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Key dates


Saffron Walden Society - a brief history (as published in the Ringing World in 1973)

The Osborne manuscripts

Society re-formed

Very high standard


Key dates


It has been claimed that the Society was established in 1623 (numerous references over the years in Bell News and Ringing World (and as quoted by Ernest Morris in The History and Art of Change Ringing (1931 p141)) - some 14 years prior to that of the Ancient Society of College Youths, thus making it one of, if not the oldest, in the country. The claim is, however, tenuous and seems to be based solely on the death, in 1623, of Thomas Turner who in his will "bestowed yearelie upon such persons which shall ring the bells of the Church of Walden upon the daie of the year on which I shall be buryed". The date of Thomas Turner's death has since then been known in Saffron Walden, and beyond, as "Great Ringing Day".

The first known peal on the bells was rung on Christmas Day 1753, and as recorded in a local newspaper, reference is made to the band's "Antagonists (some of the Old Society)" suggesting that there was a "Society" in place prior to 1753 and which had now been replaced by a new one (see page on Charles Baron for detail). Unfortunately we have no further reference to a Society in Saffron Walden until 1800, when we have the Articles of Agreement drawn up for "Society of Ringers of Walden".

The brief history below was written by Len Pitstow and published in the Ringing World on 25 May 1973. It is based on an excellent piece of research by the Rev. G. Montagu Benton, who was at Saffron Walden for a time - "The Bells and Ringing Annals of Saffron Walden" (1921).

In 1976, H.C. Stacey, the Town Clerk and local historian, wrote a detailed history of the Society based on the substantial society archive - "The Saffron Walden Society of Change Ringers". Stacey produced a list of Society members (including names that must have been part of the "Old Society") from 1702 to 1971 based on Society accounts and other sources.

Both of the above histories and the Articles of Agreement of 1800 are available for download on the reference page.

Saffron Walden Society - a brief history (by LE Pitstow, published in the Ringing World 1973)

The Saffron Walden Society has a long and varied existence since the first record we have (1440), when the ringers were paid for ringing when the Queen passed through the town. After the long break when the church was being rebuilt we come to 1623 when a man named Thomas Turner, mercer of Saffron Walden, made his will on June l0th, in which he bequeathed-

"TWENTIE SHILLINGS be bestowed yearlie upon a PREACHER which shall make a MEMORIAL SERMON upon the daie of the yeare wherein I shall be buried, and thirty three shillings foure pence be bestowed yearlie upon such persons which shall ring the bells of the Church of WALDEN upon the day of the yeare on which I shall be buryed, and six shillings eight pence be given yearlie upon the same daie to the parishe CLARKE of the Towne of WALDEN afforesaid or the tyme beinge for his paines in preparinge the bells."

A photostat copy of the actual will hangs in the ringing chamber [and can be seen on the Great Ringing Day page]. A legend says this was in gratitude for the bells having guided him to safety when he became lost in the woods at Audley End.

The will was contested and may have caused a rift in the family, for the first payment of the legacy was not paid to the ringers until 1638 as the churchwarden's account reads:--

"Mr. THOMAS TURNER'S RINGING MONY, 33s 4d thus spent at JOHN GAMAGES in the year 1638,

£ s d
first a breakfast at 2d. a man 4 0
dinner of 20 (sic) at 6d. a man 13 0
supper of 22 persons at 8d. a man 14 8
churchwardens' dinners the rest 1 8
Subsequent entries become briefer.
1692 Recd. ye gift of MR THO. TURNER to ye Ringers 1 13 4
more to ye SEXTON 6 8
more to ye MINISTER 1 0 0
And later simply
Today the ringers are paid 2 16 10
The preacher 2 0 0
The verger 10 0

Thomas Turner was "buried in the floor of the NORTH CHAPEL before the dore". The stone was ruthlessly bespoiled of its brasses in the early 18th century.

There are no outstanding records of bell-ringing until we come to an interesting collection of news cuttings in the Walden Museum.

"SAFFRON WALDEN, JANUARY 2 1754.—To inform all real LOVERS and PROFESSORS OF THE ART OF RINGING, THAT the SOCIETY OF YOUNG RINGERS OF THIS TOWN, on TUESDAY the 25th of DECEMBER LAST, being CHRISTMAS DAY, did ring a true PEAL of GRANDSIRE TRIPLES, composed of 148 BOBS with 2 SINGLES which they effected in three hours and twenty minutes; and on TUESDAY following, being NEW-YEAR'S DAY, they compleated the same in eight MINUTES less than before (being the only times the same has been rung there since there has been eight bells), to the no small MORTIFICATION of their antagonists, (some of the Old SOCIETY), who, instead of INSTRUCTION, gave them all the OBSTRUCTION in their POWER. THE Ringers which rung the same were FREDERICK SELL, CHARLES BARON (who called the BOBS), RICHARD WHITEHAND, JOHN BANKS, WILLIAM BARRETT, jun, RICHARD BUSH, jun, JOHN CLARK and JOHN SALMON."

The above performance was a notable achievement and, as was written in the Ringing World some years ago, its discovery raises an interesting point. "The composition must have been HOLT'S ORIGINAL as no other peal with only 2 SINGLES had then been Composed, and this was first rung and conducted by J. HOLT from manuscript at St. MARGARET'S WEST­MINSTER, on July 7th, 1751. So far as we are aware these two peals at Saffron Walden are the first in which the conductor of this celebrated composition rang in the peal, and, if this is a fact, exceptional interest attaches to the performances." [Further detail and discussion regarding this peal]

Did this peal cause trouble between the two bands (?) as there is no record of another until the following report in the Cambridge Chronicle for July 2nd, 1774.

"On SUNDAY last, JUNE 26th, 1774, was Rung at Saffron Walden, a com­plete peal of 5040 GRANDSIRE TREBLES (sic) in 3 hours and 24 minutes, and on MONDAY was rung at the same place by 4 of WALDEN Youths, assisted by 4 from Cambridge a complete peal of 5040 BOB MAJOR, in 3 hours and 22 minutes."

The eight bells were recast in 1798 by John Briant of Hertford who gave us our lovely ring with tenor 24 cwt.

The writer has in his possession a handwritten copy of the "ARTICLES of Agreement concluded upon and signed by a SOCIETY of RINGERS of WALDEN this 27th of JUNE, 1800" [see references for copy]. These are not signed.

We have now come to the 19th century when the Society came under the leadership of Richard Miller, "that eminent RINGER" as he was styled by a contemporary. He was a farmer who lived at Ashdon, a village four miles from Walden.

The Osborne manuscripts

In 1901 Nathan Pitstow visited the British Museum and copied from the Osborne Manuscripts the following extracts.

"Tuesday evening Dec 14, 1799 a peal of 5040 Bob Major in 3 hours 20 mins.

  • 6th January 1807 5040 Bob Major 6832  changes in 4 hours 30 minutes.
  • 15th Dec 1813 a peal of Bob Major 5040 changes in 3 hours 22 mins.
  • 4th June 1815 a peal of Oxford Treble Bob Major 6112 changes in 4 hours 2 mins.
  • 4th Feb 1817 a peal of Double Norwich Court Bob Major 5040 changes in 3 hours 25 minutes (the 3rd peal ever rung in the method).
  • 30th May 1825 was rung at Finchingfield  Essex a peal of Oxford Treble Bob Major  5120 changes in 3 hours 17 mins.
  • 21st Feb 1826 Grandsire Triples 5040  changes in 3 hours 18 minutes.
  • 29th Jan. 1828 a peal of Oxford Treble Bob 5120 changes in 3 hours 26 mins.

All peals conducted by R. Miller."

Ringing was flourishing in Walden in 1845, for an extract from the Cambridge Chronicle of December 6th, 1845, states:--

"HIGH ATTAINMENT IN THE ART of RINGING.—An extraordinary display of talent was made a few days since by the Company of Change Ringers of SAFFRON WALDEN per­forming on their Church Bells 1680 changes of Double Norwich Court Bob Major and upwards of 1200 changes of Superlative Surprise. . . . Composed and conducted by Richard Miller. It is very singular that there are not at the present time eight persons in the Metropolis to be found who are able to accomplish this very arduous task."

Miller died in December, 1862, at the age of 81, and the Company lost for a while its reputation but in 1865 Frederick Pitstow joined the Society at the age of 15 and, once he had mastered change ringing, he persuaded his brother Nathan to join.

It was due to the initiative and energy of Fred that a revival set in. These two per­suaded their younger brother, Ernest, to join. Then three others joined from the old Chiming Company, viz.: John Penning, Jonathan and Charles Freeman.

Society re-formed

In 1881 Nathan, a solicitor's clerk, re­formed the Society, drew up new rules [these were published in 1895 in the form of a booklet for each member - and can be downloaded from the reference page] which he wrote in the minute book and put the company on a businesslike footing, holding monthly meetings again. Later, Fred's two sons, Alfred and Frederick, jun., joined the band. A strong ringing company developed capable of first-class ringing, and eight marble tablets in the tower commemorating the following peals from a series of which the Society may well be proud.

  • Oct. 21, 1891. Peal of Kent Treble Bob 5056 in 3 hours 7 minutes.  Composed and conducted by Fred Pitstow.
  • Nov. 26, 1891. Peal of Double Norwich 5040 changes in 3 hours 12 minutes. Composed by Nathan Pitstow and conducted by Fred Pitstow.
  • Oct. 1, 1892. Thurstan's peal of Stedman Triples in 3 hours 5 minutes.  Conducted by Fred Pitstow.
  • Feb. 27, 1893. Peal of Superlative Surprise 5024 changes in 3 hours 14 minutes.  Composed by N. J. Pitstow and conducted by F. Pitstow.
  • June 23, 1894. Middleton's peal of Cambridge Surprise in 3 hours 16 minutes. Conducted by F. Pitstow.  The first peal in this intricate method rung in the Eastern Counties.
  • Jan. 10, 1899.  Peal of London Surprise 5024 changes in 3 hours 15 minutes.  Composed by N. J. Pitstow, conducted by F. Pitstow.  The first peal in this most intricate method rung in Essex.
  • July 4, 1905. A peal of Stedman Triples 5040 changes by J. J. B. LATES. Conducted by F. Pitstow.
  • Feb. 20, 1912. Peal of Cambridge Surprise 5056 changes in 3 hours 17 minutes. Conducted by F. Pitstow.

Fred Housden and Harold Pitstow (son of Ernest) joined the Society and rang their first peal of Bob Major on December 31st, 1912. Harold was 15 years of age. They rang their first peal of Cambridge Surprise at Walden on November 24th, 1913.

Nathan Pitstow and Jonathan Freeman died within 10 days of each other in February 1914, and so did not live to see the augmentation to 12 bells.

Leonard Pitstow (brother to Harold) joined the Society in 1915 as also did Frederick Dench, the composer and conductor, who was a great asset, ringing many peals and conducting his own compositions between the two wars.

Frederick Pitstow died in 1928, just before the four trebles were recast by Mears and Stainbank, and was followed as Master by his son, Alfred.

Very high standard

Between the two wars the standard of ringing was very high and many peals were rung. The second world war took its toll and when ringing restarted only six of the old Society were left.

Barry Couzens came to Saffron Walden in 1962. He commenced his ringing at Cliffe in Kent and, when he went to the University of Wales, learnt to ring methods at Sketty. On joining the Saffron Walden Society he set about teaching learners with enthusiasm. He taught a new band at Whittlesford, Cambs, which is now capable of change ringing, and new bands at Ashdon (8) and Hadstock (6). On being elected Secretary of the Walden Society he revised the Rules to bring them up to modern standards and was elected Deputy Master of the North-West Essex Division of the Essex Association. He rang his first peal of Stedman Cinques at Saffron Walden in March 1970. His tragic death last year was an irreparable loss to Walden and the Exercise.

Last year four members of the Society. all capable of Surprise ringing, left the district. In a small town like Saffron Walden they are a great loss to ringing, and it is difficult to replace them. But we have young learners being trained who we hope will make the grade and remain in the locality.

LE Pitstow.


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