HAND bell groups were the first public subscription bands of the working class.

From its beginnings in country areas, hand bell ringing spread among the towns and villages up and down the Pennines in the 1700s. The formation of bands began around 1812.

The halcyon days of the art were from 1855 to 1926, when bands of ringers competed in the British Open, held at Belle Vue zoological gardens, Manchester.

Up to 25 bands, and 10,000 enthusiastic supporters, regularly turned up.

A book, Ringing for Gold, which took retired gardener and hand bell devotee Peter Fawcett almost 35 years to complete, charts the art of hand bell ringing over years. From its origins in the north of England, the art spread throughout the world.

There were once a number of hand bell bands in East Lancashire, including Blackburn, Darwen, Accrington, Todmorden, and Tunstead in the Rossendale Valley.

Todmorden hand bell ringers were not a competition band, they staged various concerts and appearances and twice toured America, filling concert halls, in 1889 and 1891.

After one performance, an American newspaper hailed them as the best organisation of their kind in the British Empire.

Another East Lancashire group was Tunstead Church hand bell ringers, formed by the men’s bible class in 1908. By 1911, there were eight ringers and they competed at Belle Vue for four years from 1911, led by Howarth Stansfield, of David Street, Stacksteads.

After 1914, however, they were never heard of again and it is believed members were casualties of the Great War, as was the case with various bands in the country.

It is known, though, that in 1913, there were 11 ringers in the band – A Nuttall, J Lord, J Roberts, Sam Pilkington, who was church verger and caretaker, J Rostron, P Aspinall, J Thorpe, J Rushton, F Hargreaves, E Hackington, and R Clegg, when they achieved their best result in the British Open, in fifth place.

in 1958, Ernest Pilkington, Tunstead church organist and son of Sam, re-formed the band, comprising 10 choirboys, who used the original bells, but it only lasted four years.

A band at Higher Walton began around 1880 and had a set of 87 bells – but in 1907 purchased a new set of 123 from the Whitechapel Bell Foundry.

The band took part in various competitions between 1900 and 1915, arriving at one in Batley in 1908, just in time to take the stage after missing their train.

The strong tradition of hand bell ringing in East Lancashire is highlighted by the list of entrants in the British Open over the years – including Over Darwen in 1862, when first prize was £15, Whitworth in 1864 and 1865, Burnley, conducted by William Harrison, in 1869, Clitheroe in 1877, and Ramsbottom in 1891.

Accrington also raised bands in the 1880s, which took part in a contest at Glossop, and again in the early 1900s.

Church Accrington hand bell ringers competed in the British Open in 1905, conducted by Robert Parkinson, of Edward Street, Church.

Members at the time were Robert Parkinson, James Barnes, Peter Ashcroft, Herbert Furness, Joseph Hartley, Tomas Lighbourn, John Chapman, and Percy Aspden.

Hand bell ringers gave many concerts throughout East Lancashire, too, played to packed audiences, including one, in Blackburn, in 1904, by the Crosland Moor United band from Yorkshire, who were the British Open winners.

The champion band also played at Accrington, Burnley, Colne, and Barnoldswick.

n Ringing For Gold (published by Donald and Philip Bedford, Kent), is priced at £30, available from akaneandphilip@ yahoo.com.au or Mr Fawcett at peterfawcett0@ gmail.com or telephone 01274 869564.