THE ANCIENT SOCIETY OF COLLEGE YOUTHS
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THE EARLY MEMBERSHIP OF THE SOCIETY
Christopher J. Pickford, 2002

One of my hopes for my year of office was that I would be able to build on what recent Masters have done to cultivate the active involvement of our wider membership in Society activities. So when the Secretary asked me to contribute a short historical piece for the Newsletter, the choice of a subject was easy – the Society's early membership and, particularly, the contribution of ringers from the provinces.

The Society possesses name books – or lists of members – right back to 1637. Until about 1735 when the old book was re-written in its present form the records seldom give any indication of where members lived or rang. However, from that date (apart from a gap in the 1750s) this information was regularly included. By the end of 1800 the number of elected members stood at 1762 – and for 1102 of them (62%) a place-name is also given. For the period 1735 to 1800 this rises to 84%.

The pattern of elections by decade from 1637 to 1840 in the chart below provides the context for this study, the data from the name books for this time having been recently entered on to a computer. This article looks mainly at the peak period from 1760 to 1800 for which our records provide detailed evidence but also considers the wider membership right through to the end of the first name book in 1870.

Strikingly, the Society attracted large numbers of new members during the closing decades of the eighteenth century, especially in the 1760s, 1780s and 1790s. In 1762 alone, for instance, 55 members were elected. Yet in contrast, only nine new members joined in 1767-9 and none in 1779. Other years of high activity included 1774 (48), 1784 (43 – including 11 from Maidstone), 1786 (44 – mainly from Birmingham), 1787 (61), 1790 (45) and 1800 (55 – including several from Liverpool and Reading). The number of new members tails off significantly from 1803 – not surprisingly, given what Bill Cook described as the "steady decline of in the fortunes of the College Youths" in the early nineteenth century.

Looking at the name book, I was struck by how many "country members" there were – indeed there were times when new members from London were firmly in a minority. Of the 1268 members elected between 1735 and 1800 some 480 (or 38%) came from the provinces. This is surely an indication of the Society's standing in the Exercise and of the importance of strong links between leading ringers in London and in the rest of the country.

Since our first Master, Lord Brereton, came from Cheshire, it seems quite likely that the Society had country members from the outset – gentry who divided their time between London and their country seats. The first member to be identified by place was Fabian Stedman "of Cambridge" in 1664, but this is almost certainly a later – and erroneous – addition to the original entry. Next came Henry Brett (1687) of Cowley, a Gloucestershire squire who later served as steward (1695) and master (1701). Other early members from outside London include Thomas Flexney of Oxford (1689), John Smalman of Ludlow (1693), Thomas Aldridge of Stroud (1711) and Thomas Windle of Hadleigh (1715).

Among the first 350 early members for whom no details are given, there are some notable figures. These include several bellfounders – Brian Eldridge of Chertsey (1649), Henry Bagley of Chacombe (1686) and Abraham Rudhall of Gloucester (1699). Rudhall provided bells for several London towers – including work for the Society at St.Sepulchres - in the years 1699-1719.

There are a number of others who were involved with bells and ringing in the provinces. John Hacket, later Bishop of Lichfield, joined the Society in 1649 and we know that he took a personal interest in the bells when restoring Lichfield Cathedral after the Civil War. Samuel Scattergood (1672) was an active ringer in the Midlands and George Sorocold (1685) was responsible for rehanging the early ring of ten at Derby (1677) in a new frame on one level in 1687. Capt. Thomas Keyte (1686) was involved with the new rings at Chipping Campden and Great Wolford, and Leonard Lichfield (1697) was the Oxford University printer who produced the early catalogues of bells cast by the Rudhalls and the Bagleys.

Oxford, as already noted, provided members from 1689. In all, 29 Oxford ringers had joined the College Youths by 1798, including one who became a member in 1733 – the year of the Society’s visit to the City. A visit to Cambridge for a peal of Grandsire Caters at Great St Mary in May 1727 led to a regular flow of candidates for membership – with 37 Cambridge ringers joining the Society between 1727 and 1791. The names of the local ringers are well documented at both the University Cities and it would be interesting to correlate these against the Society’s membership list. The election of members from Canterbury followed a peal rung there by the Society in 1732.

This, then, illustrates the base from which the Society came to develop a country-wide membership in the eighteenth century and beyond and the manner of its development. The following table shows how many members had been elected from each county by 1800, the date of the first identified member, and the names (and first dates) of the places that are represented.

County First No Towers (in order of first appearance) – mainly pre-1800
Berks 1731 36 Windsor (1731), Wallingford (1739), Reading (1744), Abingdon (1764), Windsor Castle (1787)
Bristol 1720 11 Bristol (1720)
Bucks 1785 1 High Wycombe (1785)
Cambs 1727 37 Cambridge (1727)
Channel Islands 1792 1 Guernsey (1792)
Cheshire 1851 0 Mottram (1851)
Derbys 1760 2 Bakewell (1760) and Chesterfield (1765)
Devon 1783 2 Plymouth (1783)
Durham 1773 1 Gateshead (1773)
Essex 1760 22 Maldon (1760), Waltham Abbey (1760), Brentwood (1762), West Ham (1762), Woodford (1762), Great Chesterford (1763), Saffron Walden (1763), Chelmsford (1787) and Prittlewell (1800)
Gloucs 1687 7 Cowley (1687), Gloucester (1699), Stroud (1711) and Painswick (1737)
Hants 1741 10 Winchester (1741), Southampton (1758), Isle of Wight (1775), Alton (1790) and Romsey (1791)
Herefs 1867 0 Mathon (1867)
Herts 1736 82 Ware (1736), St.Albans (1752), Watford (1762), Barnet (1762), Bishops Stortford (1762), Hitchin (1763), Hertford (1764) and Hatfield (1773)
Hunts 1763 1 St.Neots (1763)
Kent 1718 97 Deptford (1718), Dover (1731), Canterbury (1732), Bromley (1734), Maidstone (1759), Greenwich (1761), Woolwich (1761), Folkestone (1761), Leeds (1762), Hollingbourne (1763), Sevenoaks (1771), Lewisham (1772), Ashford (1774), Rochester (1778), Hadlow (1784), Gravesend (1790), Cranbrook (1801), Staplehurst (1801) and Wrotham (1802)
Lancs 1788 16 Liverpool (1788) and Ashton under Lyne (1802)
Leics 1732 9 Leicester (1732), Loughborough (1759) and Wymeswold (1801)
Lincs 1771 1 Lincoln (1771)
Middx 1731 276 Stanwell (1731), Twickenham (1732), Tottenham (1740), Fulham (1748), Staines (1760), Isleworth (1761), Islington (1761), Hammersmith (1762), Kensington (1762), Brentford (1763), Chelsea (1763, Hackney (1763), Clerkenwell (1770), Westminster (1774), Bethnal Green (1774), Holborn (1774), Shoreditch (1774), Ealing (1781), Stratford or Bow (1784), Spitalfields (1788), Chiswick (1790) and Ruislip (1802)
Norfolk 1758 9 Downham (1758), Norwich (1758), Diss (1759), Kings Lynn (1766) and Swaffham (1766)
Northants 1760 6 Oundle (1760), Northampton (1782) and Polebrook (1783)
Northumberland 1851 0 Newcastle (1851)
Notts 1765 6 Nottingham (1765)
Oxon 1689 49 Oxford (1689), Henley (1745), Bampton (1760), Banbury (1760) and Witney (1764)
Salop 1693 25 Ludlow (1693), Shrewsbury (1739) and Shifnal ((1773)
Somerset 1763 4 Frome (1763) and Bath (1788)
Suffolk 1714 10 Stow (1714), Hadleigh (1715), Crowfield (1744), Ipswich (1746), Stowmarket (1774), Washbrook (1787) and Swilland (1788)
Surrey 1734 208 Farnham (1734), Chertsey (1740), Mortlake (1744), Croydon (1748), Southwark (1757), Reigate (1758), Camberwell (1761), Dorking (1762), Epsom (1762), Kingston (1762). Leatherhead (1762), Mitcham (1762), Putney (1762), Richmond (1762), Ashtead (1782), Battersea (1783), Wandsworth (1784), Streatham (1785) and Newington (1787)
Sussex 1773 8 Horsham (1773), Lewes (1773), Salehurst (1773), Seaford (1773) and Brighton (1796)
Wales 1717 2 Wynnstay (1717) and Haverfordwest (1765)
Warwicks 1771 31 Birmingham (1771)
Wilts 1760 5 Highworth (1760) and Aldbourne (1789)
Worcs 1773 7 Stourbridge (1773), Kidderminster (1786) and Worcester (1800)
Yorks 1758 22 Leeds (1758), Rotherham (1758), Huddersfield (1763), Sheffield (1769), York (1770), Halifax (1773), Wakefield (1775), Hull (1786), Dewsbury (1789) and Leeds (1789)
This list, of course, only tells part of the story in which peal ringing, openings of new bells, visits and outings, trade links and even campanological espionage (i.e. the visit to Norwich in 1785) all feature. Interesting though this is, it is beyond the scope of this article. But it is possible to look briefly at the split of members between London and the provinces and to identify more closely the leading centres of activity and key provincial members. Care is needed, of course, since some people who joined the Society were not ringers. Nevertheless, an analysis of the membership by place is informative.

I have taken the term "country member" to refer to people from outside the City and London's immediate hinterland, although the distinction is necessarily an arbitrary one. Parts of the Home Counties - places like Isleworth, Deptford, Richmond and West Ham which are now part of Greater London – clearly belong to the London area. Towers in the more distant areas of Surrey, Hertfordshire and Kent may be regarded as being in the country.

Taking the London area first, we find that about 45 towers in the immediate environs of the Capital provided recruits to the Society up to 1801 – a total of 505 members in all. The sequence in which members from these places first joined can be seen from the earlier lists (above). The following table identifies the stronger College Youths’ towers in the London area in the eighteenth century.

Place

Number to 1801

Dates

Kensington

46

1762

1799

Twickenham

44

1732

1790

Fulham

41

1748

1801

Southwark

38

1757

1799

Hammersmith

29

1762

1799

Greenwich

22

1761

1796

Mortlake

20

1744

1799

Isleworth

20

1761

1793

Chelsea

20

1763

1799

Battersea

20

1783

1799

Kingston

19

1762

1801

Croydon

19

1748

1799

Deptford

18

1718

1790

Westminster

15

1774

1800

Putney

10

1762

1795

Outside this area – roughly 15 to 20 miles round London – the 480 members elected in the period up to 1800 came from almost 102 different places. The leading College Youths towers in the provinces were as follows: Cambridge (37), Birmingham (31), Hertford (22), Farnham (21), St.Albans (19), Oxford (29), Shrewsbury (17), Ware (17), Liverpool (16), Witney (16), Maidstone (15), Reading (15), Abingdon (14), Reigate (11), Bristol (11), and Watford (10).

Leading provincial ringers who joined the Society included figures like John Merrett of Painswick, John Martin of Leicester, Theodore Eccleston of Crowfield in Suffolk, Stephen Bayley and Thomas Sweetlove who rang with the Leeds (Kent) Youths, William Crofts of Nottingham, Francis Hudson of York, Thomas Hadley of Birmingham, John Bowtell and Thomas Steers of Cambridge, James Dovey of Stourbridge, Thomas Clemson and Samuel Lawrence of Shifnal, Philip Heath and Richard Cross of Shrewsbury, Stephen Hill of Kidderminster, Robert Chesnutt of Norwich, John Marven of Washbrook, John Parnell of Sheffield, and John Hand of Liverpool.

The number of provincial members elected to 1800 was 480, and by 1870 the number stood at 738. Thus only 250 new members from outside London were elected between 1800 and 1870 – and 52 of these joined in 1801-3, including large numbers of members from Ashton under Lyne (13 in 1802) and Maidstone (12 in 1801-3). As already indicated, the number of elections declined dramatically after 1803, and for the next four decades only a handful of country members were recruited. It was not until after 1851 when the Great Exhibition attracted large numbers of visitors to the Capital – ringers among them – that the Society again started to develop and encourage wider membership, with 154 country members joining between 1851 and 1870.

The places providing the greatest numbers of new county members between 1800 and 1870 were Gravesend (25), Liverpool (18), Gloucester (14), Bristol (13), Ashton under Lyne (13), Maidstone (12) and Rochester (11). The following table shows the leading provincial strongholds of the Society in the period covered by the first name book (i.e. 1637-1870):

Place

Dates

No to 1870

Cambridge

1727

1852

40

Liverpool

1788

1864

34

Oxford

1689

1864

31

Birmingham

1771

1798

31

Gravesend

1790

1861

29

Maidstone

1759

1803

27

Hertford

1763

1803

26

Bristol

1720

1870

24

Shrewsbury

1739

1814

23

St.Albans

1752

1868

23

Farnham

1734

1769

21

Reading

1744

1803

18

Ware

1736

1773

17

Witney

1764

1772

16

Gloucester

1699

1858

15

Rochester

1778

1861

14

Watford

1762

1810

14

Abingdon

1764

1766

14

Ashton under Lyne

1802

13

Leicester

1732

1851

12

Reigate

1758

1850

12

So, this membership evidence is historically important not only in documenting the Society’s links with the wider ringing network but also in identifying local centres of changeringing activity. While some such centres are well known (e.g. Oxford, Cambridge and Norwich) this line of research has uncovered some hitherto unknown facts about ringing in other provincial towns and cities in the eighteenth century.

Bill Cook's history of the College Youths necessarily concentrates on activities in London, and so the link with ringers and ringing in the provinces has perhaps not been given the attention it deserves. This short article should have gone some way towards filling the gap and setting the record straight regarding the extent to which country members have always played a vital part in the life and activities of the Society.

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