Ringing World Article

The article was written to celebrate the D & D centenary and was very kindly published by the Ringing World on the exact day that it occurred. Thanks are extended to the editor of the Ringing World for his help in publishing the item. ECS February 26th 2021

100 Years Old but No Telegram
Centenary of the Doncaster and District Society

No, we don’t have a telegram but we think that some self-congratulation is justified. The centenary is of a group recently dubbed “The Friendly Society”, which pleased us greatly, and we are delighted to have made the ton as there were times when it looked in doubt. The Doncaster and District Society of Change Ringers was founded in February 1921 to meet a need for more practice opportunities in an area where three counties meet far from the main ringing centres and 100 years later that is still the focus of its activities.

It began one Sunday in 1920 when a certain Mr Walker came home from church and told his 19 year old son, in what we might guess was a blunt Yorkshire manner; “They’re short of ringers, you’d best get yourself up the tower”. Young Harold, not being one to argue did as he was told and duly joined the ringers at St George’s parish church in Doncaster. He was a willing recruit and so keen to learn that he quickly became aware of the limited scope for progression that existed locally. The wider area was not without organised ringing, with the Sheffield and District Society and other groups holding regular gatherings, and doubtless others across the borders in Nottinghamshire and Lincolnshire, but for ringers in Doncaster, tucked away in the far south-eastern corner of God’s Own County, travel to these was far from easy and for many prohibitively expensive. Mostly ringers would travel by train to Sheffield or Rotherham but these were plain working folk and although train travel was relatively cheap, food and housing were the priorities; and the wages of rail and mine workers didn’t stretch far. It wasn’t long before Harold decided to do something about it and so he called a meeting to discuss setting up a new and more locally focused group.

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Doncaster, where the society was founded. Picture E C Steele

The meeting was held on February 26th 1921 in St George’s and was preceded by bell ringing. After a few short touches on the heavy eight Henry Woodhouse of the nearby village of Arksey took the chair. After outlining the current situation he said that the aim for the proposed society would be to unite isolated bands of ringers and to encourage the development of scientific ringing. Interestingly there is no mention of service ringing being among the initial aims, but this was soon incorporated in the rules. That was all that it took! In no time the representatives present from eight local towers had proposed and agreed the plan and had elected their first officers. Harold Walker would be the first Secretary, Mr Woodhouse the treasurer and Mr Clark the Ringing Master. The Doncaster and District Society of Change Ringers was on the road; they had no idea how bumpy a road it could be.

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Harold Walker; founding secretary of the society.  Picture from Ringing World

The first meeting was on the old six at Sprotbrough and was attended by some 40 or 50 ringers from sixteen towers, some as far away as Barnsley. It was a resounding success and was the pattern for all future meetings. The minute book for those earliest years has been lost but we know from the report for 1922 that monthly practice meetings continued with an average of 25 attending, which was seen as satisfactory for the small area represented. (It was initially said that the area included 14 towers but the aim was to embrace an area within 15 miles of Doncaster, which included very many more). A Vice-President had been elected at some point, effectively the Chairman of the society, and the incumbent of St George’s had been invited to become the President; a tradition that persisted until recent years. Regrettably no list of members’ names has survived and information about membership has been derived from minutes and peal records. In 1925 a move to remove the names of members who had not paid subscriptions for three years was rejected, which meant that membership was effectively for life and the list of names must have become very unwieldy.

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Hand-bell ringing at the Silver Jubilee dinner in 1951 L-R; F A Staveley, Mrs Doris Kelly, Harold Walker. Picture from Ringing World.

The early flush of enthusiasm moderated quite quickly and in 1925 the presence of just 30 members at the AGM was considered unacceptable. It was to be the way of things though and the society had to learn to live with the feast and famine of varying attendance. Lack of support at practices has been a recurring topic in annual reports for most of the society’s existence but interspersed with periods of increased interest and successful recruitment. Indeed there have been times when proposals were made to wind up the society or to amalgamate with the Yorkshire Association, but these moves were always rejected (unlike in some other small societies that did amalgamate) and the D & D has always fiercely maintained its independence.

The aim to provide practices across an area of 15 miles radius was over ambitious, towers on the outer limits having established links with other societies, and most meetings were held in the central area. Occasionally the society would spread its wings and meet at some more distant spot. The Nottinghamshire village of Misson was considered but thought too inaccessible until Fred Jackson offered to provide transport from Bawtry station. A large group of ringers travelled in a trailer drawn by Fred’s steam traction engine! Fred was a very active supporter of the D &D, holding office more than once and always demanding high standards while actively encouraging their development. Eventually the famous traction engine would draw him on a carriage on his final journey.

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Tickhill, home tower of J E Cawser. Picture E C Steel

Peal ringing was never an aim of the society but the rules stated that “all peals rung by members” should be recorded in the peal book. This is very vague and as written requires that every peal should be recorded that included a society member, and led to the question of whether peals would be rung “by” or “for” the society? The peal book shows the first peal in the year of foundation and that 50 were achieved by 1929; but the second 50 did not come until 1947. These figures are misleading however. The peal book was mislaid for some time and there is a lengthy gap when nothing was recorded. Additionally several of the peals in the book are not credited to the D & D in the corresponding Ringing World report, while many that are recorded there and properly attributed do not appear in the peal book. Add to this the uncertainty of whether peals by or for the society were to be recorded and the whole thing becomes very difficult. The problem with attribution probably derives from the D &D not (always) being affiliated to the CCCBR, which caused most of its peals to be credited to the YACR. The peal book records 91 society peals but 127 have been found published under the D & D banner. This number increases to 234 when peals rung by bands comprised wholly of D & D members but not formally attributed are included. (The number would be higher if we had a proper list of members).

Peals were seldom mentioned in the minutes of the society and one wonders whether this reflected a lack of engagement by ringers for whom peal ringing was their priority. A few renowned peal ringers have been society members and their names do appear in the peal book, but they appear much more often in RW for the Yorkshire Association. Some, such as J Edward Cawser and W Eric Critchley were indeed known for their support of local towers and training of young ringers but, except for Eric Critchley doing a short spell as secretary, they do not figure largely in the society’s written history. Doncaster parish church did develop a spliced surprise Sunday service band under Eric Critchley’s leadership but this was a tower rather than a society achievement. Other notable peal ringers who left their mark in the D &D records were J Frederick Milner and J Martin Thorley; also Howard Scott and the Jackson family, who with Eric Critchley achieved some remarkable hand-bell peals for the Yorkshire Association. The number of peals increased steadily and peaked in the immediate post-war years but declined after 1952. There were very few indeed after that and none at all after 1993, until 2019.

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Barnby Dun where there was a very active band in the early days and again later.
Picture E C Steele.

The aim to encourage ringing for services appeared very early in the D & D’s rules and was soon supported by the presentation of a cup by Harold Walker, to be competed for by local towers. The Walker Cup was awarded for the first time in 1928 for the best record of Sunday service ringing and Doncaster were the winners. The competition has continued but it has been fraught with problems and the rules have been reconsidered on numerous occasions. How do you have an equitable competition when the towers have varying numbers of bells, services and members?

Ringers love a competition though and striking contests are often a favourite. In the D & D they were late in coming, and then only following the sudden death in 2011 of the ringing master, David Nichols. His wife, Helen gave the David Nichols memorial trophy to encourage new ringers through a novice competition. Seldom had the society ever entered a competition in its own right, with somewhat mixed success when it did so. Outings have always been popular too and the D & D has enjoyed many excellent trips throughout its history. At one extreme in the early years a full peal was rung on a day trip to Ripon but usually the standard fare of mixed ringing and a bus or cars for transport has been preferred. We have taken walks around York and toured Manchester, Nottingham and Leeds by tram or bus. Earlier trips often went further, Chester on one occasion, and it is remarkable what was achieved with the much less rapid transport available. Occasionally members would entertain each other with songs or on the piano and several early outings or social meetings were concluded in this way. More recently members have enjoyed BBQs and the early songsters have been easily matched by a resident guitar and vocal duo.

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Helen Nichols, President, 2016 to present. Picture E C Steele

The most recent years saw a change of policy when the tradition of inviting the incumbent of St George’s, Doncaster to be President was ended in favour of having an elected ringing president. The first and so far the only holder of the post is Helen Nichols and she has shown her commitment to ringing in general and the D & D in particular in many ways. In addition to the striking competition trophy Helen makes a personal award each year of the David Nichol’s Award for exceptional service to ringing. How fitting it would be if we could arrange for her to receive her own award; it would be so well deserved. In recent years Helen has made a huge contribution towards the training and support of new bands in the Doncaster area and even received an ART award for her work. She will certainly stand out as one of the D & D’s notable members, along with the founders who started the whole thing off.

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Certificate recording ringing by the society for the 800th anniversary of Doncaster Borough. Picture E C Steele

The society has come a long way and has changed much in the way it conducts its business. It now has an excellent website and a Facebook group, and the minute books have given way to digital records which now show that a twenty-six-year-long peal famine has been ended. The rules have been modernised and embrace safeguarding and data protection, things unheard of when half a dozen paragraphs were enough to cover everything; membership and peal recording is also now properly addressed. Having once before been briefly affiliated to the CCCBR the society will now consider joining again under the new provisions for small societies.

What have been the highlights? Ringing for the 800th anniversary of the Borough of Doncaster in 1994 perhaps; or the rather swell party held on the 50th anniversary in 1971. Ringing a goodly number of quarter-peals over the weekend of the Queen’s Silver Jubilee in 1977 or making a lot of noise as the Tour-de-Yorkshire cycle race progressed through the area in 2016? Perhaps in the final analysis the D & D’s greatest achievement has been the number of novice ringers it has fostered and the simple fact that it has continued to pursue its objectives, through several very hard patches, for one hundred years. The society does not boast amazing ringing accomplishments and many ringers have rung more peals in a year than our little society has done in 100, but we are proud to be still here and to have been known as the Friendly Society.

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Arksey, where the society’s first peal was rung. Picture E C Steele.

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Sprotbrough, where the first society practice meeting was held.  Picture E C Steele.

It seems ironic that the society approaches its centenary after a year of almost no ringing at all because of a global pandemic, but in a way the energy and desire to get going again is possibly stronger than it has been for some time. Will the new beginning herald a golden time for the D &D as happened in 1944? We can but hope so. At present it is not even known when the centenary year AGM can be held, still less plan the anticipated ringing and social activities that have been proposed. In a year’s time a final chapter can be written in the history of the D & D’s first hundred years; we must wait and see what it contains.

Ted Steele
January 2021