News from the Bell Tower - September 2020


During the ‘lockdown’, when you have heard the bells being rung, we have not been ringing the bells properly—it has been done using the ‘Ellacombe Mechanism’. This requires only one person to operate, unlike the traditional method, where the bells are rotated through over 360 degrees (full circle ringing) to sound them and one person is needed for each bell. Instead the bells are kept static (or "hung dead") and a hammer is struck against the inside of the bell.

The system was devised in 1821 by Reverend Henry Thomas Ellacombe of Gloucestershire, who first had such a system installed in Bitton in 1822. He created the system as an alternative to using his local ringers which meant he did not have to tolerate the behaviour that he saw as unruly. The Revd Ellacombe was the editor of the bell ringing column of a church periodical called "Church Bells", and was not slow to criticise the actions of bell ringers who did not ring exclusively for church services.

A particular target was "prize ringing", where teams from different churches competed for a prize for the best ringing, usually accompanied by a social event (something that normally occurs annually nowadays—the branch Striking Competition). An example was in 1875 when he weighed in with a diatribe against a ringing competition at Slapton in Devon, when he wrote, "We blame the Vicar and churchwardens for allowing the bells to be so prostituted for the benefits of a publican's pocket...". However in reality, it required very advanced and rare expertise for one person to ring changes, which most churches did not have and it alienated bell ringers from the church.

The sound of a chime was a feeble substitute for the rich sound of swinging bells, and the apparatus fell out of fashion. Consequently the apparatus was removed from many towers in the past leaving holes in the ceiling and often frames without ropes. Minchinhampton is quite rare in still having one of these mechanisms still in place and operational.

Angie Ayling