The Nostalgia column with Margaret Watson: Bell ringers select the right tempo to win competition

LAST week I wrote about the young hand-bell ringers from St Peter’s Church, Earlsheaton, who played at concerts throughout the district in the 1940s.

Wednesday, 6th January 2021, 11:29 am
Winners: A picture to gladden the heart of all local historians and lovers of the art of hand-bell ringing. Unfortunately, there are few details of those pictured, but we do know they were champion hand-bell ringers from Dewsbury who won a number of major national competitions. I’m not sure if those pictured were the ones who won the national championship in Manchester in 1888 or other national contests.
Winners: A picture to gladden the heart of all local historians and lovers of the art of hand-bell ringing. Unfortunately, there are few details of those pictured, but we do know they were champion hand-bell ringers from Dewsbury who won a number of major national competitions. I’m not sure if those pictured were the ones who won the national championship in Manchester in 1888 or other national contests.

This week I’m writing about the Dewsbury Hand-Bell Ringers who went before them and won international fame in the 1880s.

The band was launched in 1877 by the landlord of the Wakefield Arms on Back Wilton Street in Dewsbury.

When they started they only had 56 bells, all second-hand, and although their first few years were uneventful, they did eventually go on to greater things.

Margaret Watson.

They built up the number of hand-bells which would be expected of a major band, the smallest being the size of a thimble and the largest as big as a coal scuttle.

This was at a time when Dewsbury people, especially the working classes, had started appreciating not only listening to fine music but also actively taking part in it. Almost every pub in the town was expected to have its resident pianist, and the Black Bull in Dewsbury even had its own orchestra.

The town also had its own orchestra and band, and many villages had their own brass bands, as did pits and factories.

You could say that the streets of Dewsbury were truly alive with the sound of music, as was Crow Nest Park at weekends when top-class musicians played there.

It was no surprise therefore that the hand-bell bands of the district, like the one formed in Earlsheaton in 1887, became great attractions.

One of the early band members of the Dewsbury Hand-Bell Band, Mr Walter Senior, recalled many years later in an interview with the Reporter that having only 56 bells had greatly restricted them.

He said: “We found some pieces a bit difficult to play, and when we were stuck fast for a note, we’d throw the bells from one to the other so we could keep the melody going.”

In 1888, a new conductor, Arthur Fearnsides, led the band to triumph in the national contest at Belle Vue.

Afterwards the famous hand-bells were engraved with all the names of the ringers and the words: “Dewsbury Hand-Bell Band”, Winners of the First Prize at Belle Vue in 1888.

Rivalry between the hand-bell bands in this district at this time was exceptionally keen, the four biggest bands in the neighbourhood being Dewsbury, Liversedge, Birstall and Crossley Moor.

There were some rare tussles among the bands and prior to the 1888 championship, excitement in the Dewsbury and Liversedge camps was at fever pitch.

Liversedge was Dewsbury’s closest rival, and one day the Dewsbury ringers went to listen to them practicing the test pieces for the competition – the overture to Crown Diamonds and the Cuckoo Polkas.

The opening was a slow movement, and Mr Fearnsides had been getting his band to practice it slowly, but when the Dewsbury ringers heard Liversedge practicing it much quicker, they were alarmed.

They felt sure their new conductor had got it wrong, and they immediately appealed to him to allow them to play it faster like the Liversedge players.

He wouldn’t hear of it and told them flatly: “If you want to go to Belle Vue with me, you’ll do as I want you to do – not as you want to do.”

With some bitterness, they accepted his ultimatum and, although all the other bands in the contest had played at the fast tempo adopted by Liversedge, the Dewsbury band walked away triumphant.

The following year they were so confident of winning again, they were openly boasting the championship was as good as theirs.

The test piece was Poet and Peasant, and so proficient had the band become, they could ring it almost as well without the conductor as with him.

They “walked away” with the championship that year, and also won it in 1894 and again in 1897.

Sadly, over the years, the Dewsbury Ringers, as they were now known, gradually started losing ground as the older members were retiring.

Their last triumph was the Yorkshire Association Championship in 1909 but after that it was all downhill.

Their numbers became even more depleted when the younger members were called up on military service during the First World War.

They were eventually unable to continue, and their famous bells were sold off, but not for scrap to be melted down which was usually the case.

A local man, Mr Darnborough, thought it a shame that such good bells should be wasted and he bought the lot.

In 1919 he sold them to a number of hand-bell ringing enthusiasts at Earlsheaton, who wanted to form themselves into a team.

Their headquarters were at the Park Hotel, Earlsheaton, and they gave exhibitions at Thornhill, Batley Carr, Ossett, Grange Moor and many other places in the district.

Some years later they disbanded and handed their historic bells to Earlsheaton Parochial Council.

They were later used by the young boys from St Peter’s Church, whom I wrote about last week.

I believe they are now in the safe keeping of Dewsbury Minster Church – at least I hope they are.

Send your bygone memories of the Dewsbury area to [email protected] I look forward to seeing them.