Handbells have a rich and interesting history, beginning as an invention of 17th century bell tower ringers (change ringers) to allow practice in more comfortable surroundings than their cold open air ringing halls, rising and falling in popularity during the next centuries, until today handbell choirs are widely popular not only in church and academic venues, but also in therapeutic settings.
Many have speculated about what motivated the invention of handbells. The Director of the San Francisco Handbell Choir, Caroline Harnly, believes that “The practice of handbell ringing originated in England during the 17th century, when those who rang church bells wanted to practice their skills without revealing their mistakes to others. Small brass bells that played the notes of the bells in the steeples were developed for practice”. That’s a logical aassumption, coming from a bell choir director who’s undoubtedly heard more than her share of ringers’ mistakes.
The historian at www.handbells.org.au , writing “A Little General History About Bells and Handbells”, offers a brief historical background: “It was during the later middle ages that the organ finally ousted the wind instruments, strings, harps and bells, and it is likely that the bells were relegated to cupboards and boxes, perhaps in the towers, to be rung again during the 16th and 17th centuries by tower bell ringers who found it more agreeable to sit in the comfort of a local inn and practice their changes than to spend hours in a cold church tower..”
Writing creatively as the choir director on the azaleacircle.com sacred music website, Timothy Shepard envisions this scenario: “Close your eyes and imagine a medieval English village nestled into green rolling hills. Then picture a quaint country parish church perched on a hilltop of that village. The church boasts a tower with 8 big bells that toll to celebrate or mark the important festivals. Now imagine hearing the solemn, stately tintinnabulation of these bells. You soon realize, though, that they have been pealing for at least the past 6 hours, and this is the third day in a row. You see, the bell team has been practicing for a very special occasion. And not surprising, even the members of the team are starting to get a little tired of pulling the ropes that set the several ton bells in motion, and they’re chilled to the bone practicing in the nearly open air chamber. Some smart person decided that there must be a better way to practice change ringing (which is what the team does) and handbells were invented to the delight of many.”
Paul W. Allen, writing for the group RiverBells in Sacramento, CA, sums it up: “Change ringing was noisy – it awakened the entire town, even if just for rehearsal – and the ringing hall (many feet below the suspended bells) was neither heated nor air-conditioned. In the 17th century, change ringers invented hand-bells for practice.”