Hell’s Belles – Bell Ringing & the Gender Question

Engraving showing a view of the peal of bells in St.Paul's Cathedral, London, 1878. Date: 12 October 1878

Following the news this month that bell ringing is facing a national recruitment crisis, bell ringer and picture researcher Lucinda Moore turns to the archive for a historical look at bell ringing, seen through the lens of the current ringer shortage.Even a quick glance through the wealth of bell ringing images on the Mary Evans website does reflect a historical gender bias in favour of male ringers, with many of our pictures showing bands of exclusively male ringers. It was once thought that historically, poorly cast and unwieldy bells could only be managed by big strong men, making male ringers the norm, with women only starting to ring in the very late 19th and early 20th century once bells became easier to handle. However, ringing expert and author Steve Coleman debunks this idea, attributing the all-male bands to the patriarchal structure of society at the time, and to women not being given the opportunity or time outside of the home to become ringers, rather than a lack of physical strength.
Happily, as the 20th century progressed and new opportunities opened up, women began to take up bell ringing. A 1926 article in The Illustrated London News cheerfully entitled ‘The Belles of St Clement’s!’ suggested the changing attitudes, with a band of young, fashionably attired female ringers depicted at St Clement Danes church in the Strand, London. The ILN deemed the sight of female bell ringers sufficiently interesting and unusual in 1926 to dedicate a whole page to their endeavours, and in another post-WW1 article, included a small picture of a lady bell ringer as part of a spread of pictures showing women doing jobs usually performed by men. 21st century bell ringing is inclusive to a fault, with proto-ringers being generally welcomed to the tower (and later, the pub) with a big bear hug of bell ringing enthusiasm, regardless of gender.


The interior of the ringing chamber at St Paul's Cathedral, London. The twelve bells of the north tower can be seen here, about to be rung by an all male band of ringers. Date: 1903


Physical strength or even age need not be a barrier to learning. Though some bells are heavier to ring than others, and need more ‘oompf’ to get them going, these days brute force is not the key to good bell ringing. The sight of seasoned senior citizens expertly ringing not just their own bell, but also calling out to help correct the mistakes of other ringers, is not uncommon. Starting young is universally acknowledged as being beneficial, with children as young as 10 (often hailing from what are known as ‘ringing families’) able to ring impressively complicated methods.




Fear can be an obstacle to recruitment, but such fears are for the most part unfounded. It’s a commonly held misconception that bell ringing is dangerous, with some fearing suddenly being whisked up towards the ceiling on the end of a wildly flailing rope. Whilst all hobbies have an element of risk, so long as the basics of safety are observed and the bells are respected, bell ringing is pretty safe.  However, the archive does have its share of depictions of sensational bell ringing accidents in the days before health and safety: these dramatic illustrations from the French magazine Le Petit Journal give a flavour of campanological crises on the continent.
In spite of the difficulty of recruiting new ringers, there are many virtues to learning the ancient art of campanology. No costly or special kit is required; just a regular commitment and a willingness to learn. Much has changed in the world of ringing since these historical pictures were produced, but the simple pleasure that being a ringer brings has not. Whether it’s on grounds of your sex, strength, seniority or of safety, there were some significant barriers in the past to learning to ring, but they are thankfully no longer an issue: why not give it a try?