Pioneering Women Bellringers


Pioneering Women Bell Ringers by Ann Desics Jan. 2013

I was thumbing through the pages of the Ringing World, a weekly newspaper for bellringers, and came across an article containing a photo of 8 ladies, taken in July 1912 after they had just rung the first peal ever by an all ladies band in Christchurch, Cubitt Town, London.

2012 wabell ringers_3s the 100th anniversary of this epic event and it was quite an achievement, especially in those days, when church bellringing was a very male dominated activity. They all came from different parts of England and got together to achieve a first for women. This must have been the start of bellringers “Women’s Lib”! In fact, shortly afterwards they all became founder members of the Ladies Guild of Change Ringers which still exists today. My interest was aroused by the fact that one of those ladies was Miss Evelyn Steel (the one standing on the far right), who was a regular ringer here at St. Peters for very many years and her name appears on some of our peal boards along with that of her sister, Dorothy Steel (1884-1963).

The two peals depicted on this board were rung to celebrate the end of World War 1.  

I browsed through the ringing archives of the Bedfordshire Association and Richard searched on the Internet to find out more about the two sisters. Evelyn was born in 1879 and Dorothy in 1884 in the small village of Woodsetts, South Yorkshire. They had a brother and two more sisters who were not ringers. Their father; Revd. Henry Steel, was the vicar of the village church and all the siblings grew up at the vicarage in Woodsetts. Their mother, Elizabeth, was also the daughter of a clergyman.

The sisters’ upbringing was probably strictly religious. The family employed two servants so life would have been quite comfortable. Near their home were some good golf links where Evelyn spent quite a lot of time. She won the Yorkshire Golf Championships 5 times and played in the English Team, International Golf for 7 years. She also played croquet at International level.

In 1906/07 Revd. Steel semi retired, aged by now in his early 70’s,  the family moved to Bedford and lived in Goldington Road. Evelyn learned to ring church bells at St. Mary’s, Oakley in 1908 and probably Dorothy learned soon afterwards. Dorothy was always something of a reluctant conscript to ringing peals, unlike Evelyn, who was noted for her excellent ringing skills and rang in many peals throughout Bedfordshire. They were both affiliated to St. Peter’s tower for many years until 1937 when they transferred to St. James, Biddenham. They moved to live in Biddenham, along with their widowed sister, Margaret, after their parents died.

I’ve spoken to some local “more senior” ringers who knew and rang with Evelyn. She apparently always wore ankle length, dark coloured skirts with a wide leather belt, her hair tied back into a “bun”. During World War 2 she helped deliver milk and mail every day in the Biddenham/Bromham area as most of the men were away doing National Service. She was quite a character, just a bit “school ma’amish” but very well respected by all. Neither Evelyn or Dorothy were ever married. Dorothy died in 1965 aged 81 years and Evelyn died in 1973 aged 94 years. I’ve found it so interesting to put faces and some facts behind the names painted onto a peal board that we see every time we ring in the tower, as they once did before us.