft long.

"This was made of some other material wound into the rope. It felt smooth, like velvet."

A group of bell ringers in the 1920s
A group of bell ringers in the 1920s | Source

My grandad had explained to mum and Ken, on the way to church, how the bell ringing worked.

"Dad had told us that he and the other bell ringers would peal out the bells in a practiced sequence to make a tune," said mum.

"The very biggest and heaviest bell was called Big Tom. But I can't remember the other names.

"I knew my daddy was a campanologist - what a long name to remember! I felt quite pleased."

It wasn't long before the other three bell ringers, all male, arrived to help play the lovely tunes which would ring out across Hunslet every Sunday.

Women did take part in bell ringing, but not at grandad's church at that time.

Bell ringing sequences

Mum explained how each man stood in front of his rope, which at the very top held the bell. Some bells were heavier than others and they had to be rung correctly and in a certain order for the tune to be recognised.

Mum recalled how the bell ringers checked everyone was ready before they began, "Billy said, 'Ready, Frank? Ready, Tommy? Okay, John? Right ho, here we go!' and the men started counting quietly to themselves, one, two, three, four and jumbling numbers up, or so it seemed to me."

The children didn't understand at the time that the numbers were the sequence of the bells being tolled to ensure they played the tunes correctly.

Three-year-old Ken almost set the church bell tower alight!
Three-year-old Ken almost set the church bell tower alight!

All was going well until young Ken started to cry. He was only three years old.

"To quieten him, dad left his bell and gave Ken a box of matches to rattle to entertain him!" mum recalled. "He said, 'Look, Ken!' and rattled the matches himself to try to stop him from crying!

"Dad hurried back in time to ring his bell at the correct time.

"I watched all this in fascination ... until suddenly, one of the other men yelled at my dad, 'Look at Ken!' and was very agitated. He was so agitated he forgot to let go of the 'tail' in time and was on his way up to the top of the bell tower with it!"

The bell ringers were supposed to let the bell rope slide through their hands and then pull it down again. Otherwise, they could be carried up to the bell with the rope.

He had to let go and jump down quickly.

"Horror of horrors, Ken had opened the box of matches and was lighting one!" said mum.

Would Ken burn the church down?

Young Ken had actually managed to light a match, which was burning brightly in his hand!

The church service was continuing below, with the congregation having no idea of the drama unfolding high in the bell tower.

"Dad had visions of the dry wood in the bell tower setting on fire and all of us trapped and burned," mum remembered. "He had to leave his bell again to rush over and get the matches off Ken and put out the lighted one.

"I often wonder if the vicar or parishioners ever knew why the bells played such an odd tune on that Sunday morning.

"Needless to say, dad never again took Ken and me up the bell tower.

"But what an experience it had been!"

My mum Aud and her little brother Ken (sitting on their grandad's car, with their grandma in the back seat) in the 1930s
My mum Aud and her little brother Ken (sitting on their grandad's car, with their grandma in the back seat) in the 1930s
Mum's brother, my uncle Ken Trigg, in later life in the 1980s.
Mum's brother, my uncle Ken Trigg, in later life in the 1980s.
My mum today: Very safety-conscious and would never let a child play with a box of matches!
My mum today: Very safety-conscious and would never let a child play with a box of matches!

Thankfully, my mum lived to tell the tale and still remembers it vividly, 80 years later.

Sadly, my Uncle Ken passed away some years ago, but mum never let him forget for the rest of his life the day he almost burned the church down!

Today, mum is so safety-conscious it's unbelievable and she still can't imagine giving a three-year-old a box of matches to play with!

Even though times have changed and society as a whole is much more safety-conscious today than in the 1930s, she still finds her father's actions astounding!

Sadly, the future of Hunslet Parish Church has been under threat in recent years, due to the dwindling congregation.

The church tower that my Uncle Ken almost set alight all those years ago is now a Grade II Listed building, but this hasn't stopped the Church of England from debating whether it should be closed down.

There have been discussions and meetings about the future of the site and it has been suggested that the tower should remain, but that the church, which has fallen into disrepair due to a lack of funds, should be replaced by a smaller structure built on to the tower.

A community hall, a possible school expansion and social "green" housing are other suggestions that have been put forward for the site.

A Facebook page has been set up to try and save the church, but only time will tell.


Hunslet Parish Church in recent years.
Hunslet Parish Church in recent years. | Source

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    • profile image

      Angela Taylor 2 months ago

      I only just found your Hubs through a search for bell ringing articles for something I am working on. It is very interesting to see life in times gone by. Thank you.

    • profile image

      Joan Reed 11 months ago

      I just read your Hub and had to laugh! It really brings the scene to life. Great read.

    • K L Evans profile image
      Author

      Karen Evans 2 years ago from Lancashire, England

      Thanks for your support, Kath. I confess I know little about the subject either, other than what my mother has told me.

    • profile image

      Kath 2 years ago

      What an interesting story. I confess it is a topic I know little about, but I read the story as I have been following your animal Hubs. It made me laugh, to be honest, at the thought of giving a small child a box of matches to play with! Today I think health and safety has gone mad, but this is rather the other extreme! Well written Hub!

    • K L Evans profile image
      Author

      Karen Evans 2 years ago from Lancashire, England

      Thank you for your kind comments. I have lots of nostalgic tales of my grandparents, which I hope to relate on here when I have more time.

    • profile image

      sue 2 years ago

      A most interesting and witty hub!

    • K L Evans profile image
      Author

      Karen Evans 2 years ago from Lancashire, England

      Thank you very much for your kind comments.

    • Mr George Martin profile image

      Mr George Martin 2 years ago from Boston, Massachusetts

      A very interesting Hub indeed. I know little about the subject but you have described it very well. Voted up.

    • K L Evans profile image
      Author

      Karen Evans 2 years ago from Lancashire, England

      Thanks, Ali and Twodawgs, for your supportive comments. I have so many more such tales from my mum's youth, which she has carefully written down over the years. I must find the time to write them all up, as I think they make fascinating reading.

    • profile image

      twodawgs 2 years ago

      Great article, Karen, a unique and rarely-sourced piece of history. Thanks for posting this.

    • Ali Stephen profile image

      Ali Stephen 2 years ago from Blackpool

      You wouldn't imagine it today, would you, giving kids a box of matches to play with! But I guess this was a different era when we weren't wrapped in cotton wool by the state! He was a clever three year old to strike a match! Must have had good co-ordination skills!