Handbell Ringing


The ECG owns a set of 12 Whitechapel handbells, size 18 in G. These have been in our possession for many years. The case in which they are housed was given in memory of Henrietta Bosworth who was secretary in 1992-1993. Every year a special touch is rung on these bells at our Annual Dinner by past and present members of the society. Handbells require careful attention and delicate handling, to preserve the very fine tone, and they are stored in a convenient carrying case. At present the handbells are looked after and tended by our resident handbell guru and Webmaster, Matthew Hilling. We also practice with Ian Campbell's bells which are smaller and easier to strike, these are rather quieter and are more appropriate for the room in Harrison where we practice!

Sound snippets and videos:

  The ECG bells being rung at the 2004 annual dinner

What's it all about?

Many people are familiar with tune ringing on handbells, and in the run-up to Christmas, we spent many enjoyable evenings practising Christmas Carols. However our normal weekly practices are devoted to change-ringing on handbells, ringing methods in the same style as we do on tower bells. It is customary for each ringer to have two bells - one for each hand! This fact means that a slightly different approach to the learning and execution of methods is needed. (A good explanation of the technical aspects of handbell ringing can be found here.)


Handbell ringing is a great challenge, it requires concentration, commitment and co-ordination. Although ringing a handbell does not take the same physical effort as ringing a towerbell, the accuracy of striking and rhythm is very much more critical, as there is no natural momentum of the bell to act as a rough guide as in ringing towerbells. Ringing handbells provides a valuable insight into method construction, and by looking at methods from the different perspective needed to ring them in hand, a better understanding is achieved. This is useful for ringing towerbells, providing the more detailed knowledge needed for conducting and composition, as well as for the primary purpose of actually ringing methods on handbells.

How does it work?

The ringers sit in a circle, with one bell in each hand, the leather handles held lightly but firmly with the thumb of each hand uppermost. This emulates the rope circle of a tower ringing chamber. Each ringer holds a pair of bells, 1-2 (trebles), 3-4, 5-6 (tenors in the case of minor) etc. The odd numbered bell is held in the right hand, so that the circle is clockwise, as with most rope circles. The handstroke is represented by an 'up stroke' with the bell being moved from a horizontal position in front of the ringer, to a position with its mouth pointing upwards. Stopping this movement with the thumb causes the bell to strike. The bell is held in this position until the other ringers have rung their handstroke as well. The backstroke is a simple reversal of the 'up' stroke, returning the bell to a horizontal position, with gravity causing the bell to strike.

[Close up picture of someone holding bells]

What does it sound like?

Some sound clips! (MP3 format) Taken from one of our practice sessions.

How did you start?

We started our handbell group in the autumn of 2001, meeting up in a seminar room next door to Ian's office in the Laver Building. We chose Wednesday lunchtime, as a time when people were free, and on campus. We started by getting to grips with the bells, ringing rounds and concentrating on getting everyone to the point where they could strike the bells accurately and consistently. We then began ringing plain hunt on 6, switching pairs once we were familiar with each of the positions.

[Diagrams showing coursing, opposites and 2-3]

We then moved on to ringing Plain Bob Minor, plain courses at first and later touches, eventually ringing our first quarter peal in the March after we first started. Since then more people have joined our band and we have made considerable progress together.

Exeter handbell ringing now

There are currently about 10 of us who ring handbells and we have arranged our practice schedule to fit in with the different stages that individuals have reached. Wednesday lunchtime has remained our weekly general practice (although we were evicted from Laver and have found a new home in seminar room 171 in the Harrison Building!) We have continued to teach new Freshers from scratch, with many who came to Exeter in October now ringing Plain Bob Minor, after only two terms. There is also a more advanced practice on a Tuesday lunchtime, when we concentrate on 8 bell ringing, this year we have progressed from Plain Bob, through Little Bob, Kent TB and more recently Oxford TB. This practice often takes the form of a quarter peal, with about 25 having been scored so far this (academic) year. We also ring most Thursday lunchtimes, sometimes ringing quarters or having a general practice, depending on how the Tuesday goes! This gives us flexibility to combine making progress with the more advanced group and providing opportunities for those who are moving on. All these sessions are very laid back and convivial with a friendly and relaxed atmosphere.

Update September 2005

Things have continued moving since this page was written last year. In October last year we scored our first quarter of Surprise Major (Yorkshire) and rang a peal of it (on the fourth attempt) in July 2005. 10 bell ringing has also progressed with peals of Little Bob Royal, Kent Treble Bob Royal and Grandsire Caters being scored earlier this year. The "grass roots" is also flourishing, and some other people have joined the group. Two people we have taught from scratch have rung their first handbell quarters in the last year, well done to both of them!

Grandsire Triples, Oxford Bob Triples and Cambridge S Major have been added to our quarter peal repertoire, with future targets including Stedman Triples, Double Norwich CB Major and Lincolnshire Surprise. We are also still looking for another person to make up a Maximus band...

Update July 2010
by Steph Hills

This year the handbell band has been going from strength to strength. Practising every Wednesday lunchtime, we progressed from Plain Bob Minor to the dizzy heights of Cambridge Surprise Major! A quarter peal of this was achieved in March. Other quarter peals of Oxford Treble Bob Minor, Kent Treble Bob Minor and Major and Cambridge Surprise Minor have also been rung.

On top of this two peals have been rung this year, Kent Treble Bob Major and Plain Bob Major. The one of Plain Bob Major is particularly special as it is believed to be the first all undergraduate peal of major in the history of the ECG (A full article is on the achievements page).

I would strongly encourage everyone to give handbells a go. I had never rung before I came to university but now I'm addicted! I would like to thank Matt Hilling, Ian Campbell and Tom Hinks for all their expertise and support during the year.

Want to find out more?
Every Wednesday 12.30pm - 2.00pm
Harrison Building, Room 171
or contact Matt Hilling.

Written by David Maynard May 2004