Handbells in the United States

When we think of handbells in the United States, we think of P.T. Barnum who found handbell ringers in Wales in the 1840’s and dressed them in Swiss costumes to tour the U.S. In fact, there were some four bell towers in the colonies prior to the Revolutionary War. Though change ringing fell out of favor because it was associated with the British after the War, Margaret’s father, Homer Nichols was enchanted with the sound. He learned change ringing on a trip to England and, upon his return, spearheaded the restoration of bells in the Boston area. It is small wonder that Margaret was duly enchanted and was the first women to ring a full change in England in 1902. They went to learn and came home to share.

Margaret’s fascination with handbells continued to grow enough so that, in 1937 she and her fellow musicians formed the New England Guild of English Handbell Ringers as a vehicle for members to exchange “music, ideas and techniques”. Annual meetings concluded with a public concert. Created to enhance connections between musicians.

Margaret Schurcliff and Friends
Beacon Hill Bell Ringers

By the 1950’s interest in handbells continued to blossom throughout the United States. In February 1954, members of NEGEHR met at the Shurcliff home to found the national guild and to plan the first national festival to spread new ideas, exchange music, techniques and information. To broaden the outreach so that new, fresh techniques and information could flow easily throughout the country.

All of this reminds me of an organist I used to work with. Everything I asked if he’d like to collaborate on a musical project his face lit up as if I’d just promised him a gallon of ice cream! Handbells is mostly a group activity including one or more intimately connected musicians. When we are together making music, there is nothing else!

So, be like Margaret Schircliff. Get excited. Get connected. Share and enjoy!

Happy ringing!

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