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Margaret Homer (Nichols) Shurcliff: The Mother of American Handbells
“We are just beginning to grasp the possibilities here.” - Margaret Shurcliff
Hello again, fellow campanologists and handbell enthusiasts! Professor Handbell here with more in-depth insight on the inner workings of the wonderful world of handbells. Usually, I tend to focus on the scientific aspects of handbells and the ringing thereof, but today, I will play Professor of Handbell History and ring the praises of one of the true American pioneers of our beloved art form: Margaret Homer (Nichols) Shurcliff.
Born in 1879 to an affluent Boston family, Margaret was passionate about quite a few things: tennis, teaching inner city children, women's suffrage, and bell ringing. This love for ringing was inherited from her father, Arthur Nichols, a prominent physician. Together they traveled to England, where she became the first American woman to ring a complete peal of tower bells. She also rang two peals on handbells and was presented with an octave of Whitechapel handbells to take back to America, which she would continue to expand throughout her life. (Sound familiar? The desire to expand your bell set, I mean, not being given Whitechapel handbells. We should ALL be so lucky.) Margaret and her father were also inducted into the Ancient Society of College Youths, the oldest and most prestigious bell ringing society in England. (I wonder if they are looking for new members?)
Upon her return to the United States, Margaret continued to spread her love of handbells. Her Beacon Hill Ringers, which consisted of her friends and several of her children (she had six!), became famous for ringing carols in the area each Christmas. (Again, sound familiar?)
Meanwhile, handbells continued to grow in popularity throughout the Northeast, and in 1937, the New England Guild of Handbell Ringers was formed right in Margaret's living room with Margaret as its first president. In the next few years, love of the instrument began to spread nationwide, although sets of handbells and ringing groups were still somewhat scattered. To bring these ringers together, NEGHER met in 1954 - again in Margaret's living room - to plan the first American handbell festival. It was from that meeting that the American Guild of English Handbell Ringers was born, a group that continues on as the Handbell Musicians of America today.
Each time we ring, we owe a little to the legacy of Margaret Shurcliff. Just as she was a tireless advocate for handbells and expanding the art of ringing in the United States, so too should we be advocates for handbells in our own communities.