17th October 2018

Biographic research for ringers

Ringing has a long and rich history that a significant number of ringers wish to explore. The advice and information here is intended to help any ringer (or non-ringer) to find out about the lives and achievements of former ringers, whether for interest, for a family history, or as part of a wider project about the history of a band of ringers or ringing society. The sections are:

Before you start Some initial thoughts about why to do the research, when is the best time to do it and how to set about doing it
What to look for Suggestions for what information to collect related to people, and the organisations & places they were associated with
Where to look Details of many potential sources of information, some specific to ringers and some general, including publicly accessible sources
Search techniques Practical advice, with examples, for searching physical arcives, scanned documents, and the Web.
Exploiting the results Ways you could exploit your hard work when you have done it
This advice can also be downloaded as a PDF document.

Before you start

Why do the research

Apart from personal satisfaction, there are three typical reasons for wanting to record the lives of former ringers:

  • To preserve their memory
  • Because they are a part of a wider story
  • To lay down a fuller and more coherent historic record

Typically these reasons align with the interests of:

  • Individuals – who knew the subjects, were inspired by them or have some other related interest
  • Organisations – ringing societies, tower bands or parishes in which the subject played a significant role
  • The ringing community – whose collective history will be of interest to future generations

An example of the latter is the Central Council’s biography collection: cccbr.org.uk/services/biographies/records/.

Research about ringers may also be of value to the wider (non-ringing) community, since ringing is a significant part of our cultural heritage.

Ringing biographies are most often of deceased subjects – the life story is complete and the subject can neither provide any information or comment on it Articles about living ringers are sometimes needed, in which case the subject can often provide information, and even if the article is to be a surprise, finding information is likely to be easier – and of course the subject will see (and hopefully approve of) the finished result.

As well as utilitarian reasons for doing research, don’t overlook the satisfaction that can be gained by actually doing it. It can be hard work, and at times it can be frustrating when you can’t make progress, but it can also be extremely rewarding, especially when you make a breakthrough or uncover something really interesting.

When to do the research

When someone has died you may want to preserve his or her memory, but historical information can also make a useful contribution on many other occasions such as centenaries and major anniversaries, where living memories are too short to rely on for information about who was involved and what they did. If you can get a richer picture of the people and events involved, it can turn the bare bones into a really interesting story. The same is true at times of renewal and regeneration, where bringing to life the lives and achievements of our forebears can help people to recall what we have inherited from the past when investing in the future.

You need information ahead of time, and anything that isn’t already documented and to hand needs to be researched. Digging up history can be unpredictable. You might strike lucky straight away by tapping into a suitable archive, or you might make little progress before making a useful breakthrough, so it may take quite a while, even with on-line resources and Internet searches. If in doubt, start early.

You don’t have to wait for a major anniversary before unearthing your local history though, nor do you have to do it all in one go. There are many occasions where interesting historical stories about ringing or ringers can add interest to ringing newsletters or help to raise the local profile of ringing through Parish Magazines, local papers, village websites, talks and so on. You might think about making a link with your local historians. Do they have any special interests you could relate to? Local History Online: local-history.co.uk/ lists many history societies.

Doing the research

Where to start and how to proceed? A lot depends on how much you already know about the subject(s). If you know a lot, or have access to a lot of relevant sources of information (documents and people) then your main task will be to assemble, check and organise the information into a coherent story. But if you know very little about your subject(s), or there are major gaps in what you know, then a lot more of your effort will be taken up doing the search for information before you can start to assemble it into any kind of story.

If you have an idea of the kind of story that you hope to create, or it is being done for a specific purpose, that will help to steer your research. But try to keep an open mind, especially in the early stages. Too clear a picture may direct you too firmly in a particular direction, and cause you to miss other interesting or more accurate references. It can also tempt you to make the research findings fit the expected story even if they don’t. So be open to new ideas. Keep good notes of your sources and don’t try to fit too much together until you have an idea of the whole picture.

Doing research is like doing a jigsaw puzzle – building an interconnected network of information to form a complete picture with all the pieces. If you don’t have them all then research can be more like a treasure hunt. You start with a few facts that give clues to look for something else or for somewhere else to look, and as you progress you may find new facts and/or new clues for where to look next. Not all leads will prove fruitful, and occasionally you may go down a blind alley. You may sometimes need an inspired guess or a bit of luck to make progress, but overall you should be able to expand the network, gathering a richer picture to put together a more complete story as you do so.

One important thing to remember when joining together disjoint pieces of information is that although they seem to fit, they might not actually go together. You might find information that seems to fill a gap in someone’s life, but actually relates to another person, so you need to check that links are credible.

Another thing to bear in mind is that names are sometimes spelled in different ways or they may be misspelt or mis-transcribed in documents. So you might need to try alternative spellings when doing searches (though that increases the risk of joining together bits of information about different people). Also bear in mind that not all sources are equally reliable, so try to apply a credibility test and/or cross check with other sources, especially on anything that is important or may be contentious.

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