Ring Out, Wild Bells

(Image: Dougsim, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

It seemed a simple enough question. Were our ancestors Cockneys? I was more than a little surprised by what was revealed to me.

Traditionally a Cockney is anyone born within the sound of Bow Bells in the City of London. We may have been brought up on the children’s story of Dick Whittington and his cat, where the sound of Bow Bells appeared to call Dick to return to London to claim his fortune. We may also be familiar with the nursery rhyme, Oranges and Lemons,

When will you pay me?
Say the bells of Old Bailey
When I grow rich,
Say the bells at Shoreditch.
When will that be?
Say the bells of Stepney.
I do not know,
Says the great bell at Bow.

The great bell at Bow referred to the largest of twelve bells, weighing nearly three tonnes, at the church of St Mary-Le-Bow in Cheapside, London (installed in 1762 and destroyed in an air raid of 1941).

Were my family born within the sound of Bow Bells? It turns out that this is not quite such a straightforward question. Let’s travel back to the time of 1851. Assuming a prevailing south-westerly wind how far would the sound of Bow Bells have travelled?

Well, here is the meteorological answer:

“The sound would have travelled as far as Waltham Forest and Newham to the east, and covered the whole City, but did not penetrate into the West End at all.”

The extent of Bow Bell’s audibility in 1851 (green) compared to modern day coverage (blue). This map was created by the consultancy company 24 Acoustics in 2012

Today it seems that Cockneys are a more rarefied species. With increasing congestion and traffic in London, ambient noise has muffled our Bow bells. Taller buildings in the city also prevent the spread of those hallowed sounds. The likelihood of being born within earshot of Bow Bells has diminished substantially over time so that by 2012, being a Cockney seemed almost impossible unless you were abandoned as a baby at the steps of the Bank of England.

Daniel Jewson’s wife and family certainly heard the sound of bells from their house on Beer Lane, which was only across the road from All Hallows Barking (today called All Hallows-by-the-Tower). St-Mary-le-Bow was only a twenty minute walk away and well within earshot of Beer Lane.

Location of Beer Lane (Beare Lane) in Hollar’s map from the late Seventeenth Century. Located just to the West of the Tower of London and adjacent to All Hallows of Barking.

Grievous Offence

Let’s return to Hannah Jewson, the young girl that survived the harrowing Princess Alice debacle under London Bridge (and our Great Grandmother). It seems that her grandfather, Daniel Jewson bore the same name as his father and his grandfather, stretching back through the 18th-century. We know this because of the records kept at Leadenhall, relating to the Waterman and Lighterman apprenticeship, that invariably involved a father acting as Master taking on his son as apprentice. Daniel was a lighterman through and through.

But grandfather Daniel Jewson had another calling in life. It seems that he was an impassioned change ringer; a term that describes the ‘art of ringing a set of tuned bells in a tightly controlled manner to produce precise variations in their successive striking sequences, known as ‘change”.

Bell ringing in those days was a decidedly male affair, with women bell ringers only being accepted into the societies in the latter part of the 19th century.

Early Eighteenth Century change ringers (from Love’s Guide to The Church Bells of the City of London)

Not everyone shared Daniel Jewson’s passion for the sound of bells as expressed by one reader who wrote into the Weekly Dispatch.

“May we be permitted to ask “the celebrated Mr Daniel Jewson”, and the rest of the worthies calling themselves “College Youths,” what grievous offence had the inhabitants of the parish church of St Mary, Thames Street committed, that they were subjected, on Tuesday last, to the jangling nuisance of “a true peal of caters,” that lasted three hours and ½, to the annoyance of the healthy and the torture of the sick?”

Weekly Dispatch (London) 30 April 1837

The poet Ezra Pound expressed a similar disdain for bellringing some one hundred years later:

“The act of bell ringing is symbolic of all proselytizing religions. It implies the pointless interference with the quiet of other people.”

Ezra Pound

But this dislike was not universal – in fact news report of the time generally celebrated the feat of bellringing as if it were an Olympic event.

Wonderful feat of change ringing. On Monday evening last the Junior Society of College Youths rang on the bells of St Saviours, Southwark, a true and complete peal of triples, on Steadman’s principle, containing 35,000 changes, which was composed and called by the celebrated Mr Daniel Jewson.”

Public Ledger and Daily Advertiser 26 October 1837

The Queen’s visit to the City

There was tremendous rivalry between the bellringing societies in the City of London, most notably between the Society of College Youths and the Society of Cumberland Youths.

“The Society of College Youths, the Junior Society of College Youths and the Society of Cumberland Youths, have each agreed to ring a peal of caters on Steadman’s principle, to contain 7000 changes. The junior Society will ring their peal at St Magnus, by London Bridge, where the civic procession will take water) which will be conducted by the secretary, Mr Daniel Jewson.  Bets to a considerable amount are pending between the three societies, and 6 to 1 offered by the connoisseurs in favour of the Junior College Youths”

Weekly Sun 05 November 1837

The Society of College Youths is today called the Ancient Society of College Youths and describes itself as the ‘premier change ringing society in the City of London, with a national and international membership that promotes excellence in ringing around the world’.

Beyond the City

But the change ringing societies did not confine their celebration of bells to the City of London. Occasionally they would travel further afield to inaugurate new bells. We see the Society of College Youths appearing in a Kentish newspaper in 1838, declaring the christening of new bells installed at Westerham (near Sevenoaks) in Kent (eight bells today stand in the tower of St Mary’s in Westerham, seven of which were newly recast in 1837).

“Change ringing. A new set of eight bells having recently been placed in the steeple of the parish church of Westerham, Kent, upon which no performance of any consequence had been achieved, the Junior Society of College Youths (accompanied by their secretary, Mr. Daniel Jewson, and Mr Zachariah Frost, of the Cumberland Society, who is considered by the amateurs of the art to be the most competent man in England to ring a tenor bell), hired a van [a covered wagon for transporting goods] and four horses, and on Tuesday last, the 26th inst.. took a run down there, and performed on the bells a true and complete peal of Oxford treble-bob-major, containing 14,120 changes, being the greatest number ever accomplished in that method. The peel was composed and called by Mr Daniel Jewson and the tenor bell was rung by Mr Zachariah Frost with his usual ability.”

Kentish Weekly Post or Canterbury Journal 09 January 1838

Queen Victoria’s Coronation

Meticulous preparations were made for Queen Victoria’s coronation (28th June 1838) and the musical ‘robustness’ of the bellringer’s preparations were loudly announced in the newspapers the day before:

“…The Society of Cumberland Youths will perform on those beautiful toned bells at St Mary le Bow, Cheapside, a peal of Steadman’s caters, containing 6120 changes; the tenor bell of this peal weighs 53 cwt., which will be rung by Mr Zachariah Frost, who is considered by the amateurs to be the most competent man in England to ring a tenor bell. The junior Society of Cumberland youths will ring on the bells of All Hallows Barking, Tower Street, 5040 changes of bob major which will be conducted by Mr Daniel Jewson…”

Saint James’s Chronicle 26 June 1838

The sounds of bells could be heard throughout the City of London on this day in 1838.

A Novel Feat

The competitive spirit of bellringing in the City of London is seen to continue several years later in celebration of the Tower Regatta:

Novel feat of change ringing. On Tuesday the 27th (being the anniversary of the Tower Regatta), was rang at the church of All Hallows Barking, by the Junior Society of Cumberland Youths, a true and complete peal of 7120 changes of Bob-majors, being the greatest performances on the bells for the last 40 years, which was completed, under the judicious arrangement of Mr Daniel Jewson, in the unprecedented short time of four hours and five minutes.

Morning Advertiser 29 July 1841

Bells no more

Alas, the bells at All Hallows Barking ring no more, having been destroyed in 1940 during the blitz. Beer Lane is no longer there and the sound of Bow Bells is only audible to the most astute listener above the hubbub of London traffic.

Devastation of All Hallows-by-the-Tower (from Love’s Guide to The Church Bells of the City of London)

But somehow, I still hear those bells of Daniel Jewson.

“It is impossible to stop cadence. A bell rings long after the clapper hits the cup.”

― Steven James Taylor, The Dog

Ring out the old

We might have time to reflect on the passing year. Perhaps we are separated from distant love ones. The chiming of church bells rather than a ‘ping’ on a Zoom call reminds us of our children that can’t be with us.

“When, sometime later, Laurel asked about the bell, her mother replied calmly that how good a bell was depended on the distance away your children had gone.”

― Eudora Welty, The Optimist’s Daughter

And to end the year, lets join Daniel Jewson in ringing out the old and ringing in the new:

Ring out the old, ring in the new,
Ring, happy bells, across the snow:
The year is going, let him go;
Ring out the false, ring in the true.
Ring out the grief that saps the mind
For those that here we see no more;
Ring out the feud of rich and poor,
Ring in redress to all mankind.
Ring out a slowly dying cause,
And ancient forms of party strife;
Ring in the nobler modes of life,
With sweeter manners, purer laws.
Ring out the want, the care, the sin,
The faithless coldness of the times;
Ring out, ring out my mournful rhymes

Excerpt from “Ring Out, Wild Bells” is a poem by Alfred, Lord Tennyson. Published in 1850″

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