Handbells | The Canadian Encyclopedia



Handbells (also called English handbells). Sets of chromatically tuned bronze bells, each with a plastic or leather handle. The term "English" refers to the type of clapper (striker) mechanism, which is restricted to moving forward and back.


Handbells (also called English handbells). Sets of chromatically tuned bronze bells, each with a plastic or leather handle. The term "English" refers to the type of clapper (striker) mechanism, which is restricted to moving forward and back. English handbells come in sets comprising up to nine octaves of tones. The lower-sounding handbells are much larger. The opening of a handbell ranges from two inches to over 15 inches in diameter. Weight ranges from seven ounces to over 15 pounds.

Foundries in England made the first tuned sets of handbells. Schulmerich Carillons of Pennsylvania began to manufacture sets of tuned handbells in the early 1960s. A second American bell manufacturer, Malmark, was established in 1973. Schulmerich and Malmark handbells primarily are played throughout Canada.

Handbells are played by handbell choirs ranging from approximately seven to 14 ringers, each playing a selected number of chromatic bells. Most choirs play from two to five octaves of handbells. Handbell choirs are found in churches, schools, community groups, universities and colleges. Ringing by solo ringers or small ensembles is also becoming popular.

Handbells in Canada

The first indication of handbell ringing in North America was in 1844 when P.T. Barnum arranged for the Lancashire Ringers from England to tour the US. It was not until the 1950s that the popularity of handbell ringing grew in the US, and later in Canada. It was primarily a recreational and social activity, but it was also introduced in churches to encourage boys' choir members to continue in the church after their voices changed.

Three sets of handbells are known to have existed in Canada before the 1960s. These were in Regina, Sask; Brantford, Ont; and Vancouver, BC.

In 1962 Schulmerich Carillons' district manager for western Canada, John S. Nelson, arranged for his church, First Baptist in Calgary, to purchase a two-octave set. Under the direction of his wife, Carol, the first handbell choir to play Schulmerich handbells in Canada performed in 1963. Other handbell choirs formed about the same time: Robertson Wesley United Church, Edmonton (1964); First Baptist Church, Moncton (1964); Brunswick Street Baptist Church, Fredericton (1966); and Tec Voc High School, Winnipeg (1966). Knox Metropolitan United Church in Edmonton and Grace Presbyterian Church in Calgary also purchased Whitechapel handbells from England around the same time.

The first set of Malmark handbells was brought to Canada in 1985 by Robertson Wesley United Church in Edmonton.

Handbell Ringing and Organizations in Canada
Handbell choirs take part in church worship services, school concerts, and public concerts. A youth handbell choir from St John's York Mills Anglican Church in Toronto played in a television commercial for Swiss Chalet. Choirs in Edmonton have performed with the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra. Tracey Boyle impressed many with her handbell solo performance in the 1987 Miss Canada pageant. In 2004, ringers in Edmonton took part in the feature film Santa's Slay.

In 1983 the Alberta Guild of English Handbell Ringers was established to unite the growing interest in handbell ringing in that province. Its first president was John S. Nelson. Similar guilds followed in Ontario (1985), Saskatchewan (1988), BC (1993) and Manitoba (1996). In 1992 the provincial guilds informally established the Handbell Guilds of Canada to provide a national voice for handbell ringing.

Canadian guilds have hosted handbell festivals, large-scale events at which handbell ringers take part in massed ringing, workshops and mini-concerts. The Alberta Guild of English Handbell Ringers hosted the first handbell festival in Calgary in 1984, attracting 300 ringers from across Canada and the US. John S. Nelson organized a festival in conjunction with Expo 86 in Vancouver. In 1998 the first Ringing Link festival was hosted by the Saskatchewan Guild of English Handbell Ringers. This national festival is now hosted every three years by a different provincial guild. Twice, an International Handbell Symposium has been held in Canada: in 1992 in Edmonton, and in 2004 in Toronto. Each attracted approximately 600 ringers from around the world.

Canadian Contributions to Handbell Playing
Prolific handbell composer Fred Merrett is the recipient of awards from handbell composition contests across North America and has over 70 arrangements and original handbell compositions in print. He began teaching a handbell class for credit at Taylor University in Edmonton in 1990. Other Canadians who have composed or arranged for handbells include Percival Price, Ruth Watson Henderson, Nancy Telfer, and Pat Thomson.

A handbell group from Prince George, BC, played at Expo 70 in Osaka, Japan at the invitation of the Japanese government.

Further Reading