The Story behind the Bell Ringers’ Rules
The Rev Henry Thomas Ellacombe arrived at St Mary’s Bitton in 1817 and soon set about improving and modernising the church. Ellacombe had previously worked as an engineer for Marc Isambard Brunel and was responsible for his engineering works at the Chatham dockyard during the Napoleonic Wars which had just ended.
He already had a dim view of men who rang bells, from previous experience, but he was nonetheless appalled by the situation at Bitton. The bellringers possessed the only key to the ringing chamber and at one point there were two rival teams of ringers who would ring a peal of bells for any reason they chose or for whoever might pay. He was critical of their drunkenness, lewdness, brawling and the fact that they seldom attended the church services. “I used to see them on a Sunday, waiting in the churchyard till the service was over; and then, almost before every person had left the holy place, they would strike out a merry peal.”
It took him some years to gain full control of the Bellringers, and of the keys to the ringing chamber. He famously outwitted the bellringers by installing a chiming device that allowed the bells to be rung by a single operator. The installation of the chiming apparatus was a significant step in imposing discipline. The Bellringers Rules, first imposed in the 1820s, were revised later and by 1848 extended to 29 separate clauses.
HT Ellacombe’s rules are still displayed in the ringing chamber. His chiming device, known as Ellacombe Chimes was widely adopted throughout the British Isles and overseas, in the United States and many parts of the British Empire. He is also recognised as possibly the first scholarly campanologist. His Practical Remarks on Belfries and Ringers, first published in 1849, drew on his experience of reforming bellringing at Bitton.
He left Bitton in 1850 to take up a post in Devon, where his family came from, and was succeeded by his son, H N Ellacombe, who is also celebrated as a horticulturalist, and was vicar until his death in 1916.