Many of the older folk will remember when the Dulwich Hand Bell Ringers used to come round at Christmas to collect for the Greater London Fund for the Blind and it may be of interest to learn something of the history of these bells of which the oldest dates from about 1883. The main two octaves were made by a long defunct firm called George Welch who had a foundry on Bankside. The next part of their history is a little uncertain but in the 1920's they were acquired by my late uncle, Mr Arthur Combes when he purchased them from the Rye Lane Baptist Chapel. It is probable that they had acquired them from Spurgeon's Orphanage at Stockwell whose headmaster, Dr. Green, was also organist at Rye Lane Chapel. It is known that Spurgeon's had a set of bells and that they used them regularly. I, myself, heard them ringing at Rye Lane Chapel in 1925.
After Dr. Green left the chapel it seems that the bells may have been left behind and my uncle extended their range to make a three octave chromatic set. These were cast by Mears & Stainbank at the Whitechapel Bell Foundry. My uncle had a small team of Alleyn's boys meeting at his house to practice ringing and eventually the bells were used at a couple of local churches for concerts and other entertainments and the door-to-door street collections for the Greater London Fund for the Blind followed. The aim was to cover every street in SE21 and SE22 from Forest Hill Road right over to Herne Hill! Barry Road was always excluded on the grounds that it was too noisy and too long! The bells were accompanied by a small portable organ and the music for each ringer was on a little tray with a lamp on it, suspended round the ringer's neck and the bells were on ropes around the ringer's shoulders so they could not drop to the ground. At around 9.45pm we would go back to my uncle's house to count the money and have a much needed cup of tea and mince pies. After my uncle's death, I carried on the tradition for many years and then passed the Dulwich Hand Bells on to my neighbour, Ruth Lyon, a music teacher at Bessemer Grange School.
I well remember the sound of the hand bells in the street outside, heralding the Christmas season. I am very pleased to be able to carry on the tradition of hand bell ringing at Bessemer Grange Primary School where I teach two teams of ringers using the Dulwich bells. In addition to performing at school and at local festivals, we have twice played with the London Philharmonic Orchestra at the Royal Festival Hall, providing hand bell parts in specially commissioned works. Other performances include the Globe theatre and numerous appearances on the HMS Belfast. Perhaps the most memorable concert was the magnificent production of 'Noah's Fludde' at St Barnabas Church in 2000. At the beginning of this rarely performed work the hand bells accompanied the voice of God as he speaks to Noah, and at the end they played as the rainbow appears.
Our most recent performance was in Mr. Gildersleve's front garden, where our team of eight players set up stands and music. As he opened his front door the children began their programme of three pieces much to his delight. They then presented him with an enormous home made card and some chocolates in appreciation of his kindness and help.