annual outing - 1914?

Ringing the bells in Saffron Walden and elsewhere was generally a male-dominated activity until between the wars. The involvement of women was usually limited to the social aspects of ringing and in Saffron Walden this included the annual outing - the picture above is from around 1914 and forms part of the frontispiece of the 1923-66 minute book - we have the names of all but two of the men in the picture but, perhaps typically, none of the three woman. However women were, in places, ringing bells in the late 19th century. The Ladies Guild of Bellringers was formed in 1912 and the first all ladies peal was rung a few months later.

In Saffron Walden, we have two records of women ringing the bells in the 1890s (picture the long Victorian dresses making their way up the spiral staircase!) - including the claim of the country's first all-lady band as per the following from "Bell News" of 7 June 1890:

The band of lady ringers at this town who are under the tuition of Mr F Pitstow, rang upon the tower bells rounds and call-changes in the honour of Her Majesty’s birthday. We imagine it is the first time in history that a peal of Church bells has been rung by a band of the fair sex.

While it is impossible to substantiate that this was the first all-lady band of ringers in a single tower, the claim was not challenged at the time or since.

We also have the following recollection from Alfred Pitstow (when he was just 16 or 17 and working as a plumber and decorator) as recorded by Stacey:

In 1892 when Alfred was only 17, there was a Lady Band of ringers and he taught them to pull a bell. At first there were six - The two Miss Pellys and Mrs. Durrant, (three daughters of the Vicar) Margaret, Eva and Flora Nockolds (Flora later married W. Fitzroy Ackland). They were later joined by Mrs. Ford Williams (Curate's wife) and Miss Gayton of The Towers, Sewards End.

Several times they rang the eight bells for a service which at that time was held at 2 p.m. They rang as follows:- Miss Gayton (1) Mrs. Williams (2) Mrs. Durrant (3) Flora Nockolds (4) the Misses Pelly (5 and 6) Eva Nockolds (7) and Margaret Nockolds (8). Alfred remembers very well Miss Gayton giving him half-crown each time he attended to teach the ladies and in those days a half-crown was worth having.

So it would seem that the ladies' band provided a back-up service for when the Society was unable to ring; and we have in the minutes for Feb 4th 1892;

"A mixed band made an attempt to ring a peal of Treble Bob on the marriage of Miss Margaret Nockolds to Rev. Sant but came to grief after ringing 1 hr 10 mins and 2 hrs 40 mins."

Beyond this we have no further record of this band, although they may well have joined the Society for other service ringing and practices - needless to say, they were not present in the club-house. It should be noted that perhaps there was a social divide between the members of the Society and the women, who are in the main clergy wives and daughters and who pay a member of the Society, a plumber and decorator, to teach them to ring. Apparently the Girls' Own Paper of 1895 advises middle class girls to take up ringing as a way of civilising working class boys. Maybe, as suggested by Steve Coleman, these women were doing just that!

The first record of a lady ringer in the minutes of the Society comes on June 11 1935; "Miss Shorter and Mr Lathbury of Cambridge were also present". Violet Shorter's name then appears as being present at virtually all the Society's monthly meetings until the war and in the meeting of December 31 1936 she and R Lathbury were elected as Honorary members of the Society "as an appreciation of the help they had given to the Society at Sunday ringing during the past year". Violet Shorter went on to ring two peals of London Surprise Major (on the treble) (1937 and 1938) with members and visitors of the Society.

The minutes of 1937 include a newspaper cutting (source unknown, but clearly local) which reads:


HEREDITY revealed itself again in the belfry of the parish church on Sunday morning when Margaret Pitstow, the thirteen-years-old daughter of Mr Harold N. Pitstow, took part in the ringing of the bells. Ringing with her were her grandfather, Mr Ernest A. Pitstow, and her uncle Mr Leonard Pitstow, and her father. Though a learner of only three or four months, Margaret shows promise of living up to the high campanological traditions of the family. Miss Molly Turnbull who is also a learner at the parish church belfry, likewise took part in the ringing.

Molly Turnbill was still ringing in 1951, when at the first meeting of the Society for three years, she (as a Probationer), Ruth Mumford and Mary Pitstow were elected as the first lady Ordinary members of the Society. Mary Pitstow immediately became the first lady Officer of the Society being elected as Secretary.

Penny Browne and Margeret Williams became the first women to ring in a Society peal in 1980 and Katrina Bond completed the story for the ladies when she became the Society's Master in 2005.


  • The Pitstows of Saffron Walden – H.C. Stacey (1961) – ringers' archive [P 2]
  • Society Minutes (from 1881) – ringers' archive [M 1-4]
  • Bell News
  • e-mail communication with Steve Coleman (2009)
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