The Huddersfield sound – how Pennine bellringers made rock music swing

From Liverpool to Los Angeles, hardly ever has a musical journey passed through Huddersfield – but according to one author, even the biggest bands can trace their roots there.

And as fund raising began for a new set of instruments with which to pass down its obscure heritage to a new generation, a pivotal, musical figure emerged.

Jimmy Ellis was a producer before anyone knew what one was. He took the traditional music of the Pennines and turned it into the prize-winning pop of its day. His influence, and that of villagers before him, has echoed through every band since, said Peter Fawcett, an expert on the almost lost art of Yorkshire bell ringing.

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“The first bands of the working man were handbell ringers. They predate brass bands by 200 years,” he said. “Every musical group has its origins in handbell ringing, and I’m including rock bands.”

Author and historian Pete Fawcett. Picture by Simon HulmeAuthor and historian Pete Fawcett. Picture by Simon Hulme
Author and historian Pete Fawcett. Picture by Simon Hulme | JPI Media

From the 18th century, hand­bells were used by Pennine communities as a means of communicating with each other from over the hills. Ringers gathered at wakes – the traditional Northern holiday weeks – to perform and compete with each other.

“Unlike today, the bells were relatively cheap, and travelling bell founders used to go around with carts and sell their wares,” Mr Fawcett said.

Yorkshire developed a distinct style of ringing, with up to 190 bells laid out before the players instead of the standard three dozen. Only a handful of teams still play in the county style and around Huddersfield, the sound of one is beginning to wear thin.

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“The Yorkshire style is the traditional way of ringing but it’s a dying art because the bells are so expensive now,” said David Sunderland, musical director of the Clifton Handbell Ringers at Brighouse.

Jimmy Ellis, considered the greatest figure of the 20th century handbell movement. Picture: Peter FawcettJimmy Ellis, considered the greatest figure of the 20th century handbell movement. Picture: Peter Fawcett
Jimmy Ellis, considered the greatest figure of the 20th century handbell movement. Picture: Peter Fawcett | Freelance

The group bought its current set of 140 bells in 2000, from the same Whitechapel foundry that cast Big Ben. But after two decades of use by eight adult ringers and nine juniors, they are losing their edge.

“We’ll need to start fund­raising again to replace them, Mr Sunderland said. “They’re getting rung twice a week, plus concerts, and they’re coming to end of their life.”

Valued at £80,000 they replaced a set of Victorian bells discovered by Mr Fawcett in the 1970s, in the basement of an old mill on Clifton Common, which were then restored.

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The discovery prompted the reformation of the Clifton ringers after many years of silence. It also cast new light on the history of the Pennine tradition.

It was an 18th century handbell ringer called Ben Cook who invented the distinct Yorkshire style, said Mr Fawcett, author of a book on the subject. But it was Ellis, another Huddersfield musician, who between 1901 and 1907 turned tradition into art, winning six British Open championships.

“From two different eras, Cook and Ellis were the Jimmy Greaves and Lionel Messi of ringers,” said Mr Fawcett.

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