Frequently Asked Questions
History of Handbells
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A history of handbells Nance
We are told that "Necessity is the mother of invention," and the creation of Handbells seems to bear out this axiom. It is said that handbells were made for the purpose of practicing change ringing. Handbell Lore offers these possibilities, individually, or perhaps combined.
The practice of change ringing began centuries ago in Great Britain. A team of ringers would climb the bell tower to go through the mathematical changes of ringing the bells. See Change Ringing. In some cases, this practice (rehearsal) might take hours, for when one makes a mistake, it is likely the "peal" would have to begin again. The bell towers for the most part are exposed to the weather, and the ringing room below the bells, where one pulls the ropes, does not usually have climate control. Change Ringing is predominantly an English tradition, and the weather conditions (cold and damp) to not lend themselves to prolonged "outdoor" activity, especially in the winter months.
Another factor in the development of a hand bell must have been the complaints from the neighbors. Imagine hearing the church bells ring constantly for an hour, two hours, stopping, beginning again, and ringing for hours more. The good neighbor policy must have demanded some remedy.
One other aside, which suffices the above complaints, plus some other apparent ones, is that with the invention of the handbell, a unit that could be taken with you to a more comfortable place, like the neighborhood pub (which was warm, dry, away from neighbors, no ladders to climb, etc.), the practice could be held in relative comfort. We can but assume the consumption of beverages must have been delayed until after the practice, since imbibing before may have caused many start-overs. However, one might surmise that ringing only one bell would have freed one hand for other purposes, would it not?
The true story is much older, with hand bells existing for centuries in Thailand, China and other countries around the world. These, of course, were not English Handbells, for the shape, tuning, handle, and especially the clapper assembly were different. Usually, the clapper was allowed to strike the bell in any direction, not just in the one plane.
Check out http://www.hrgb.org.uk/bells.html for more history information and access to other pages of the Handbell Ringers of Great Britain.
Check out www.whitechapelbellfoundry.co.uk for the history of Whitechapel Foundry in London.
Susan Nance provides this history on handbells, incorporated 8/2006:
What do horses and handbells have in common? A little bit of history. During the late 17th century, William and Mary Cor and their five sons took residence in Aldbourne, England. William was a gunsmith and had a working knowledge of metal. The Cors were a moneyed familysome of the family were merchants in London and William owned much land and property in the village including Court House. One of the products made in their foundry was a Hames Box for carriage owners. The box, a U shaped metal bracket on which small, cast bronze tuned bells with free swinging clappers were mounted, was attached to the hames which were curved supports attached to the collar of the horse. In order to protect the bells from the weather and to improve appearance, the bells were covered with leather panels on five of the six sides giving an appearance of a box. The practical nature of the Hames Box was that it warned pedestrians and carriages in the street of oncoming traffic.
It is uncertain why or how the Cors got the idea to use the Hames Box bells to make handbells. Perhaps they were tower bell ringers who saw the potential for using the Hames box bells to practice change ringing. Perhaps their true passion was music but the foundry was the way they made their living and they combined the two interests.
The Cors brought two unique ideas to small bells: the clapper mechanism and the tuning structure. The Cors changed the clapper mechanism on the smaller bells to be similar to the tower bells so that the clapper could only move in one plane and was restrained from resting on the casting after striking it. The Cors marked the handbell with an icon (thought to the be Dabchick, the emblem of Aldbourne) and the number of the tower bell which it represented. The Cors tuned their bells to have an accurate fundamental tone and a tuned twelfth as the overtone. They cast the bells to be as close to the pitch as possible, then filed or ground the casting to achieve the desired pitch which required much hand labor and tuning skill. Robert Wells, who has been described as a cousin of the Cors and an employee of the foundry, took over the foundry in Aldbourne in the early 1700’s.
“A Brief History of the Aldbourne Bell Foundries” by Graham Palmer; ; www.wiltshire.gov.uk
“More History? From Hame Boxes to Handbells” in Overtone History Compilation 1987-2003; www.wiltshire.gov.uk
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