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The tower was built around 1450. In 1553, it had 4 bells (plus a sanctuary bell, not hung in the tower). We know nothing about them, but since Wokingham Bell Foundry was a few minutes walk from the church, we can surmise that they might have been cast there.
The first mention of ringing in Wokingham was in 1664, when Richard Palmer set up his charity to endow the ringing of the curfew. He gave lands, the profits from which were to be paid: ‘to the Sexton of the Parish Church of Wokingham, or to such other persons as the Trustees think meet, to ring the greatest bell belonging to the said Parish Church that shall be fit to be rung, half an hour every evening at eight o’clock and every morning at 4 o’clock, or as near those hours as may be, from the 10th of September to the 11th of March in each year for ever.’
His stated object was to promote: ‘a timely going to rest in the evening, and early risings (things ordinarily attended and rewarded with thrift and proficiency), and that strangers who should happen to lose their way in winter might be informed of the time of night, and receive some guidance; and also that all those whose care of being mindful of their latter end should incline them thereunto, might at the ringing of the evening bell think of their own passing and day of death, and at the ringing of the said morning bell might think of the resurrection and call to their last judgement.’
By the end of the 19th century, the curfew was still being rung, but rather less regularly. In 1914, a dispute over Palmer's charity nearly led to it being discontinued, but an annoymous private donor came to the rescue. The curfew was rung for the final time shortly after 8pm on 24th November 1982.
The installation of six bells in 1704 must have given a boost to ringing, though it would still have been very limited by modern standards. In the 18th century, bellringing was very much a public sport, and the local inn keepers used to sponsor ringing competitions (along with pigeon shooting, cudgelling, quarter-stick matches, cock fighting, and the like). The Ship, The Bush, The Six Bells (which was in Cross Street) and the Half Moon (where the Post Office is now) all sponsored ringing contests in the late 1700s. The inn keepers provided the prizes, normally a set of embroidered hats, and they covered their costs from the profit on eating and drinking. The competitors had to eat a set meal called ‘the ordinary’, which usually cost a shilling, and some innkeepers banned people from eating anywhere else. The home team was not allowed to ring on their own bells, but there were plenty of competitions at other villages in the area.
In the early 19th century, the ringers were paid to ring on occasions of public rejoicing, and they were often paid in beer. For all this ringing and beer, the churchwardens spent £25 between1808 and 1820, a fifth of what they spent on the 1814 bell restoration, which included 2 new bells!
We don't know whether the ringers rang for services though! In the early 19th century, relationships between the church at large and ringers was not good, and there is no reason to suppose that Wokingham was any different. This changed dramatically with the Belfry Reform movement , which swept the land in the late 1800s. Belfry Reform was not just about improving the behaviour and moral tone of ringers, and getting them accepted as church workers. It was about the promotion of change ringing. Many of the reforming clerics learnt to ring while at university, and they saw the widespread introduction of change ringing as a means to improve the tone of ringers. They probably felt that if ringers learnt this more intellectual type of ringing, they would also adopt other middle class habits as well.
Change ringing had been established since around 1600, and change ringing peals had been rung in the early 1700s at towers within easy travelling distance of Wokingham, including St Mary & St Lawrence Reading, Windsor and Farnham. But Wokingham and the surrounding (and probably the surrounding villages) was stuck in the past ringing just Rounds .
In 1873, the new curate, Henry George Bird set up the Society of Honorary Change Ringers. To help them practice, the ringers were given a set of handbells that are still in use (for tune ringing). Bird moved on after two years, and by 1880, when records of the Oxford Diocesan Guild began, All Saints had only one member capable of ringing changes, whereas St Paul’s had ten change ringing members, despite only having had bells since 1864. Albert Hill was the lone change ringer at All Saints, and he almost certainly learnt to ring before coming to Wokingham. He became Tower Foreman in 1880 and developed the band's capabilities, as well as playing a leading role in the establishment of the Sonning Deanery Society of Change Ringers .
Sam Paice succeeded Albert Hill in 1896 and led the band until he died in 1920. Under Sam's leadership the bells were augmented to eight in 1903, and the band began ringing both quarter peals and peals. They still rang fairly basic methods by modern standards, but it was a vast improvement over what they had been ringing not many decades before.
Fred Mattingley stepped in as Foreman until the following AGM when Sam Paice died in 1920, when by Bill Brooks took over. He held the post for over 40 years. Peal ringing and quarter peal ringing both declined during the inter-war years, with a bit of a boost in the late 1930s under the influence of Gilbert Thurlow, a very capable ringer who served here as curate, and later went on the become the President of the Central Council of Church Bell Ringers.
After the war, the band was rebuilt, with many new ringers being trained (and many lost). Walter Pearce became Deputy Foreman in 1945, and Foreman in 1963, when Bill Brooks died. The band was active, and introduced innovations like ringing outings. But the ringing remained fairly basic, and there were no peals by the local band between 1935 and 1982.
The late 1970s saw an increased level of activity under the influence of the Deputy Foreman, Francis Moore, and the band went on to develop rapidly in the1980s, with more ringers, more quarter peals, more peals and more ambitious methods. The band entered striking competitions, and was virtually unbeatable during the mid 1980s. In 1985 and 1986, All Saints was the leading quarter peal tower in Berkshire. Performance dropped back a little from what was achieved in the peak years, but on all fronts, the ringing was still more ambitious than it had been in earlier times. Landmark performances included the first peal of Wokingham Surprise Major to mark the church's 800th anniversary in 1990.
This active band benefitted from many new ideas. In the three decades since 1980, six people have served as Foreman with ten changes of office, whereas during the previous century, from 1880 to 1979, only four people were elected to serve as Foreman.
Ringing in the new century continues at a high level. The bell restoration in 2004 made the bells easier to ring, and enhanced their sound. The band became more heavily engaged with the local community through running tower tours, and giving talks to local groups. The 2009 upgrade to two ringing simulators enhanced the band's training capability. Landmark performances included a local band ringing peals at both Wokingham churches on the same day in May 2008.
This short summary has only skimmed the surface of the history of ringing at All Saints. You can read the whole fascinating story in the book that is now available.
The book uncovers this very special, but largely hidden, part of Wokingham life. It traces ringing in Wokingham since the oldest of the current bells were installed in 1704 – from an 18th century public sport, through Victorian reform, and two world wars, into the modern era. It enters the lives of successive generations of the men and women who made their mark on ringing in Wokingham and beyond.
The book has a lot more than ringing, including fear that the tower would collapse, death in the belfry, pigeon catchers among the bells, fraudulent impersonation of the ringers, a donation from the Queen, a house called ‘Ringwell’, a barrel organ, the mythical ‘Oswald’, the story of the restoration of the bells, and much more.
The book is a glossy A5 paperback, with 160 pages. It is illustrated with over 160 pictures and diagrams. It is available from the author or from All Saints Parish Office. For more details see here .
Several historic artefacts from the tower still exist.
Did you know? : The first peal of Wokingham Surprise Major ever rung was at All Saints on 4th November 1990, to mark the church's 800th anniversary.
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