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Ringing and wartime

Tower bells have always been rung for public events, including victories in war. But for centuries the wars themselves had limited effect on week by week ringing since they were fought overseas, far from our bell towers.

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.

Although it wasn’t a total ban, 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 had been killed. In the towers around Wokingham nearly half the ringers saw active service and one in four of them died. The number of local ringers, which had been growing since long before the war and even through it, dropped significantly after the war.

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 paratroopers being dropped. Someone had the idea that ringing church bells would be a good way to raise the alarm if that happened, which 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 tried to raise the alarm (outside of Dad’s Army). If they had, it’s doubtful how effective it would have been, and quite likely that non-ringers attempting to ring some bells would have injured themselves.

The ban ran from 13 June 1940. As the threat of invasion receded it was briefly suspended for the victory at El Alamein in 1942, and again on the following Christmas and Easter day, before being finally lifted in June 1943. Although fewer ringers were killed, the disruption caused by three years of inactivity was far greater. Local towers lost over half their ringers, but thanks to a lot of recruitment and training after the ban was lifted, numbers grew rapidly and were back to pre-war levels in a few years.

Today roughly half of local ringers are women, but before the first war they were all men. Some women took up ringing during the first war, but their numbers remained low until the second war, when it rose rapidly during the major post war recruitment.

In 75 years of peace since the last war, ringing has prospered, with many of the post-war generation of ringers still active.

In 2018 ringers marked the centenary of the Armistice with ‘Ringing Remembers’ – over 3000 performances were published, many including newly trained ringers from the previous year’s recruitment programme in memory of ringers killed in that war.

In 2020, on the special Bank Holiday for the 75th anniversary of VE Day, ringers across the land again planned widespread ringing as part of the nation’s commemoration. Tens of thousands of ringers were to gather in thousands of towers. But current restrictions prevent so many of us coming so close together in confined spaces to perform our art. So our bells remain silent, suppressing the most iconic sound of our nation.

John Harrison, May 2020


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