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We believe that the Society was formed long before the oft published date of 1620 with the aim of maintaining the fabric of the Church of St Stephen’s. In the words of the great Protestant reformer Hugh Latimer, who was Martyred by Bloody Mary in 1555 - “It is clear from the tenor of some of the rules that the Society was even then an ancient institution. Like the fraternity of St Mary of the Bell House, who had a chapel and a chantry priest in St Peter’s Church, the Ringers had been probably a pre-Reformation guild for religious, benevolent, and social purposes”

This statement dates the Society pre Queen Elizabeth 1, and is the first known reference to the Ringers. As a result the Society is understood to be a Pre-Reformation institution, putting it almost certainly at an age in excess of 500 years. It would therefore appear that the date of 1620 attaching to the Society’s logo is a quirk and its origins are uncertain and of little consequence.

The Society’s role in the day to day running of the Church is limited. However, the Society has historically always met in the Church for two main events a year.

On May Day at 7.00 am there is a short service that takes place at the top of the tower. There are several hundred steps to the top of the bell tower and it is quite a sight to see the Vestry and twenty to thirty members of the Society singing hymns in this magical location – quite apart from the service, the views over the City are spectacular.

The other main event in the Church is the Annual Service which is held on the Sunday nearest the Accession Day of Queen Elizabeth I (17th November 1558). The service sees a packed church and there is always a thought provoking sermon from a visiting preacher. Following the service there is a drinks party that is attended by the bulk of the membership and their families.

The Annual dinner is held on the Monday evening after the Annual Service. It is no longer an occasion for the excesses which certainly characterised it in the past, but the retention of many interesting customs such as handbell ringing, personal toasting of friends, the singing of old songs and the reading of the Ordinances make it an interesting and lively evening. Traditionally the dinner has been held in the Wigwam at the Red Lodge by kind permission of the Bristol Savages.

In 1931 the membership was restructured and sub-divided into Ringers and Colts (Apprentices) and the Ordinances were amended accordingly. These changes were warmly welcomed and, as a result of them, the objectives of the Society were re-stated; a Court comprising the Master, Wardens and Past Masters constituted as the governing body; the Learned Clerk appointed; and a register of members prepared. Arising from these reforms the number of Ringers is limited to 100, exclusive of members of the Court and Past Masters, and of Colts to 40. The membership of the Society is all male and is made up of from a cross- section of the business community in the greater Bristol area. Many of the senior members are now retired but were prominent and successful practitioners in their chosen fields.

The Court changes on an annual basis with a new Warden being elected at the Annual Meeting – the Michaelmas Court - that happens on Michaelmas Day each September. The Warden Elect holds this position until the Annual Dinner when he will become Junior Warden as the Master retires and the Senior Warden becomes the new Master.

With a name such as ours you would have thought that the Society would be a collection of campanologists. Sadly this is not the case although this is almost certainly the origins of the Society. The link to campanology today is maintained by the St. Stephen’s Hand Bell Ringers who have close links to the Society and play at both the Annual Service and the Annual Dinner.

 

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