Bradford once had the biggest hand-bell foundry in the world. This and many other facts about the district’s long hand-bell associations are contained in a new book written by retired Cleckheaton gardener Peter Fawcett.

Clearly a labour of love, the book is the result of 35 years of painstaking research for which he travelled to London, Edinburgh and Dublin – all done in his spare time with no outside funding. The book was designed by Bruce Baillie, once a T&A graphic artist.

Peter believes it is the first book in the world to chronicle the story of what were the first musical bands of the working man. In fact, Peter is at pains to point out that brass bands are a relatively new form of band music.

Brass bands only arose after 1812, so they are the new guys. The hand-bell bands created the contests well before this, an important point which has been overlooked by music historians over the years.

No longer. We are happy to help Peter ring the changes.

“The bell foundry of James Shaw, Son, & Co, was established in 1848 by James Shaw, at Ebor Works, Lyndhurst Street, off Leeds Road, Bradford, at the junction with Birksland Street.

“By the 1880s it was the biggest hand-bell foundry in the world. Sets of bells were shipped to all parts, including Philadelphia in the USA.

“In 1890, the foundry boasted that it had made the biggest set of hand-bells in the world, 250 for the Dewsbury hand-bell ringers, a band which had just won the British open championship at Belle Vue, Manchester, for the third time, using Shaw’s bells.

“The Dewsbury bells still exist. The company went out of existence some time after 1910 on death of William Shaw. The foundry buildings are no longer there.

Bingley has long connections with playing popular tunes and classics on hand bells. Only last September the Bingley hand-bell ringers hosted a gathering of seven bands of ringers.

“Bingley use a beautiful recently-restored set of Shaw’s bells. The band has a long history stretching back to at least 1870s, when they competed at the British open.

“Other bands include St Paul’s Church, Shipley, and Park Lane, Keighley, which in 1876 won first prize in a second contest, conducted by Thomas Broadbent. Another was Wheatley Mills, Girlington, which also competed in the British open in the 1890s. Ringing hand-bells continued in Girlington right into the 1970s.”

“A modern revival of the art began in 1967 and today is practised in all parts of Britain. The origins of this form of music stretch back 500 years.

“It spread throughout villages along the Pennine chain where it was popular in public houses during country wakes holiday times. The music consisted of popular country tunes of the day; some of these such as The Keel Row, Blue Bells Of Scotland and Auld Lang Syne are still known today.

“John Terry was a member of the ringers of Low Moor in the 1920s. I struck up a friendship with him for several years until his death in 1982.

“I found I was able to do research and then go to John with my results and ask his opinion about what I had found out. I also did the same with other old ringers in all parts of the North of England.

“A paid conductor hired by Low Moor was Kaye Cooke. John Terry spoke of his battles with the officious Cooke. He said: ‘He charged us 10 shillings (50p but worth a lot more in the 1920s) per rehearsal plus expenses’ from his home in Leeds.

“‘We could only afford him for a few rehearsals prior to the contest. Sometimes if we needed an extra rehearsal we had to take the 50 bells or so to his house in Kirkstall. He would still charge us ten bob.

“‘I was with him on a train, I was a ha’penny short of the fare (less than half a new penny), and Cooke put a ha’penny in my hand. Six months later when the contest season came round, he added the ha’penny fare to our bill’.”

The oral research was mostly done in the 1970s and 1980s by Peter on warm summer nights spent finding and visiting anyone he could find who knew anything of the old days.

“All of these people have now passed on, but I am thankful I made time to do the interviews otherwise interpretation of what happened and more essentially why it happened would have been lost for ever.

“The big event of the hand-bell ringer’s year was the British Open Championship at Belle Vue. Orchestral pieces were performed on sets of more than 100 bells. These began in 1855 and were held in September each year until 1926, when a change in management at BV closed the contest – a crushing blow for the hand-bell movement.

“Ten thousand enthusiasts would fill the Music Hall at Belle Vue, all standing to see the best bands in the country compete to win the big prize – £20 and a gold medal. Hence the book’s title Ringing For Gold. The medal was cast by Vaughtons Ltd of Birmingham – a company still in existence.

“Another set of contests began after a meeting at the New Inn, Littletown, near Cleckheaton in 1903 formed the Yorkshire Hand-Bell Ringers Association. Their contest was held at Sunny Vale Gardens, Hipperholme.

“The medals for these contests were produced nearer to home at Fattorini’s of Bradford. They produced another medal for a contest at Tong Carnival in July 1907.

“A Bradford band which had great success at these competitions was Tennyson Place Methodist hand-bell ringers of Bradford Moor, formed in 1912 under the conductorship of Charles Cauley.

“In 1915 they entered two bands in the Yorkshire second division. The result was a resounding success with the Tennyson Place bands coming in first and second place, with the first-place band gaining the Yorkshire Shield and a wonderful metal made in Bradford. They won again in 1926.

“Tennyson Place was one of the bands which survived the horrors of 1914-18 war, but there were many bands that didn’t. Nevertheless, hand-bell ringing has spread from its birthplace in Britain to all parts of the world.”

Reputedly it is big in Japan, where a copy of Peter’s book is in every university. It has also become popular in Hong Kong and Korea and Australia in the last 20 years. But it is most popular right across the USA, where Peter’s book has just gone on sale.

“I have spent all the winter months trying to promote the book where ever I can. The American market is hard to crack, but I am happy just to have it on sale there,” he added.

l Ringing For Gold, Peter’s definitive history of hand-bell ringing, is available from Spenborough Stationers, Albion Street, Cleckheaton. He can be contacted at or (01274). 869564.