Summary History of Handbells

Early History of Handbells

Handbells are a small percussion instrument. (One might question use of the word "small" for some of the bass bells, especially of Aluminum.)

Handbells were usually of brass or bronze, but sometimes have been of copper, clay, porcelain, glass, wood, or other hard material.(1) They are attached to a stem, loop, or leather strap for a handle; most have a clapper, though some are struck externally. The earliest handbells were probably of beaten copper, but since the Bronze Age most metal bells have been cast.

Chinese artifacts shaped like fish mouths with handles date from 1600 BC. Though they may have been scoops for measuring rice, such shapes did become sets of handbells by the 6th century BC, and thus may have been handbells earlier.

Eighty bronze-cast findings from 7th-century BC Nineveh (in modern Iraq) seem to be handbells.

To but Nineveh into more historical perspective, MANY centuries later than the likely handbells from the 7thcentury, the northern 10 tribes of Isreal were conquered and carried off in 734 and then 722 BC (in two stages) to Assyria (whose capital was Nineveh in what is now modern Iraq). While that is much later than 7th-century BC, it provides what to some may be a more familiar timeline milestone. The southern kingdom known as Judah, was subsequently similarly conquered and carried off in an even later phase, which culminated in 586 BC with the destruction of the first Temple in Jerusalem.(2)

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Some 49 6th-century AD Irish bells, made of iron plate, hammered square and riveted, are preserved, the most famous being the Clog-an-Eadhacta Phatraic (Bell of St. Patrick’s Will) of about AD 552.

Handbells in various forms became part of rituals from ancient times to the modern Roman Catholic Angelus and Buddhist altar bells. The latter have a lotus flower design on the end of their handles, a symbol of creation that is also present on the handles of Hindu bells. Such handbells are used to punctuate segments of a ceremony. Other handbells have been used in ceremonies meant to exorcise demons or cure sickness.

Uses Throughout the Centries

Handbells have been used to signal and to attract attention.  Examples include handbells used by street vendors, town criers, and night watchmen in the West. In ancient Greece they announced the opening of the fish market, and in Rome, of the public baths. The common practice of ringing handbells during funeral processions (often to ward off demons) was recorded on the 11th-century Bayeux Tapestry. Medieval European peasants rang handbells in the fields as fertility charms.

Evolution of Bell Making Techniques

European bell making was originally a monastic craft. The earliest Christian bells were of iron plates hammered square and riveted (resembling cowbells). Although bronze casting was practiced in pre-Christian Europe, it was not resumed to any extent until the 8th century AD.

The first tuned handbells were developed by Ancient Vedic Civilizations (1500 BC to 500 BC)(3), the ones who were situated in the Indian Subcontinent; for example - Harrapan and Mohenjodaro Civilizations.

Between 1696 and 1724 AD, Robert and William Cor in Aldbourne, Wiltshire, England, originally made latten boxes, also called Team Bells, Harness Bells. They were attached to the hames on horse riggings.

Hames are short curved rigid parts of the horse harness, attached to either side of the horse collar, to which the traces of the harness are attached. The invention of the horse collar allowed the horse to pull with its sholders, greatly increasing its ability to pull. That substantially increased productivity. The latten bells were attached to the top of the hames on either side of the horse collar across its top. They contained several bells that rang when the horse moved. The purpose for the bells was to give warning to other horse drawn vehicles when traveling on narrow country lanes with insufficient room for passing. (4) The English version enclosed the bells to protect them from weathering, therefore the name latten boxes.(5)

For reasons unknown, the brothers began tuning their bells more finely to have an accurate fundamental tone, and fitted them with hinged clappers that moved only in one plane. A foundry in Loughborough, Leicestershire, that originated in the 14th century became John Taylor & Co in 1784. It became commonly known as Taylor's Bell Foundry.

In 2009 that foundary went into what the U.S. would call bankruptcy [Britain calls it Administration]. They successfully reorganized the same year and continue successfully operating.(6)

Practical Musical Use

Sets of handbells tuned diatonically (i.e., to a seven-note scale) first appeared in England in the 17th century, such as the ones made by the Cor brothers for their Harness Bells attached to the hames on horse riggings.

(The seven-note scale are the notes represented by the white keys on a piano.)

Those handbells were used by church tower bell change ringers to rehearse in locations other than inside their towers.

(Change ringing is a British form of pealing, whereby 5 to 12 bells are rung in mathematical permutations (different orderings in the ringing sequence), by pulling ropes attached to bell wheels. On five, six, or seven bells, a peal is the maximum number of permutations (orderings) possible.)

Tower bell ringers' enthusiasm for practicing the complicated algorithms of change ringing can easily exceed the neighbors' patience, so handbells were an educational tool that offered them a way to practice change ringing without the aural assault on the surrounding town. It was also pleasanter for the ringers to learn and practise in the warmth of the local pub rather than in a cold tower in winter. The handbell sets used by change ringers had the same number of bells as in the towers – generally six to twelve, tuned to a 7-note diatonic scale.

Popularity in England

By the 18th century, groups of ringers had branched out into tune playing, with the bells’ range expanded to several chromatic (12-note) octaves.

(The 12 chromatic notes includes the 7 diatonic notes plus the additional 5 represented by the black keys on a piano.)

Sets of handbells ranging up to five octaves have been popular in England and the U.S. since the 19th century as a group method for producing melodies and simple harmonies.

Sets of handbells are now available in 7 octaves and increasing.

However, bass bronze handbells in octaves below octave 3 are very heavy, and thus quite strenuous for ringers to deal with for a full rehersal/concert, plus their ringing charactistic and muddied overtones cause their notes not to carry well in concert halls. Thus, Malmark introduced Aluminum bass bells for octaves 2 and part of octave 1. Those bells are lighter, and their fundamental note carries better in concert halls.(7)

They Are Called English Handbells

The bells used in American Handbell choirs are almost always English Handbells. "English Handbells" is a reference to a specific type of handbells, not to the country of origin. While some American handbell choirs do use bells made in England, the majority play bells made either by Malmark Bellcraftsmen or by Schulmerich Bells, both located near each other and their common foundary, in Pennsylvania.

In the United Kingdom, there is a distinction between "American Handbells" and "English Handbells." English Handbells are traditional, with leather clapper heads and handles (such as the bells Whitechapel made), while American Handbells use modern materials, such as plastic and rubber, to produce the same effect (such as those produced by Malmark and Schulmerich). In America, however, they are all called English Handbells.

Rise in U.S. Popularity

English Handbells are thought to have been introduced to America by the Peake Family Ringers in the 1830's and then in the 1840’s by P.T. Barnum. He introduced bell-ringing bands to the United States in 1847. Modern Western bell-ringing bands generally consist of 8 to 12 players, each of whom controls from 2 to 12 bells set out on a table.

In 1902, Margaret Shurcliff of Boston, was presented with a set of 10 handbells in London by Arthur Hughes, the general manager of the Whitechapel Bell Foundry, after she completed two separate two-and-a-half-hour change ringing peals in one day. In 1923, Mrs. Shurcliff organized the Beacon Hill Ringers, followed by other groups which formed in the Northeast United States. The New England Guild of Handbell Ringers was formed in 1937 and then in the 1950's and '60's, hundreds of groups began to spring up throughout the United States in churches, schools and other organizations.

In 1954 the American Guild of English Handbell Ringers (AGEHR) was founded with Mrs. Shurcliff as its first President. The Guild publishes a newsletter which is credited for the advancement of bell ringing nationwide and serves as a conduit to further the advancement of bell ringing and to pass on information about national and regional festivals and new knowledge gained about the art of English Handbell ringing.

In 2010, AGEHR changed its name to Handbell Musicians of America (HMA).(8) It’s primary objectives are to educate, promote the exchange of ideas relating to handbell and handchime ringing, and sponsor educational activities.

What Do They Play and Where?

Handbells Alone

Handbells are played in mixed instrumental ensembles, usually one bell in each of the player’s hands.

(There are other ringing techniques with more than one bell in each hand.) A handbell choir or ensemble (in the United States) or handbell team (in England) is a group that rings recognizable music with melodies and harmony, as opposed to the mathematical permutations used in change ringing.

Due to handbell choirs having been initially predominantly used in church services — although less so now than in the 1980s and early 1990s — the majority of pieces for handbells last approximately four minutes.

(An example of a non-church use in the 21st century was as short backgound color music to an outdoor public scene in a Hallmark Channel Christmas movie.)

Handbells with Other Instruments

A few composers and arrangers are writing longer and more intricate original works. Another variation is arrangements made of established classics for handbells. An example is Canon in D by Pachelbel.

Other such longer form pieces may use handblls in combination with other instruments. Some shortform examples of combined instruments, include:

Violin, Voice & Handbell The Snow Lay On The Ground (with solo voice and violin).

Joy to the World with Psalm 19 by Marcello (from Linda McKechnie website for handbell music)" target="_parent (with orchestra)

Festive Praise “St. Anne” (from Linda McKechnie website for handbell music) (with organ.)

Go Tell It on the Mountain and He Is Born with Troika by Prokofiev (from Linda McKechnie website for handbell music) (with orchestra)

Ukranian carol with Sing We Now of Christmas, French carol (from Linda McKechnie website for handbell music) (with orchestra)

There are other examples of such arrangements on the internet and YouTube.

There are several major publishers providing printed handbell music, such as:

However, there are numerous handbell scores available from other sources for secular Holiday songs, such as from JW Pepper.

There are lots of secular and pop songs from:

Costs associated with handbell music typically result from shipping and dissemination. Many scores are only published in hard-copy, and most publishers do not permit duplication, thus multiple copies must be purchased and shipped for each individual ringer.



(2) Babylonian Captivity,

(3) Vedic Age,

(4) Latten Hame Horse Bells,

(5) In North America they were called Conestoga Bells Classic Bells

(6) John Taylor & Co,

(7) In 1992, Malmark patents and begins also manuacturing bass bells made of Aluminum.

(8) Mission (of Handbell Musicians),



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