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All About Muffled Ringing

First published in July 2014.

The sound of church bells is almost invariably associated with joy and celebration, whether for a big festival such as Christmas; a smaller, more personal occasion like a wedding; or simply a regular Sunday service. So what do bell ringers do when such joyful ringing would be inappropriate?

Ringing "full-circle"

First, we need a bit of background. Throughout 17th Century England the ringing of church bells by rope developed from simple swing-chiming with a lever, through high-chiming – first with a quarter-wheel and later with a half-wheel – to full-circle ringing with a complete wheel as we do it today. From the balance point at which the bell is standing mouth-upwards, the bell will make a complete revolution first in one direction and then in the other, and the clapper will strike it once on each revolution. In bell ringing terms these two revolutions are called the handstroke and backstroke.

Changing the mood

Normally, every time the clapper strikes it, a bell will ring out with all its power and its note will resonate across the town. But if we were to attach a leather pad to one side of the clapper (traditionally, the side that strikes the bell on the backstroke) this would muffle every other strike and create a sombre echo effect. This is called ringing half-muffled because only one side of the clapper has a leather muffle attached to it.

At some churches the bells will be rung half-muffled on Good Friday, or shortly before midnight on New Year's Eve to "ring-out" the old year... usually followed by the bell ringers quickly (but very carefully) removing the leather muffles to "ring-in" the New Year joyously after midnight! Only on very important occasions, such as the death of the monarch, would we attach muffles to both sides of the clappers and ring fully-muffled.

At St John’s you will usually only hear the bells being rung half-muffled on Remembrance Sunday. We will also ring half-muffled for a funeral if we're asked for more than the usual single tolled bell, or on occasions of local or national mourning.