Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Fact: the Bell-Ringing Riot of 1881

England is an island fond of its bells. Since the 17th century groups with names like the College Youths and the London Scholars have clambered up church towers to the bells, not to make music, but to ring a set of particular permutations called 'changes'. Sometimes they'd drink while they were on the job--a 'peal' of 5040 changes could take upwards of three hours to ring, and it was hard, laborious, thirsty work that much deserved a beer.

That the ringing took place in the church tower was often the most religious thing about English bell ringing. Bell ringing societies were more likely to give a peal in honor of someone's birthday or a horse race than to usher in divine service. This all changed in the 1850s when church reformers tried to reconnect the bell tower and the church. The buildings were literally connected after all. They wanted bell ringing to be associated with church functions. And they wanted the bell ringers to quit drinking while they were on the job.

This sometimes did not go over well with the bell ringers, who, like many of us, were fond of their beer.

In 1881, for example, a rector in Devon wanted to stop the bell ringers from ringing throughout the local Revel Week--a weeklong orgy of drunken popular culture. The bell ringers responded by breaking into the bell tower and ringing anyway. They also turned their wrath to the rector, stealing his chickens, throwing stones at his family, and burning down his farm buildings.

History shows us that the West Worlington, Devon, Society of Ringers ain't nothing to fuck with.

Fact gleaned from Ron Johnston's Bell-Ringing, p 233.

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