Four Shires Guild of Bell Ringers

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Stuart and Michael Cummings were handed an old book recently. This is not an unusual occurrence: certainly not one to write about here.

It was a book about bells and bellringing. Agreed that's a bit more unusual, except that the book is moderately rare, but still nothing to make them shout from the rooftops.

The book belonged to their grandfather, Alfred Henry Cummings, proved by it being signed and dated by him. This was a revelation to them, as they had absolutely no idea at all that he was ever a ringer! That they were surprised is something of an understatement. The book had been handed to Allen Turner, who then handed it on to Stuart and Michael.

The appearance of the book made them, and others in their family, delve more deeply into their grandfather's life.

Their grandfather signed the book A H Cummings, together with the place he lived in at the time, Grendon, and the date, 1905.

The book itself is the fourth edition of 'Change Ringing' by Charles A W Troyte, who was a prominent ringer in late Victorian times and who lived at Huntsham Court , Huntsham, Devon. He was clearly well-off, living in such a smart place, and he was able to indulge himself to a large extent with ringing. The book was popular, running eventually to five editions (I believe, but please correct me if this is wrong). Natural wastage and perhaps a general lack of knowledge from non-ringers has led to few copies in circulation now. Troyte's writing is typical of the late Victorian era, when the British Empire covered much of the globe and Britannia ruled the waves: a rather flowery style. However, he gives some useful information about ringing the standard methods of the day.

So how did grandfather Cummings get to be in Grendon, which is near Polesworth up in North Warwickshire? Stuart has found out that Alfred was born on February 13th 1880 at Fyfield, near Bledington. He moved to North Warwickshire to learn the trade of a blacksmith. Stuart believes he was around the Dordon, Polesworth and Grendon area, and worked in Grendon.

Alfred was clearly ringing bells in this period, as the date of his signature in the book reveals. Grendon has a ring of 6 bells, so it's likely he rang there. 'Dove' tells us that Grendon had two bells (the 3rd and the 6th) recast in 1906 by John Taylor & Co, so Alfred would have experienced the excitement these two bells must have caused.

While in North Warwickshire Alfred married a local girl, Minnie Clarke, from Dordon. She was born on 19th November 1885. They were married in Polesworth Church on 11th April 1911.

Stuart has discovered that Alfred and his new bride moved to Lower Brailes later in 1911, to take over the blacksmith's business at The Forge there. He spent the rest of his working life in Brailes, shoeing horses and undertaking general blacksmith's work.

Alfred didn't go off to fight in the First World War, but did War Service at The Brailes Institute V A Hospital as various certificates record.

Stuart and Michael's father and two uncles were ringers at Brailes, but neither of them can recall any of these mentioning that Alfred rang. They think it is unlikely he was ever a Four Shires Guild member (of the Old Guild).

Stuart says The Forge at Lower Brailes is still in use, but the thatch was removed from the roof in the 1950s or 60s.

Alfred looks all that Longfellow's 'The Village Blacksmith' says he should be:

Under a spreading chestnut-tree
The village smithy stands;
The smith, a mighty man is he,
With large and sinewy hands;
And the muscles of his brawny arms
Are strong as iron bands.

While Michael might agree he doesn't quite have this build, Stuart certainly does! You can imagine him at a forge and an anvil, with a big hammer in his hand banging seven shades of hell out of a piece of iron to make a big horseshoe, and then getting hold of a Shire's hoof to fit it…after which he runs up Brailes tower to pull up the tenor!

I, too, was lucky enough to have been given a copy of Troyte's book. It is also a fourth edition. It used to belong to Harry Baker, an Ebrington ringer. He'd signed it 'Harry J Baker, Ebrington' in the same style of writing as Alfred Cummings. Harry had lent me the book to read when I was learning to ring there. I returned it, but soon after he died. I enquired whether the family wished to keep the book (none of them was a ringer) and they said they were pleased to pass it on, as it would have gone in the bin.

When the Saydisc record 'Bells of the Cotswolds' was being made in the late 1970s, we visited Ebrington. I was asked to call the touch that would be recorded. I thought a touch from Harry's book would be appropriate and, as Ebrington had a reputation for being the butt of North Cotswold humour, I chose Grandsire Minor: nicely unusual.

The funny thing about this recording (and other recordings on the record) is that they feature very regularly on Church bells on Sunday on the radio at some ungodly hour on a Sunday morning and Sunday night. So, when you see Grandsire Minor from Ebrington is to feature on this programme (again), it's me calling it. Some might think it's a once-in-a-lifetime experience to feature on Bells on Sunday, but those still around from that recording session can say we've done it many times……!

Words: CMP
Info and photos: Stuart and Michael Cummings