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  Ringing and wartime

I keep reading about the importance of research in achieving the U3A’s objectives. Calls for presenters in groups often suggest just picking a (any) topic, researching it, and presenting the results. That approach doesn’t work for me. All the research I have done has been driven by inherent curiosity, and most of it by prior engagement with the subject matter and/or by ulterior motive.

As an example, I recently researched the effect of the two world wars on ringing in the local area. My motive was to write an article for The Wokingham Paper as part of the publicity for local ringing to mark the 75th anniversary of VE Day. But I didn’t just want to repeat the perceptions I had formed from commonly held ideas, I wanted some more specific facts to substantiate what I wrote. I had a vague idea, based on fairly commonly held ideas. I chose to look specifically at the effect on members of the Sonning Deanery Branch of ringers, which is roughly centred on Wokingham (S-N Sandhurst to Wargrave and W-E Arborfield to Warfield).

To set the scene, tower bells have always been rung for public events like victories in war (before the late 1800s ringing was entirely secular) but for centuries the wars themselves had a limited effect on week by week ringing since they were fought overseas, far from our bell towers. But that changed in the 20th century.

Air raids in the first world war brought hostilities to our shores, and within days the Defence of the Realm Act (DORA) gave sweeping power to prohibit anything thought undesirable. It didn’t affect ringing until someone suggested that zeppelins raiding at night could be guided by the sound of church bells. Some ringers voluntarily gave up evening practices and soon after, in March 1916, the order for ‘Control of Lights and Sounds’ prohibited ‘ringing and chiming of bells and the striking of clocks audible at such a distance as to be capable of serving as a guide for hostile aircraft’ in any area where lights were restricted.

It wasn’t a total ban, but no ringing after dark in winter was a serious restriction. It meant that ringers couldn’t practise for much of the year, since most of them worked during the day. Nor could they ring for evening services. In the winter of 1916-17 some places allowed ringing before 9pm, and when hostilities finally ended in November 1918 there was much celebratory ringing.

 Over 1600 ringers were killed during the war. Nearly half the ringers in the towers around Wokingham saw active service, and one in four of them died. My research showed that the number of Branch members, which had been growing since long before the war and continued growing until 1919, then dropped significantly and remained 15–20% below the 1919 peak during the inter-war years.

WW1 is well known for women entering the labour market, and many women also took up ringing. Previous decades had seen women take up ringing, possibly inspired by the suffrage movement – 1912 saw the first all female peal, and the foundation of the Ladies Guild, but there were no women ringing in the Branch before 1915 when there were 10. That nearly doubled in 1918 but they were a tiny minority – hardly surprising since only three towers had any women.

In the second world war bomber crews could not hear bells over the sound of powerful engines, but there was a real threat of invasion, including the possibility of dropping paratroopers. Someone had the bright idea that ringing church bells would be a good way to raise the alarm if that happened, and that meant that ringing a bell for any other reason (including clock bells) day or night was banned completely. There was no invasion so no one (outside of Dad’s Army) tried to raise the alarm. If they had, it’s doubtful it would have been effective, and quite likely that non-ringers attempting to ring some bells would have injured themselves.

The ban ran from 13 June 1940. By 1942 the threat of invasion was receding, ringing was allowed for the victory at El Alamein, and again on the following Christmas and Easter day. Then in June 1943 the ban was finally lifted.

Although fewer ringers were killed in WW2, the disruption caused by three years of inactivity was far greater than in the previous war. The Branch lost over half its members, but thanks to a lot of recruitment and training after the ban was lifted in 1943 the number of ringers grew rapidly, and in a few years was back to pre-war levels.

It was the post war recruiting boom that finally gained significant numbers of women. By the end of the 1940s they accounted for over 20% of the membership, and today they are around a half.

There’s not space here to describe all the findings, which are in the full report. At the end I reviewed some of my preconceptions (in italics below) against the evidence I had found about local ringing:

In 75 years of peace, ringing has prospered. Many of the post-war generation of ringers are still active, but the demographic has changed. That may be scope for future research. You can read more about the research at: jaharrison.me.uk/New/Articles/EffectWar.html 

  John Harrison (May 2020)

 This article was published in the Wokingham U3A summer newsletter. That version included photographs of: All Saints church Wokingham, St Wilfrid's church Kirkby in Ashfield & Albert Victor Loader  who rang at All Saints and was killed in WW1.

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