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Turn over a few stones ...

... and you may be amazed what you find. That was my experience researching the history of Wokingham ringing.

Our bell restoration project came at a time when the church was actively looking outward to the local community. In fact, our project was rolled into a much bigger one to build ‘The Cornerstone’ community hall. In response, we organised many visits up the tower, and I gave talks about bells and bellringing to lots of groups. One group we contacted, The Wokingham Society, suggested that I might write an article on the history of the bells, which seemed a good idea, but when I started gathering information, the story rapidly outgrew an ‘article’, and it was obviously going to turn into a book. By coincidence, our 2004 restoration came exactly 300 years after our two oldest bells were hung, as part of a ring of six. That gave a 300 year framework for the main part of the book.

One of our band helpfully found a few mentions of bells or ringers in 19th century Parish Magazines, so I spent many hours wading through the rest of them (from 1865 to the present) looking for more. You would be amazed at some of the contents: railway timetables, opening hours of banks, the soup kitchen, ‘St Paul’s Coal Club’, etc My wife (a member of the Wokingham History Group) suggested I look in the Berkshire Record office. Then there are indexes for The Ringing World (from 1911) and Bell News (1881-1915). We have tower records too (minute books back to 1935 and scrap books back to 1978).

Historians know (but I didn’t) that the more you dig the more you find, and that each answer points to yet more questions. You get hooked. As the story emerges it becomes more compelling, with a desire to find the missing pieces of each little jigsaw. For example F Lush and W Lush appear in the records of our members. I soon discovered that the brothers Frank and Walter Lush were coach builders to the royalty of most of Europe. But Wokingham had two F Lushes (both unhelpfully called Frank) and two W Lushes (Walter and William) in the late 1800s. Trying to unravel that puzzle took a lot of effort. It also added a poignancy, when I found a small wooden cross carved by Frank Lush from the oak frame removed in 1903.

As well as digging through documents, I managed to contact quite a few ex ringers or their relatives, in person, by phone or e-mail. Many provided me with old pictures as well as their personal memories.

When I started, I just wanted to ‘do my bit for history’, but a full scale book needed a clear view of who I was writing for. Was I only writing for ringers? I decided that I wasn’t. I wanted to make the book accessible to non-ringers as well, to open the world of ringing to them. The book does that in a way that no tower visit ever could, because it doesn’t just present a snapshot of current ringing, it follows successive generations of ringers through times of great change, through successes and failures. It looks at their relationships, and the role they played, for example in the formation of the Sonning Deanery Society, and in their relationships with the church. I almost feel I know some of the characters.

Ringing is the common thread throughout the whole story, but it is a sobering thought how much else has changed. When the bells were installed in 1704 we were using the Julian calendar. Europe was in the ‘Little Ice Age’. Johnson’s dictionary and Handel’s Messiah had not appeared. The slave trade was flourishing. England had a seventh of today’s population. Wokingham had regular bull baiting.

There is a lot more than ringing in the book: death in the belfry, warnings that the tower would collapse, pigeon catchers among the up-turned bells, fraudulent impersonation of the ringers, a donation from the Queen, a house called ‘Ringwell’, and much more. For more information see: www.jaharrison.me.uk/book/ 

John Harrison (October 2009)

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