Throwback Thursday: A Bell-Ringing Tradition Is Born in Beacon Hill
For the past 92 years, a group of warmly dressed bell ringers has shuffled door to door, jingling handbells and singing to fellow residents of Beacon Hill on Christmas Eve. The festive bell-ringing and caroling event is a beloved tradition in the gas lamp-lit neighborhood, and it’s all thanks to a Bostonian by the name of Margaret Shurcliff.
Margaret Shurcliff was born Margaret Nichols in 1879. The daughter of physician (and bell ringer) Arthur Nichols, she grew up at 55 Mount Vernon Street, where today you’ll find the Nichols House Museum. Shurcliff was an avid carpenter, tennis player, women’s suffrage proponent, and eventually an enthusiastic bell ringer. In 1900, she received her first bell-ringing lesson, and in 1902, she set her first bell-ringing record on a trip to England. According to a 1947 issue of Life magazine, Shurcliff “became the first American to ring a full peal of changes (a three-hour ordeal) on English church bells.”
Such an act wasn’t normally practiced in the United States, and hours-long ballads were not exactly welcomed in local churches. Instead, Shurcliff took to handbells, playing songs on a set of bells she took back with her from England. Years later, in 1924, Shurcliff, her children, and some neighbors bundled up and began their Christmas Eve bell-ringing tradition. The Beacon Hill Bell Ringers emerged, as they were called, and Beacon Hill has been filled with melodic tunes of handbells every December since.
The Beacon Hill Bell Ringers were later folded into organization called the New England Guild of English Handbell Ringers. The seven-member guild was formed in Shurcliff’s living room in 1937, with Shurcliff as its first president. In 1954, the guild became the American Guild of English Handbell Ringers, which held the first American handbell festival at Castle Hill on the Crane Estate in Ipswich in the same year.
Bell-ringing during Christmastime has been kept alive by various groups on Beacon Hill since Shurcliff’s passing in 1959. In 2003, an organization called the Back Bay Ringers was founded with the mission to carry on Shurcliff’s tradition. The ringers have been performing throughout the holiday season this year. It’s the Beacon Hill Ringers, though, who will close out the year with a Christmas Eve bell-ringing event beginning in Louisburg Square.
For more information about the Back Bay Ringers, see backbayringers.org.