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Notes on the life of a bell ringer
Thumbing through the pages of the old exercise book, Douglas Oddy began to piece together his grandfather’s past.
He never knew Henry Oddy, his grandfather, but his jottings have taken Douglas on an emotional journey of discovery.
He has spent the past decade or so researching his grandfather’s life – and it all began when he picked up The Biography of Henry Oddy, Elected A Member of the Yorkshire Association of Change Bell Ringers.
Lovingly written by his grandfather, the journal tells of his passion for bell ringing, which took him around the country.
Born on June 25, 1859, Henry began bell ringing at St James’s Church in Tong as a young boy. At that time, his family lived in Turnpike Road in the village before moving to New Farnley. In his journal, Henry writes of the three-mile trek from his new home back to Tong to continue bell ringing.
“I’ve read it once or twice and I was fascinated,” says Douglas, referring to the book.
“He must have been 17 or 18 when he started bell ringing, but in those days what did they do with their spare time? There was no bowling, very little cricket and football so they had to find something.”
Henry proudly recalls ringing his first peal of 5,040 changes at Tong on Saturday March 15, 1879.
He became so passionate about bell ringing that he travelled all over the UK, recording his trips in his book. His recollection of riding in a horse and cart with fellow ringers en route to Wakefield and Royston puts into perspective the transportation mode at the time of Henry’s writings.
Henry writes of getting up at 7am to make the journey to Sandal and Royston.
An excerpt from his book reads: “Just had time for a refresher but then up to the Belfry to have a ring.
“We started off in fair good style but soon came to grief when the Royston conductor gave a cry of ‘Stand All’.”
Douglas takes up the story: “This means everybody stops because they’ve gone wrong with the peal.”
Henry, who worked as a stone miner, recalls seeing two men grooming the horse in the stable below where they’d been ringing. Surprisingly, the old mare didn’t even flinch, despite the booming sound above!
His book records journeys further afield, to Stratford-on-Avon and Southport where he revelled in the sight of one of their ‘fellows’ hats being whipped off by the wind into the sea.
Fascinated by his grandfather’s anecdotes, Douglas was eager to find out more about him. His intrigue grew as Henry never managed to finish the book, but he believes his grandfather wrote some of the jottings from memory rather than being in the moment.
“I actually became stuck many times,” says Douglas of his research.
Brandishing a copy of his grandfather’s birth certificate, he indicates that only Henry’s mother’s name is documented.
Douglas, from Gildersome, also has the census forms from when his grandfather lived in Tong with his mother and the rest of the family.
Henry rang 47 peals for the Yorkshire Association before his death in April 1927. Douglas recalls visiting his grave at Drighlington Church with his father.
Interest has grown in Henry’s book since Douglas brought it to the attention of the bell ringers at the Tong church where a plaque is mounted in the bell tower commemorating Henry’s peals.
After reading a notice about the inaugural meeting of the Tong History Group, Douglas decided to go along.
Bell ringer Louise Connacher, who instigated a campaign to get the bells ringing again and who has trained up a group of bell ringers to take on the task, says she was fascinated to learn about Henry’s book.
Louise explains that had they not received the £45,000 Heritage Lottery Fund to restore the bells and set up a research project to find out as much as they can about their history, they may never have known about the book.
“If we had not set off on this, we wouldn’t have gathered this information together and Henry Oddy’s diary would not have come to light,” says Louise.
The Heritage Lottery Fund, along with money raised from donations and events at the church, grants from the Yorkshire Association of Change Ringers and Central Council of Church Bell Ringers, funded the removal of the six bells and their restoration at John Taylor’s Bell Foundry in Loughborough, Leicestershire.
Louise says the group hopes to compile a leaflet based on their research, which took her to York Minster where she was able to gather information about Tong bells from the archives. Louise also saw a cafe in the city standing on the site of the original foundry where the bells were cast.
She says the book is a ‘fascinating’ addition.
“It adds a whole different layer to what we are doing. It enables us to learn about the stories and preserve them,” she says.
“Tong was a farming community and all these people were blacksmiths and farmers. Things were completely different to the way they are today. It is about learning where you have come from – it’s learning history in context.”