Thomas Clarke: Brought to Life by Bells by Ellen Maki, Ph.D.

On Monday evening last the Diss Company of Change Ringers rang on the bells of the Parish Church …. with the bells half muffled, as a last tribute of respect to the memory of Thomas Clarke…”

About Thomas Clarke

Thomas Clarke was born 1825 in the small rural English village of Palgrave, Suffolk. Census records revealed that Thomas worked as an agricultural labourer, married late in life, and had no children. The newspaper report of his death in 1902 was more informative, and helps bring Thomas to life.

According to his death notice, Thomas had been a member of the change bell ringers’ company of nearby Diss, Norfolk, since his youth. Some of his bell-ringing activity was recorded in the belfry of the Diss parish church, where there were inscriptions concerning three peals in which he had participated. In his last days, Thomas enjoyed the camaraderie of two local bell ringing companies, who visited while he was ill.

What is Change Bell Ringing?

Church bell ringing has a long history in England. From medieval times, bells were used to announce the times of services, sometimes using a single bell but at other times using a combination of bells. Bells have also been used to mark both cheerful occasions, such as weddings and festivals, and sombre events such as funerals. Having bells of different tones and using different patterns of ringing helped the listener to understand what service or function was being announced. By 1552, few Norfolk churches had only one bell; by the next century many had 5-6 bells, and by the eighteenth century, many of the more important towns, including Diss, had 8.

Change bell ringing refers to changes in the order in which a set of bells is rung. A short example of this is as follows, where the numbers 1-5 are used to identify 5 different bells, from smallest to largest.

Most of the peals rung would have been much longer. Some of those rung by the Diss Company of which Thomas Clarke was a member took as long as 4-3/4 hours to execute! The bells were heavy, weighing between 8-30 hundredweight, or approximately 896-3,360 pounds. They were hung in the church belfry and were rung by pulling ropes. Clearly, this was an activity that took some physical strength, stamina and concentration.

Change ringing was popular, although not uniformly so. Ezra Pound, for one, viewed bell-ringing as proof that the English were devoid of music, and that it represented “pointless interference with the quiet of other people.” Mr. Pound was likely in the minority, however: nineteenth-century newspapers contained frequent reports of various peals having been rung. Searching the British newspaper collection at Findmypast by using the term “change ringers” yielded nearly 12,000 results.

Thomas Clarke’s Bell Ringing Career

Although Thomas’s home parish of Palgrave, Suffolk had 6 bells, the parish does not appear to have had its own bell-ringing company. Situated in the adjacent county of Norfolk, Diss is less than 3 km from Palgrave, and that is the company of bell-ringers to which Thomas belonged.

Thomas’s death notice indicated that he had been part of the Diss bell ringers’ company since his youth. However, the earliest evidence discovered to date is a news report from 1866, when Thomas would have been 41. He participated with the Diss ringers for nearly two decades, with the last report found being for a peal rung in early 1885.

For over a decade, Thomas rang the tenor bell, which was the largest bell, but in his earlier and later years with the group, he rang smaller bells. News and other reports have been uncovered concerning 18 peals in which Thomas participated. That might not seem like a lot for a twenty-year bell-ringing career, but it does correspond to approximately one major concert per year, several of which were in excess of three hours’ duration and no doubt took a considerable amount of practice and preparation.

Last Days

Thomas lived his entire life in Palgrave, where, as noted above, he worked as an agricultural labourer. He lived to the age of 77 years, dying in Palgrave in 1902 of paraplegia.

Sources:

  1. Diss Express. (1902) Palgrave. Muffled Ringing. Diss Express. 7 February. p. 5e. Collection: British Newspapers. https://www.findmypast.com/ : accessed 18 May 2018.
  2. A Sketch for a Picture of the Town of Diss. (1849) Ipswich: J.M. Burton. Unnumbered plate between pp. 8-9.
  3. Cattermole, Paul. (1990) Church Bells and Bell-Ringing: A Norfolk Profile. Woodbridge, Suffolk: Boydell Press. pp. 15-34.
  4. Scruton, Roger. (2004) News from Somewhere: On Settling. London & New York: Continuum. p. 38.
  5. Dell, Diana J., ed. (2000) Memorable Quotations: Humorists, Wits, and Satirists of the Past. San Jose: Writers Club Press. p. 198.
  6. Bell News and Ringers’ Record. (1884) The Norwich Diocesan Association. Bell News and Ringers’ Record. No. 93. New Series. Vol. II. p. 487.
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