The age old practice of bell ringing at St Michael and All Angels Church, is an interesting aspect of Twerton history, as well as an example of how a particular tradition can sit at the centre of much social activity.
Some early information on bell ringing at Twerton is provided by Reginald Naish, an old Twerton historian who wrote about Twerton in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Naish found from church records, that the Twerton Ringers of the 17th century had rung the bells in remembrance of the foiled Gunpowder Plot – an event that was also celebrated with a Village Feast.
Naish noted also that in 1677 the Ringers had been paid 5 shillings for their services in celebrating the marriage of King William III to Queen Mary II. In addition, he discovered that a peal of 5 bells at the Twerton church had been recast into a set of 6 bells by Abraham Rudhall in 1724. These facts appear in the pamphlet A Tale of Twerton on pages 7 and 8.
The leather bound volumes in St Michael and All Angels Church contain some scattered references to bell ringing, including a 1920s record of two female bell ringers at the church who donated new bell ropes.
It was forbidden to ring church bells during the Second World War, as these were to send out a warning signal if the country was ever invaded by enemy forces. After the war, bell ringing in Twerton was slow to recover. A band of Bath Ringers would visit and ring the Twerton bells on the second Sunday of the month, as part of their efforts to ring for as many Bath churches as they could.
It is known from the pamphlet A Tale of Twerton, that the Twerton bells rang a muffled peal over the death of King George VI in 1952, and were later rung to mark the coronation of his daughter Queen Elizabeth II the following year. From about that year, a newspaper cutting records the passing away of an eldery Twerton Ringer who rang his first peal in Twerton in 1888.
An article in a 1969 edition of a paper called Twerton News, continues the story of the Twerton Bell Ringers:
Mr Roger Fry (now Rev. R. O. Fry, Rector of Portishead) became Captain of the Ringers in 1953 and set about the task of teaching a new band.
This he did with the help of John Hobbs, who had been appointed Organist, and some ringers from R.A.F. Colerne. So in 1956 the bells were rung for the first time for three Sunday Services and the pattern has continued ever since.
Photos of the Twerton Bell Ringers from that time period have been kindly supplied by Joanna Wheatland, with help on some of the names provided by Rodney Brown.
The Bell Ringers of St Michael and all Angels, 9th April 1955
Back row from left to right: Captain of the Bell Ringers Roger Owen Fry, Rod S. N. Brown, Benita Kathleen Whetherly, Terence John Milsom, Percy Young, Timothy Vaughan Pitt. Middle three from left to right: Alan Frederick Lee, John Hobbs, Mike Cole. The boy at the front is John Palmer.
John Hobbs is the central figure with glasses in the above photo. A Twerton organist named Peter Little remembers that John Hobbs served as the organist at St Michael and All Angels Church from the early 1950s to the 1980s. Blindness had caused Mr Hobbs to cease playing the church organ, but Peter says he once witnessed him playing beautifully on the piano although completely blind.
The Bell Ringers and other church members on an outing some time around 1957
From left to right: Benita Kathleen Whetherly, Judy Brice, Terence J Milsom, unknown lady in back row, Renata Kirschen, man with glasses unknown, then back row Timothy Vaughan Pitt, in front of him is Mrs Woodburn, back row Harold Parfrey, in front of him is Sealy S. Woodburn.
Back row from right to left: Captain of the Bell Ringers Roger Owen Fry, and Assistant Captain Alan Frederick Lee. Middle row from right to left: Percy Young and Mrs Young. Front row from right to left: John Hobbs, Mrs Betty Parfrey with her daughter, Rodney Brown.
Another grainy photograph from the 1950s
From left to right: Alan Frederick Lee, Fred Arkle, Brian Jones, Ron Stapleford, Terry Milsom, John Hobbs, David Jefferies, Philip Brown, Jim Jefferies, Rodney Brown, Susan Whetherly, Chris Barrable, Percy Young, Barbara Clarke, Richard Hall.
There are some recollections of Twerton bell ringing from the 1960s. In his memories of ‘Sixties’ Twerton, Mr Chris Stillman recalls:
When I was about fourteen the church at Twerton was very lively and great for youth. We did a lot of bell ringing. Again there was an ulterior motive: the girls were rather nice and they’d entice you to come along. So that was another little gang, the Bell Ringing Gang. We went to dances together and the Saturday night Youth Club was formed out of that. The Youth Club was in the grounds of the Old Vicarage.
Mr Mike Hawkins, a regular at St Michael and All Angels Church, served as a Bell Ringer from the 1960s to the 1990s, having been trained by Alan Lee who appears in two of the above photos. Mike remembers that in the old days the bells were rung three times on a Sunday for the three church services. These would be: Communion at 9.15am, Matins at 11am and Evensong at 6.30pm. Of course, there were also special services and weddings to ring for.
Mike says that there would be outings to ring the bells at churches as far away as Devon and Dorset. Usually travel would be by coach or car, but sometimes the young men would cycle out to places such as Chew Valley Lake and East Harptree on social occasions. Other Ringers at Twerton included Ian Cox (who went on to Bath Abbey), Lesley Cox and David Jeffreys.
Two former Twerton Bell Ringers of the 1960s
Left: Mike Hawkins in the 1995 Twerton play, The Southside Sisters
Right: Chris Stillman whose memories of Twerton can be found on the Articles page
In the 1990s, Mr Robin Winn took over from Mike Hawkins as Captain of the Twerton Bell Ringers. By this time it was necessary to import Ringers from other churches such as the Bath Abbey to make up numbers. However, people at the church were still being trained for the task, and other groups came to ring at Twerton – with examples including Bell Ringing Guilds from Birmingham, Peterborough, Worcester and Hereford.
Robin remembers an amusing incident when his son Joshua was ringing the second bell and the rope snapped and coiled all around his feet. Being only about 12 at the time, it gave the boy quite a fright. A youth worker at the church named Justine Woolley saw the bell ringing as an opportunity for outreach with young people, and managed to get some youngsters ringing. But when she left to train to be a Priest in 2006, no-one replaced her and the young people fell away. The bells are not normally used now, except for weddings.
Robin says that the attractions of bell ringing have been the camaraderie of the group and the skills needed to perform the “methods” (the patterns in which the bells are rung). It was also once common for Ringers to find a partner to marry through this activity. This latter point connects with other details that collectively show how important the bell ringing in Twerton was. It served not only as an expression of things the community considered important – worship, marriage, the deaths and coronations of kings and queens etc – but also as a way to build relationships.
Through the practice of bell ringing, friendships were strengthened, social occasions were arranged, the young mixed with the adult world, unchurched people became involved with the church, marriage partners might be found, and people from different communities made contact with each other. So by delving into a little history, a tradition that lacks interest for some people today is suddenly brought to life.
See also: 2012 Twerton Reunion.