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Leon Thompson, Ringing Master

July 8, 2011
by the gentle author

This is Leon Thompson, the young ringing master, lurking in the shadows of the belfry of St Matthew’s, Bethnal Green – a place where he has spent a lot of time recently, and where he feels happy and at home, keeping the old bells company. “I decided to start something,” he explained, “there’s been no ringing here since the war, so I decided to try and start a new team of ringers – in the past, the ringers here were described as ‘the best of the best’ and were invited to ring the first peal of bells when St Paul’s Cathedral was inaugurated.”

When Leon came along, he found that although the tower was neglected, the bells were still usable. And today, after raising twenty thousand pounds for some crucial restoration, much of which he did himself to save money, the bells have been rehung and the tower cleaned up, ready for a new beginning. Now, Leon is hanging up the old boards in the newly repainted ringers’ chamber, boards that record in graceful calligraphic signwriting the ringers of past centuries and commemorate famous peals such as the “Kent Treble Bob Major” of 27th April 1868  - the longest peal of bells in the world at that time – ringing continuously for nine hours and twelve minutes. It was an heroic achievement in the days when it required heft to ring bells, before modern bearings allowed them to swing smoothly with minimal friction.

Leon told me that most of the ringers whose names are recorded on the board worked in the London docks and would be used to physical labour, though J. Pettet was silk hat maker and H. Booth was a cigar maker, and neither are professions that require muscle. Yet the most significant name on the board for Leon personally is that of ringer Matthew Wood, a market porter whose family came from France as Huguenot refugees and Anglicised their name in the mid-nineteenth century. Three generations of men from this family were successive steeplekeepers and rang the bells in the tower, starting when it was built in 1746 and ending with the eighty-four-year-old Matthew Wood’s last peal in 1909, recorded upon a special board of its own. This particular Matthew Wood taught Arthur Hughes whose named is recorded on the same board as being there ringing beside him in 1909 – and Arthur Hughes taught Brooke Lunn – and when Brooke Lunn was an old man, he taught Leon Thompson.

This direct connection, that links him back to those who have rung before him, conjures an intense poetry for Leon. “When I stand here pulling this rope,” he explained, clutching the multi-coloured bell rope expertly in both hands and then sending it sliding through his fingers,” I am standing in the same spot that Matthew Wood stood in 1868, ringing the same bell, with the same clapper and hearing the same sound – the only thing that has changed is the piece of rope.”

And then the bell chimed from up above on cue, as if to applaud the notion.

St Matthew’s Church has seen better days – built by George Dance (who also designed St Leonard’s, Shoreditch) in 1746, it was burnt out in January 1859 when the fire brigade’s hoses froze and then was heavily rebuilt in 1861, only to take direct hit of an incendiary bomb on the very first night of the London blitz. All that remained was the shell and the tower but luckily the new set of bells, installed in 1861 after the first fire, survived the second conflagration.

Today the sixties rebuilding speaks more loudly that the work of Dance and you would be forgiven for not even realising it was an old church at all. But when Leon led me through a tiny door, barely three feet high, and we ascended a narrow spiral staircase within the thickness of the wall, I felt I was entering an older world. At first we came to the ringers’ chamber and then we ascended through a dark space that houses the working of the clock, up into the bell chamber. Here we sat  upon the beams to chat in the silent presence of the bells made by the Whitechapel Bell Foundry in 1861, and Leon revealed that when he needed to order replacement clappers, he discovered the foundry still had the measurements on file from the original order.

“I learnt to ring at Oxford where I grew up. It’s very addictive – a hobby where you never stop learning.” he confided to me, eloquent in the half-light of the belfry and in the presence of these charismatic chimes, where he delighted in the intricate details of their configuration, adding enthusiastically, “The bell ringing community is very tight, so if you can ring fairly well, you can go anywhere in the world and you’ll always get a ring.”

“I’ve been in London for four years and I used to come up before that to ring at St Paul’s and Mary Le Bow,” Leon continued, “But I’ve always been drawn to the East End. My great-grandfather was from Bethnal Green and my parents grew up in Stepney.” And so I understood how it all came together for Leon Thompson here in the tower. These were the same bells that his great-grandfather would have heard.

Now Leon has discovered an engagement with the East End, through the magic of bells, he means to take it forward. “I want to start teaching people,” he declared, “My ambition is to get a band of local ringers who can be ‘the best of the best,’ like 1868.”

Leon Thompson needs volunteer bellringers, so if you would like to learn the art of bellringing at St Matthew’s, Bethnal Green, please email  leon_thompson_541@hotmail.com  Also, Leon will be hosting an open day on Saturday 16th July,  from two until five, when visitors are welcome to explore the tower.

In 1868, the longest peal of bells ever rung was rung at St Matthew’s, Bethnal Green – nine hours and twelve minutes. Later, it provided the inspiration for Dorothy L. Sayers’ novel “The Nine Tailors.”

In 1909, the last recorded ringing by Matthew Wood, third generation steeplekeeper, whose grandfather rang the bells when the church was built in 1746.

The only board surviving from before the fire of 1859.

Leon Thompson

You may also like to read these other stories about bells

The Handbells of Spitalfields

Alan Hughes, Master Bellfounder

Rob Ryan’s Tintinnabulation of Bells

The Bellringers of Spitalfields

6 Responses leave one →
  1. melbournegirl permalink
    July 8, 2011

    This is fascinating – so lovely to see the old skills being nurtured. I had no idea how complicated the process was before reading Sayers’ The Nine Tailors.

  2. July 8, 2011

    A great story. Church bells are such a wonderful part of English life, whether or not you’re a believer. Good luck, Leon

  3. Vicky permalink
    July 8, 2011

    This is wonderful Leon, I’m dead chuffed you’ve got those bells ringing again and lucky those people who will hear them from their homes or as they pass near. The sound of bells is one of the most beautiful sounds in the world. My great grandfather Walter Shaw was a bellfounder in Bradford so perhaps there’s something in my genes. I hope you get a good response to your appeal for ringers.

  4. July 8, 2011

    Leon is a great fellow and what he’s been doing is marvellous. As Margaret says, bell-ringing is such an incredible and for me evocative part of traditional English life. Nothing puts peace into one’s breast like the chimes of a church bell-tower!

  5. jeannette permalink
    July 8, 2011

    another killer.

  6. jeannette permalink
    July 8, 2011

    my html never makes it thru. here’s the link.
    http://www.artchive.com/artchive/m/millet/angelus.jpg

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