Barfield’s history

Bill Butler started the team whilst Tower Captain at St Mary’s, Thatcham in 1965, drawing its members from his fellow tower-bell ringers at the church. They met once a week at his home to practise tune ringing, and decided to adopt the name “The Barfield Handbell Ringers” from meeting in Barfield Road! They also wanted to associate the team with the name of Samuel Barfield, the nineteenth century author of a two volume history of Thatcham.


The team started by using sixteen handbells made by James Shaw of Bradford which were purchased by the Thatcham ringers in 1885 for practising change ringing. These had been preserved in the ringing chamber of the tower, and were in remarkably good condition. The bells were a diatonic ring of twelve in C, with an upper and lower note and two accidentals. The six members of the band rang two in hand, with the extra bells handled by three of the ringers.


The music used was written in number notation on a large sheet of card, using dots, lines and underlining to signify pauses and the length of each note. The system was cumbersome, and early in the 1970s a decision was taken to use standard musical notation. Large books made of thin card and A2 in size were obtained, and the tunes written out in the treble clef, three staves to a page.


With the advent of improved music, more bells could be accommodated, and 1974 provided an opportunity. This year saw the three hundred and fiftieth anniversary of a Reading founder, Ellis Knight, casting the back six bells for the church, so a fund was opened to commemorate this by adding more handbells to the set. Sufficient money was donated to add seven more bells, and an order was placed with the Whitechapel Bellfoundry in April 1974.

Unfortunately, their handbell department had a massive backlog of orders, so it was October 1976 before they could proceed with the order. By then rampant inflation had increased the price by fifty percent! Fund raising had continued, however, and the opportunity was taken to restore the fittings of the Shaw bells and to tune them to standard pitch at a cost of £172 plus VAT.


Extra bells meant new music again, and it was decided to transcribe the tunes into personal books of music for each ringer. This works well, and the same system is in operation today, the only difference being the copyright sheets of music are now inserted into plastic folders in loose leaf files rather than photocopies stuck in large scrap books!


The next change came with the introduction of more bells. Bill decided to augment a diatonic set of eight he had acquired many years earlier, and gradually made it up to four, and finally five chromatic octaves. The church set, now augmented to two and a half chromatic octaves in A, are used in conjunction with Bill’s set. In 2005 Bill ordered three larger bass bells making a total of 96 bells, and making Barfield one of the few teams in this country using these large Whitechapel bells.


It is impossible to use the very large bells in the “four in hand” style, so the team had to invest in tables. Three paste tables were strengthened by adding extra legs, and covered with four inch fire resistant foam. Next, fitted blue covers with white piping gave a professional appearance to the team’s performances. Over the course of time these tables have been supplanted by nine Gopak folding tables which are larger and more sturdy – but also more bulky! It is now a major moving problem to get nine tables, two extension boards, eighteen slabs of four inch foam, twelve boxes of handbells and two boxes of handchimes to a concert. Of course, that doesn’t include the ringers together with their individual music and music stands.
The team is always looking out for new members. If you can read music and are willing to give up an evening a week to practise, then get in touch!


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