The Ancient
Society of
Est. 1637

Some former Society HQ pubs

A close association between ringers and the local hostelry has existed since the earliest times when bells were hung on plain bearings making practices a thirsty affair. It has since evolved into a key aspect of the Exercise being the occasion on which future arrangements are initiated and individuals sign up to ringing challenges they might not otherwise have agreed to. By holding their monthly business meeting in a regular drinking establishment the Society has traditionally made regular meetings a social as well as administrative event.

Belfry reform movement

Throughout the 18th century and for most of the 19th century the ringing of bells was predominantly pursued as a secular sport for its own sake rather than as an integral part of church services. The connection with the church had largely arisen because church steeples constructed to house chiming bells were the obvious place to install bells with full wheels upon which change ringing could then be practised.

The social changes which had spread across the country towards the end of the 18th century following the Industrial Revolution had the advantage of increasing the mobility of the population allowing ideas and existing practise to be spread more rapidly than had previously been the case. A downside however, was the deterioration in the behaviour of ringers which led to abuses such as smoking and drinking in the belfry. Many ringers would only ring when paid to do so, often to celebrate secular events, and would use the funds raised to purchase alcohol. Such behaviour appalled some of the clergy and led the Revd H T Ellacombe to remark in 1849 that ‘it was a well-known fact that, as a body, a more drunken set of fellows could not be found’.

Ringing Out the Old Year in the Belfry of Cripplegate Church, London - this print (230 x 175mm) was first published in The Illustrated Historic Times (4 January 1850, page 1) before being reproduced a number of years later in Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper (27 March 1858, page 268). A ringers jug is visible bottom left with some of the non-ringers present drinking while the ringing takes place.

At this time there was a general neglect of church buildings and laxity in the conduct of services within the Church of England, and this led to what became known of as the Oxford Reform movement. Inevitably the reform of the belfry followed shortly thereafter which led to the setting up of many of the territorial societies that exist today.

This short review of the various headquarter (HQ) hostelries used by the Society during the last two hundred years helps illustrate these social changes, as well as supporting the Society's key aims of good ringing and fellowship.

Current arrangements

The Counting House in Cornhill is the current HQ venue for the Society. It is frequented after most Tuesday night practices and is where the Society has the use of an upstairs room in which it holds its monthly business meeting.

The building itself in interesting in that it rests on the northern walls of the old Roman basilica of Londinium built in AD70. The basilica acted as a civic centre and housed the city administrators, law courts, an assembly hall, the treasury nd shrines. At its height it was the largest building of its type north of the Alps, showing the importance of London within the Roman Empire. The current building was built in 1893 with the main bar area originally forming a magnificent banking hall, surrounded by galleries which today offer additional seating areas – rarely used by Society members who tend to gather close to the bar.

Earlier times

The Society practices appear to have centred on St Brides, Fleet Street in the early half of the 18th century. An influx of new members led by Benjamin Annable caused tensions in the Society though, with the older members appearing to be more interested in the social and ordinary ringing activities of the Society rather than peal ringing. This inevitably led to the first split in the Society in 1756 with the older contingent moving to St Martin-in-the-Fields. From 1776, and probably much earlier, they met at the house of Mr Hill, The Barn in St Martin's Lane on Thursday evenings between 7pm and 8pm before ringing at St Martins. The newer members remained in the former HQ, the Barley Mow in Salisbury Court, near to St Brides, Fleet Street where they continued to ring. At the time of the split the older members took the Society's property with them and it is unfortunately this led to the eventual loss of records from the early years, although an attempt to re-construct some records took place at a later date.

The Society at the time was known collectively as the Society of College Youths, but following the split the ringers who had moved to St Martins started to refer to themselves as the Ancient Society of College Youths. In many histories the ringers who remained at St Brides tend to be referred to as the Junior Society for the sake of clarity. By 1788 the Ancient Society had ceased to be active and the Junior Society moved its activities from St Brides and their HQ at the Barley Mow, to St Martins taking on The Barn in St Martin's Lane as their HQ.

King's Head, Southwark

Around the time the Society reformed, after a further temporary separation of the second Junior Society of College Youths in the middle of the 19th century, it moved from the old Society HQ in St Martin's Lane, Westminster to Southwark much to the annoyance of most of the older members. They took the Society's property with them and set up the Society's HQ at the King's Head in Winchester Street. A printed copy of the Society's Rules and Regulations from 1866 (Rule V) states That the Society shall have a room at the King's Head Tavern, exclusively for the use of its members and friends, in which the Society's property shall be deposited, under the care of the landlord.

The author Charles Dickens was an admirer of bells and recorded a visit to a College Youths practice in the All The Year Round magazine at the time. Extracts taken from the copy for 27 February 1869 (pages 303 to 308) gives a fascinating insight into the Society then:

The head-quarters of change ringing are in a long, rather low room on the first floor of the King's Head in Winchester-street, in the borough of Southwark. Records of distinguished peals, in frames of all sizes and various ages, adorn the walls, and an iron safe is fixed in a corner.

A large, thickly bound book with strong brazen clasps, and a general appearance of having been made to stand constant reference for many years, lies on the table. This is the second volume of the peal-book, and was presented to the society by an enthusiastic amateur. Here are entered all the peals rung by members, in records written by professional hands, in a most ornate style and in various bright colours. There are comparatively few entries in the book as yet, for it has recently commenced.

The first thing that strikes the visitor on opening the door is that the ancient college youths are good and steady smokers. The smoke is so dense that for some time it is difficult to make out the surrounding objects; the only way of avoiding inconvenience is to light up oneself, which, every new comer does without loss of time.

It becomes soon pleasantly apparent that change ringing is by no means merely an excuse for beer. There is an excellent rule, strictly enforced, that no refreshments are allowed in the belfry; and moderation is clearly the custom in the club-room.

The flow of information is here interrupted by a suggestion that the society may like to hear a touch on the hand-bells, and this proposition being received with great favour, the hand-bells are produced and half a dozen college youths taking two bells each, and drawing their chairs into a circle away from the table, play up manfully.

Rose & Crown, Paternoster Row

The Society appears to have kept the King's Head as their HQ until 1892 after which they moved back to the City of London after around 100 years. The new venue was the Rose & Crown in London House Yard, just off Paternoster Row near to St Paul's. Here they were charged 1s 6d (7½p) rent each time they used a meeting room.

Goose and Gridiron, St Paul's Churchyard

At the same time Society met socially at the Goose & Gridiron, close to St Paul's Churchyard where they kept a set of hand bells. Prior to the Great Fire of 1666 this pub was called the Mitre. The name of the pub subsequently change to the Lyre but by 1717 it was called the Goose & Gridiron. It was rebuilt in 1786 and demolished in 1895. The latter name was a corruption, or parody, on the arms of the "Swan and Lyre," a musical society which also met at the ale-house. The building was constructed with five floors, including the basement, and the rooms were relatively small.

The pub sign showing a swan standing on a crown supported by the gridiron has survived and is held in store at the Museum of London. The print from 1717 shows the small compact building.

This hostelry was also where the first Masonic Grand (i.e. Lodge of London and Westminster) was established on 24 June 1717 following a combined meeting of four local area Lodges. The engraved lists of Lodges published in 1723 identified each lodge with a copper engraved illustration of the tavern or coffee house sign where they met. Famous artists who were commissioned to produce these engravings including John Pine, Emanuel Bowen and Benjamin Cole, who themselves were all Freemasons. It might be speculated that such contacts may have influenced the production of the early Society Annual Dinner tickets produced initially by Thomas Kitchin and then by Francesco Bartolozzi.

The Society's peal book records performances at the location, with the peal illustrated demonstrating the fine calligraphy adopted in the peal books.

Coffee Pot, Warwick Lane

In September 1897 the Society moved from the Rose & Crown to the Coffee Pot at 26 Warwick Lane, London EC4 where it continued to hold fortnightly business meetings.

The Daily Herald (27 February 1933) carries an interesting article about a visit to a Society meeting which captures the atmosphere of the Coffee Pot. It reads:

In an upper room … the Society transacts its business every fortnight.

I was challenged at the door by a steward who, noting a new face, pounced on me with the question – are you a member?

There were men of every type, age, trade and profession. It was a democracy of tintinnabulation.

Unlike many other ancient organisations, the College Youths have no use for honorary members. They have retained the original purity of their intentions. You cannot buy your way into the ancient company: you must be prepared to take off your coat in a belfry and prove to the Master and his associates that you can ring at least 1260 changes.

And the moment arrived when a new College Youth, who had passed this drastic test, came to be admitted to membership. He had been carefully excluded from the proceedings, but now the steward flung open the door and called him in. Tankards and glasses were put down, for bell-ringers do not conduct their business sadly, and the faces were turned to the door. In walked a middle aged man. He shook hands with the Master, who welcomed him into the ranks of the College Youths, expressing the hope that he would do nothing to disgrace the ancient and honourable fellowship of bell-ringers, whose motto is ‘let us live in unity’.

Suddenly the meeting was closed, the candles were snuffed, the regalia was packed away in baize-lined boxes, and the Master said: “Now, let's have a touch on the hand-bells!” While he, with several other College Youths, sat round in a circle, each man grasping two hand-bells, the stewards came in bearing the final trays of beer.

Pipes were lit, and we settled down to enjoy a remarkable performance.

A photograph of the Coffee Pot from the 1930s.

A meeting of the Society had been held there on 21 December 1940, but on the night of Sunday 29 December an incendiary attack led to the Coffee Pot being completely destroyed along with the records of the Society which had been held there as was the long standing custom. It was fortunate though that just prior to the outbreak of the Second World War in September 1939 that the Society's Peal Books, Name Books and plate were placed in the Crypt of St Paul's Cathedral for safety. At a meeting held on 4 January 1941, held in the buffet at Holborn Viaduct Station, the Treasurer Albert A Hughes, reported that “on the day after the raid he went to the City and found the Coffee Pot no longer there. He wanted to see what the position was with regard to the Society's property”. He was unable to do anything that day but the brewers promised to do their best to salvage everything that was possible. Unfortunately the hand bells and many valuable documents, particularly the older Minute Books had been destroyed. A few scorched documents were retrieved and are held today in the Society's Library, although their condition is fragile. Many books, some of which date back to the 18th century, were subsequently presented by members of Society to replace items which had been lost. These donations formed an early collection of books which subsequently created the Society's Library found today – the Library as such being established formerly in 1962.

Subsequent years

Initially in the early months of 1941 the Society continued to meet at Herbert Langdon's Office in Farringdon Avenue, and thereafter at the Whitechapel Bell Foundry until March 1954. The Society HQ then moved to The Ship, Talbot Court off Gracechurch Street, where the meetings tended to be held at four weekly intervals on Saturdays, before moving to the Rising Sun, Carter Lane in 1957. Since then the Society HQ has been based at the Lord Raglan, St Martin-le-Grand (from 1969), Magpie & Stump, Old Bailey (from 1974), The George, Old Bailey (from 1981) until this venue was demolished for re-development. It then returned to the Rising Sun, Carter Lane (from 1988 after holding a few transitional meetings during the year at both the Sir Christopher Wren, St Paul's Pavement – since re-developed as Paternoster Square – and the Golden Fleece in Wheat Street, London EC4). In 1994 the Society HQ moved from the Rising Sun to the Old Dr Butler's Head, Mason Avenue, before settling at its current location at the Counting House, Cornhill in 2001. In recent years the meeting has been held monthly on the second Tuesday of the month.

Post script

This quick journey through the history of the Society's HQ venues highlights that in many respects little has changed with the ethos and format of business meetings. It is interesting to note that business meetings have not always been held monthly on a Tuesday evening, nor that the Society has always met in the City of London. But the availability of a pint of beer at business meetings remains a key aspect of the Society's culture.


Reference: The Society of College Youths 1637-2005 by William T Cook (2005)