Ringing returns to family after WW1 loss

The following is written by Chris Cockel, who is learning to ring for Ringing Remembers at Portsmouth Cathedral. Read more learner’s stories here.  

Chris Cockel, ready to ring the 25 cwt tenor bell at Portsmouth Cathedral

Chris: Some years ago while researching my family history I discovered that at the time of the First World War two generations of my family rang the bells together at St. Mary Magdalene church, Ickleton, Cambridgeshire. My great-grandfather Percy Webb, my great-great grandfather Jesse Webb, and my great granduncle Eustace Webb were members of a tight-knit band of 14 ringers. Out of this band all but four (who were too old) joined up, and of the ten ringers who went to war, four sadly lost their lives. This included three members of the Carder family: Arthur, Herbert and Walter, and my relative Eustace Webb, a Private in the Essex Regiment who was killed at the Battle of Cambrai aged 39 on 30 November 1917.

After attending the 2017 Remembrance Day service at Portsmouth Cathedral with my son, this family connection to a ringer killed in the war and the significance of the 100th anniversary of the end of First World War compelled me, after too many years of procrastination, to learn to ring.

Growing up in Birmingham, I was also inspired by the restoration of the bells at my home church of St. Anne’s in Moseley, which were reinstated in 2000. Having been struck by a bomb in 1940, the popular story was that the St. Anne’s tower had been so weakened as to render it dangerous to swing the bells. Throughout my childhood the bells were only chimed by one church warden using a pulley device set up just inside the door of the church. Sadly, by the time the St. Anne’s bells were finally restored, I had already left home and moved away from Birmingham. However, since learning to ring in Portsmouth I have finally fulfilled my ambition to ring the bells at St. Anne’s.

Ringers of St. Mary Magdalene church, Ickleton, Cambridgeshire in 1902. Back Row, L to R: Jesse Webb Snr, T Flitton, Stacey G Dyer (Gt Chesterford), Tim Bowtell, J Bowtell. Seated: Percy Webb, Arthur Lilley, Eustace Webb. (Photo courtesy of www.ickleton.org.uk)

I started ringing at Portsmouth Cathedral in January 2018, and one of the first things I did was watch a YouTube video titled ‘Bell ringing is harder than it looks’, I soon found out that this is indeed true. I also saw a comment questioning why bell ringers look so miserable while ringing.

What I have found is that bell ringing is a both a physical and a mental ‘challenge’ that I am all too happy to embrace. I love the physicality of ringing the 25-cwt tenor bell, the lighter touch that is needed with the smaller bells, and the concentration (not miserable faces) that is needed to keep in time with the other bells and to navigate complex ringing methods. With the dedicated help and encouragement of our Tower Captain, Ben, and Deputy, David, and indeed of all the other ringers, experienced and not so experienced, young and not so young, it has been an absolute joy.

Portsmouth Cathedral is a wonderful place to learn to ring for many reasons. I love the fact that there are 12 bells, and while I enjoy ringing on six or eight, it’s great to have the option of the full sound that is possible with 12 bells. The ringing chamber is also nice and bright and spacious, allowing sometimes as many as 30 ringers to attend a Thursday practice. The church community at the cathedral is also very friendly and welcoming, and I like the cathedral’s location, nestled in the heart of Old Portsmouth, metres from the sea. Ships of all sizes, from small yachts to the Royal Navy’s newest aircraft carrier, HMS Queen Elizabeth, sail by literally at the end of the street.

Cathedral Church of St Thomas of Canterbury (Portsmouth Cathedral) as seen from the Spinnaker Tower, May 2018.

I’ve now rung all 12 bells, and I was really surprised to find that ringing the small bells is actually harder than ringing the big bells, although getting the big bells to stand first time is still a work in progress. Apart from just about figuring out the basics after nine months, I have happily now completed my first quarter peal, ringing the number eight bell behind to 1260 changes of Bob Doubles.

As well as the regular Thursday evening practice and Sunday mornings, something that I’m really enjoying is visiting other towers in the Portsmouth District and beyond. For a recent District outing we spent the day visiting seven other towers in Surrey. Ringing at lots of different towers has provided excellent additional experience, ringing all manner of bell sizes and tones, acquiring a few blisters, learning from other ringers, and improving my knowledge of local history and geography – and it makes me appreciate even more the quality of the bells that we have at the cathedral, which now seem like old friends.

Now I’ve been ringing for more than nine months, I can safely say that bell ringing is indeed more difficult than it looks. Yet, with practise and perseverance, coupled with patient and encouraging mentors, what at first appears rather daunting opens up into a fascinating hobby that combines history and tradition with the challenge of learning a new skill, and becoming involved in a whole new community of people. And, 100 years after his death, I’m pleased to have reinstated a family tradition by honouring the memory of Eustace Webb and all those ringers whose loss is still being felt today.


The Ringing Remembers campaign is recruiting 1,400 new bell ringers in memory of the 1,400 who lost their lives in World War One. All new recruits will have once in a life time opportunity to ring on Armistice Day (11 November) this year to mark 100 years since the end of the war. Find out more about the campaign and signup by visiting our Ringing Remembers project page andread more leaner’s stories here.


Ringing Remembers is funded by the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, and is a partnership with the Central Council of Church Bell Ringers.