The Guild's 'earth' shook a month or two ago. I suspect the last time such a thing occurred was when the Spencer Jones Cup was found; and that was well over 30 years ago. What was the occasion? It was the return of the very first FSG Minute Book to the Guild in late July. It must be the very first item the Guild possessed, as it was there from the first day - which of course makes it over 100 years old. It would have been exciting to have any of the 'old' Guild's Minute Books returned, but to have the first one is . . . well . . . truly stunning!
It is an unimpressive-looking book from the outside, but inside it is a veritable treasure trove of information. Up until now we have relied on reports in
The Ringing World and its forerunner
Bell News, newspaper reports, old FSG certificates hanging on Ringing Room walls, word of mouth and similar, perhaps-shaky, knowledge to build up a picture of the beginnings of the Guild, but here in one fell swoop is the complete and absolutely confirmed history. Not only do we have a such a history of the first few meetings, but all the meetings until 1924 in wonderful detail and with the names of those persons taking part in the proceedings.
So, where has the book been all these years? Things are a bit hazy, but we've been told that it's been residing in Wiltshire in a ringer's drawer for the last 50 years and that it only recently came to light when he and his wife were having a sift-through and chuck-out of various things in the house. Apparently, his wife said something along the lines of:
Do you want this old book or shall I throw it out? Luckily (for us), an inspection revealed the importance of the contents immediately. Where the book was prior to the last 50 years is unknown at present, but this part of the story may emerge in due course.
The first page outlines a meeting, but it was not a ringing meeting as such, in that no associated ringing is recorded. It was a meeting to explore the possibility of setting up an organisation for Church bell ringers in the North Cotswolds area. The Minutes for that meeting are worth recording here (see extract).
So there we have it: the Guild's name, its objects, the competition rules, the subscriptions, the officers and when the meetings would be held; all decided in one short blast on Day One.
It's also interesting to see that
Church Bell Ringers was originally considered for the Guild name, but the final name is unequivocal: just
Bell Ringers. I find this surprising considering the number of clergymen present.
It seems likely the Guild's formation was driven by the clergy and Walter Large. I suspect Large and some of his close ringing colleagues may have had the idea, but they needed the backing of the clergy to set up the organisation properly and formally. This was an age when the 'big house' and the clergy reigned supreme, and not obtaining their support would spell Doom from the start. Walter Large had experience of the Oxford Diocesan Guild prior to leaving Burford. That tower was certainly active at the time, as 11 peals were rung there before 1909, most being for the ODG, and Large took part in, and conducted, some of these. From the peals he rang and conducted, we can see he was a very competent ringer - and seemingly he had the energy to move things forward when he decided they should be!
The Book also bridges a particularly significant era in England, the period immediately before, during and following the Great War. It was famously said on the day before Britain's entry to the War, that
The lights are going out all over Europe. We shall not see them lit again in our time.
Before the War everyone knew their place. Money, rank and the Clergy ruled supreme and provided an ordered existence. Then came the War itself, with all its horrors, upheaval and loss of life. The aftermath provided many difficulties, when the Land to which the heroes returned was not as initially promised and inevitable changes in attitudes caused increasing friction. Many families, rich and poor, were affected by the War, with loss of life, disablement or mental breakdown. Cracks in the Old Order were starting to appear, forcing a different way of life to begin.
The Book takes us through these tumultuous years, and it's rather like reading someone's diary. We know what was about to happen from 1914 onwards, but they didn't; of course. It is instructive to see how they gradually became aware of the reality of the War. Meetings were cancelled in some cases. I haven't read all the book by a long way, just bits here and there, but enough to taste the atmosphere of the time. The Book is a wonderful ringing history of the Guild's area, but more than that, it's a fascinating record of social history here, too.
We know now the very first Guild Meeting was held at Blockley on Thursday 28th April 1910. It is a shame the Book was not returned a little earlier, as it would have allowed the present Guild to have celebrated the centenaries of the inaugural meeting on October 18th 1909 and of the meeting at Blockley. However, it is reported the Blockley meeting was poorly attended on account of inclement weather (no hopping into the 4x4's then). As many towers weren't fully represented, the first part of the Striking Competition was abandoned. The very first FSG Striking Competition was held at the following meeting, which was on Thursday October 26th, at Moreton-in-Marsh. The Striking Competition due on Saturday October 16th 2010 at Broadwell will therefore be, quite genuinely, the centennial one!!
The first Committee meeting was held on Wednesday September 21st 1910, at the Swan Hotel, Moreton-in-Marsh, starting at 7.00pm. Keen to mark this auspicious event, the present Committee met at The Swan, Moreton-in-Marsh, on Tuesday 21st September at 7.00pm to toast the memory of those pioneering Committee members of 100 years ago.
A digital copy of the book is now available (see below), and I sent copies to Christopher Pickford, noted national bell historian and author, and Dr John Eisel, the CCCBR's librarian and also a noted bell historian and author, for their comments on the book. I reproduce their comments here (see text boxes).
John Eisel's mention of the FSG now having its own birth certificate is an excellent description of the Minute Book. Our beginnings are no longer lost in the mists of time and therefore questionable. We have a proven record of how we came into existence. And judging by what Chris and John say, it is a remarkably good record, too. John's comment regarding the history of the Guild is well made, too. Do we have an historian among us who could take on this assignment?
The present Guild committee has to decide what to do with the book now. We are aware of its value to the ringing community at large and to its vulnerability to all sorts of dangers, and therefore we (the Guild collectively) have a responsibility to provide secure long-term storage for it. Depositing it in a County Archive is an option that has been investigated, either with transfer or non-transfer of ownership, and this aspect will be discussed at the committee meeting on 2nd September.
A photographic copy of the book has been made, by which it is possible to read the book in its original handwritten form. The file (pdf format: Adobe Reader required, which is available free) is less than 10Mb, so it can be sent to most people on broadband without difficulty. A copy of this file is available from me: my email address is on page 2.
It has been suggested the Minute Book copy file could be available to all through the web-site. Is this a good idea? Do we want it to be widely available? Perhaps we could have some letters to the Editor on that one.