Points from Long Length Tower Bell Peals
by Martin Whiteley
I’ve always enjoyed reading Andrew Craddock’s occasional articles entitled Points from Peals in which he makes interesting observations using PealBase, his unrivalled compilation of peals that have been rung since 1923. As I have a particular interest in long length peals, which are peals of 10,000 changes or more, it occurred to me that it would be possible to investigate them in a similar way. The obvious starting point was to compile a list of all the long lengths rung on tower bells and this amounted to 551 peals, the first of which was rung in 1727. Then it seemed appropriate to enter all the peal details onto BellBoard, so that anybody with an interest could access the information quickly and easily. This exercise is now complete and what follows is a brief description of the database and some comments about this enduring yet rarefied aspect of peal ringing.
The long peal database
For peals rung after 1870 it is relatively straightforward to gather information from published sources such as The Ringing World, its forerunners (Bell News and Church Bells) and databases like PealBase and those provided by the Central Council. In contrast, the majority of peals that were rung during the 18th and 19th centuries are only known about through more diffuse sources that include local newspapers, periodicals and peal boards.
My focus was only on long tower bell peals and the criteria for their inclusion were that they must be 10,000 or more changes long and assumed to be true. There are of course, several very well-known long peals that have subsequently been shown to be false, so those are listed separately. I also chose to include those peals that were rung by a relay of men or were perhaps conducted from a manuscript, because they were perfectly acceptable practices in their day. In passing, it’s worth mentioning that long peals are not the same as record peals; record peals are a tighter sub-set that have the greatest number of changes in any given method and also meet other criteria that have been set from time to time by the Central Council.
The database is a spreadsheet that simply lists the long lengths in date order and each peal location is hyper-linked to BellBoard so that the details can be seen in a consistent fashion. A flag highlights mini-rings, here defined as rings with a tenor <1cwt. The number of changes and method rung are given, and the composition (if available) can be accessed via the BellBoard entry or CompLib. The primary reference for the information is given and for some of the older peals this includes verbatim extracts from contemporary sources. About 95% of the entries are complete, but some of the early peals are known only in summary form, reminiscent of the entries we make in our Ringing World diaries.
I’m under no illusion that the database can ever be fully complete, particularly as some 18th century performances are likely to have been unrecorded or still await discovery. But I take some comfort that my compilation corresponds with another along similar lines that was produced some years ago by Brian Woodruffe and Andy Dodd, and that both have benefitted considerably from contributions provided by our leading ringing historians. My database can be downloaded from the link below and it is certainly sufficient to provide a representative picture of long length tower bell ringing over time.
Not surprisingly, long peals generally follow several trends that are evident in the much larger population of normal length peals. The obvious difference is that long peals are rarer events, not quite in the hen’s teeth category, but on average for every 650 peals rung, just one is a long length. That said, I’m still surprised by the sheer numbers; 544 true long peals have been rung since 1727 and there are very few decades that feature fewer than five performances.
Long peals were rung in penny numbers during the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries and if we look at the first two arbitrary 100-year tranches we see only a gradual increase, both in terms of numbers rung and their average length. The effects of the two World Wars are obvious enough, but from the late 1950s onwards the numbers, frequency and average length increase markedly. Also conspicuous in the modern era is the impact of mini-rings and the prevalence of peals over 20,000 changes. In contrast to normal length peals, there is no sign that long peals have declined in popularity over the last two decades.
Long peals have traditionally focused on ringing well-established methods, with the prospect of ringing for at least twice as long as normal providing all the additional challenge that is required by an aspirant band. This is borne out by the fact that classic methods such as Plain Bob Major, Grandsire and Stedman feature strongly in the popularity stakes over time, with methods such Kent, Oxford and Double Norwich much more conspicuous in earlier times than they are today.
Peals in single methods (83%) have proved to be far more popular than multi-methods (17%) over the centuries. This is because it’s easier to ring just one method accurately for hours on end, particularly if it’s really well known and comparatively straightforward. The musical possibilities provided by classic methods are rarely exhausted, even in long lengths, so a successful outcome is typically provided by selecting a strong band, a musical and/or satisfying method, and rewarding bells.
Kent TB Major has an interesting history of performances. The second most popular method, it was first rung as a long length at Keighley in 1813 and within about 50 years the record length had been pushed up to 15,840 changes. Then a new composition was produced by William Harrison, a very neat and musical 3-part comprising 10,176 changes, and it quickly attracted attention. First rung to Oxford TB Major in 1871, it was repeated 14 times by different bands and conductors around the country, and it was clearly the long peal of choice during the late 19th century. These performances provide the clearest evidence that many long peals are simply rung for the intrinsic challenge and enjoyment that they provide, rather than for establishing new records. By the 1930s Kent was falling out of favour, but not before it had left a rich legacy of 38 peals rung in little more than a century.
Since the 1960s there has been an evident shift in method choice. Stalwarts such as Plain Bob and Double Norwich linger on, but Kent and Oxford no longer feature strongly. Instead, there is an increasing focus on ringing multi-method peals, particularly on six and eight bells. This has been facilitated by a growing number of very inventive compositions and the realisation that it possible to ring complex peals of spliced given a band with sufficient skill levels and experience.
Another less obvious trend is that Stedman Caters and Cinques have enjoyed a renaissance as bands have strived to ring ever-longer lengths in these marquee methods. Having done so, the emphasis has shifted towards the challenge of ringing 10K’s with wildly complicated compositions that transform the traditional Stedman fayre into something that our predecessors would scarcely recognise.
Long peals have been rung in 266 different locations, ranging from our great cathedrals, through a spectrum of parish churches and secular buildings large and small, to the humble garden shed. Crucial to the choice of location is the willingness of the host to sanction what is very often a prolonged public performance and it is gratifying to see how widely and frequently this happens. That said, just five places have hosted more than ten long lengths and only Appleton and Loughborough Bell Foundry have done so for more than a century. Churches with effective sound control and light rings of bells are seen as increasingly attractive options in the modern era, as are bespoke secular rings where concerns over access, weight and noise are minimised.
If the trend towards ringing long peals on lighter rings of bells began at Loughborough Bell Foundry in the 1920s, it was confirmed with the introduction of mini-rings of sufficient quality to contemplate ringing them for hours on end. Conspicuous amongst these was Tom Chapman’s ring at Pig-le-Tower, Marston Bigot. Following a lengthy gestation period during which the band learned how to get the best out of these little bells (tenor 20lbs), they emerged as a long length location in 1998 with 11,424 Overton Surprise Major. There followed a remarkable series of long peals (52 in 15 years, and many of them record lengths) that included established, obscure, and new methods, as well as a Surprise Major alphabet series. Brian Woodruffe, the doyen of long peals on tower bells, mini-rings and handbells, was the principal organiser and conductor of this prolific band, with five ringers all taking part in more than 40 peals. Ringing at speed and without the help of ropesight or the natural rhythm that characterises heavier bells, is a highly specialised business and it’s no surprise that very few other mini-rings feature in this list.
Putting flesh on the bones
Some of the more interesting aspects about long peals are provided by the human stories that lie behind them. Often these come in the form of footnotes or reports from contemporary sources and a common theme is the extent to which the peal required high levels of commitment or physical strength. Inflated claims that the peal ‘was beyond compare’ and ‘the finest ever rung’ were not unusual in the 19th century and this rousing report from the Cheltenham Chronicle in May 1817 followed a peal of 12,312 Grandsire Caters at Painswick: ‘… perhaps so striking an example of true British strength, and determined perseverance has seldom been witnessed. During the whole time every man stood to his bell, nor did any one discover the least inclination to shrink from the inconceivable exertion, which amusement, and the spirit of emulation only, had imposed on them. We are no friends of those brutal contests, by which it has been sometimes said, that the martial valour of our country is encouraged; but we have always the sincerest pleasure in announcing to our readers any manly and innocent exploit, which may remind them of the long-attested superiority of British nerve and heart …’
Long lengths have periodically provided an attractive challenge for bands of young ringers. In 1888, 10,304 Bob Major was rung on the one-ton eight at Leiston by ‘single men’ with an average age of 21, while in 1957 a 10,000 of Double Norwich CB Major was achieved at Fairfield, Buxton by a band aged just 17. Four of the ringers at Fairfield featured again when they rang 16,920 Yorkshire Royal on the chunky ten at Worsley in 1961, with a band that had an average age of less than 23. Those four youngsters (Neil Bennett, Bernard Groves, Bob Smith and Brian Woodruffe) would go on to establish themselves as the leading long length ringers of their generation. Skipping forward in time, youngsters are still making a name for themselves with impressive performances, particularly on handbells, but also with an enterprising peal of 10,040 Bristol Royal at St Thomas, Oxford in 2019. Leading ringers
Other themes can be recognised. Long peals of Major, Royal and Maximus have been rung by all-ladies bands, silent and non-conducted peals of considerable complexity have demonstrated all-round talent, and a plethora of friendly rivalries between different bands, towers or Associations have driven ambition forward. At the root of all these achievements is almost invariably an astute organiser, for it’s undoubtedly true that the major challenge presented by long peals lies in assembling an appropriate band in the first place.
The list of leading long length ringers on tower bells is dominated by those who have rung regularly on the Pig-le-Tower mini-ring. The constancy of that band has already been mentioned and the frequency of the peal attempts (almost monthly during 2000-2004) is not ever likely to be exceeded in a church tower. Brian Woodruffe and David Brown emerge as the leading long length conductors, having been doing so for 58 years and 41 years respectively, but in the company of different bands. Martin Whiteley and David Brown evidently prefer to ring on heavier peals of bells in many different locations around the country.
It seems almost invidious to highlight just one long length from the list, but I’m going to champion the incredible performance in 1761 when a relay of 14 men rang the extent (40,320 changes) of Plain Bob Major on the tough-going 18cwt eight at Leeds in Kent. The context for this peal is that it took place less than 50 years after the first ever peal was rung, when long lengths were in their infancy, and the notion that ringing could be sustained non-stop for 27 hours must have seemed completely fanciful. The visionary and conductor for the peal was probably James Barham and whilst we know the names of the other ringers, we don’t know which bells they rang or how they arranged their shifts. In a previous failed attempt James Barham is said to have rung for nearly 15 hours continuously, ‘called all the bobs and drank two glasses of wine’ so he was clearly a ringer of some pedigree and panache. It would be 200 years before this performance was matched, and then by eight men ringing the much lighter bells at Loughborough Bell Foundry for 18 hours. Brian Woodruffe, who rang at Loughborough, notes that it was relatively effortless compared to the challenges presented at Leeds and that having more ringers involved does not belittle their performance at all.
What about the future?
Ringing long lengths appeals only to the very few, but through their efforts a 300-year history has already been established. For those with an interest, the fundamental challenge presented by a double-peal has remained undiminished over time, with the same tangible attractions that often accompany ordinary peals simply being magnified during the longer versions. Nor is there a lack of worthwhile things to ring in the future; history shows us that tastes have changed, but there will always be a core of classic methods (and perhaps still more to discover) that warrant attention. Add in the frisson that will inevitably be provided by new compositions and freshly available peals of bells and there’s every reason to believe that long peals will continue for many more decades to come.
In compiling this list, I have drawn extensively on Andrew Craddock’s PealBase for those peals rung during the last century, along with the Central Council’s Record Peals and Felstead databases for earlier time periods. The Ringing World, Bell News and Church Bells were the primary sources for peals rung after 1870, but before that time peals are typically only known through local newspapers, periodicals or peal boards. Access to those rather esoteric sources has been generously provided by John Eisel, along with Oliver Austin, Phil Barnes, Alan Glover, David Grimwood, Dickon Love and Chris Pickford. Brian Woodruffe and Andy Dodd kindly drew my attention to their unpublished long peal database which was developed along similar lines to mine, includes handbells, but has no recourse to BellBoard.
I’m enormously grateful to Jane Boden who carefully transcribed the bulk of the peals from various published sources onto BellBoard, while Simon Bond and Graham John have been responsible for putting all the compositions that are currently accessible onto CompLib.