Clangs for the memories of bellringing glory days

Here's a picture to ring a bell or two – it's the Pontesbury Handbell Ringers in action.

The triumphant Pontesbury Handbell Ringers at a 1950s talent competition at Shrewsbury Music Hall.
The triumphant Pontesbury Handbell Ringers at a 1950s talent competition at Shrewsbury Music Hall.

But we're going back quite a bit to the 1950s, and today Bill Stephens, who is 91, is the sole survivor of this successful bellringing team which did local concerts and even got to appear on television.

Mr Stephens, who lived back then in Station Road, Pontesbury, but today lives in Wagbeach, Minsterley, said: "It was an amateur talent contest organised in conjunction with the Shrewsbury carnival, and held at the Music Hall in the Square. The contest winners were Pontesbury Handbell Ringers, from left, Percy Evans, John Heath, Charlie Overton, myself Bill Stephens, Raymond Humphreys, Harold Ellis, and Willis Parry.

"We were the church bell ringers. Half a dozen of us friends got to take it up for something to do, I suppose. They had a set of handbells in the tower, and we played tunes on them. We used to go around with Pontesbury Male Voice Choir and give concerts locally, in local chapels, village halls, and things like that."

But there was greater fame and glory too.

"We played at Wolverhampton Hippodrome with The Carrol Levis Discovery Show, which was a variety programme. Carrol Levis was well known at the time and had a television programme, but also went round music halls scouting local talent, and I suppose this particular week he was at Wolverhampton Hippodrome and picked up a few local talents for the first half of the show, and had regulars for the second half.

"He was intending to back us with his orchestra. He couldn't do that because he said the bells were out of tune. We always maintained that it was his orchestra out of tune, not us. He just backed us with a drummer."

While that was not a television appearance, the Pontesbury ringers did make it to the small screen.

"There was a programme called Home Town Saturday Night on the television in those days, which came to Shrewsbury shortly after we won the competition there, and we were on the programme with Joe Loss."

As for the technique of handbell ringing, Mr Stephens says: "Each of the bells are numbered, and the sheet music lists the numbers on the sheet and when your turn comes, you bonged. My numbers were seven and eight. We weren't really musicians. We didn't read music.

"We played popular tunes of the day like Bluebells of Scotland, and Ave Maria was very popular too.

"The handbells probably went back before the war. Instead of ringing a peal on the large church bells they used to practise on the smaller ones, using them for the same sort of ringing as they did with the big church bells."

While he doesn't know when the village handbell ringers started, he said: "The generation before the war were doing it and used to go round at Christmas playing carols in the pubs and things like that.

"All were local family members. It was quite a tradition in those days for family people to carry on what their fathers did. My uncle, Harry Stephens, used to do it."

At the time Bill was working as a solicitors' clerk in Shrewsbury.

He stopped ringing around the 1960s when he married and moved away, albeit not far.

As for the fate of the Pontesbury Handbell Ringers, he says: "They're certainly not going as a turn like we were, but as far as I know the bells are still in the tower, and they probably just use them now for practice, although I'm not sure about that."

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