Handbells to Ring at Nichols Museum Holiday House Tour

by Suzanne Besser

On December 13 bells will be ringing at the Nichols House Museum’s annual Holiday House Tour, a much anticipated Beacon Hill tradition that annually welcomes hundreds of neighbors to visit the museum and six private Beacon Hill homes festively decorated for the season.

From 1 to 3 pm the Back Bay Ringers will ring individually tuned handbells to create artistically innovative music of the season at the impressive 1804 Federal Period brick four-story house at 55 Mt Vernon Street, the design of which is attributed to Charles Bullfinch.

“This house has a long history of bell ringing because of Dr. Arthur Nichols, who purchased the home in 1885 for his wife and his three daughters,” said Executive Director Victoria Glazomitsky. “A prominent physician by day, he was passionate about bell ringing and shared that love with his youngest daughter Margaret.”

As a young boy, Dr. Nichols was drawn to the beautiful chimes of the Old North Church and helped ring the heavy bells in the church belfry each week, according to Danielle Galler Rabinowitz, who studied his medical and bellringing pursuits as a museum research intern this summer.

His interest in bellringing continued to grow throughout the early years of his medical career. In 1893 he founded the Old Colony Guild of Bell Ringers with eight emeritus members of the oldest and most prestigious English bell ringing society, the Ancient Society of College Youths. The Guild practiced at 55 Mt. Vernon Street or at the Old North Church.

“Though Arthur had only previously admired the art form from afar, he now became transfixed,” wrote Rabinowitz in her white paper With Bells on His Toes. “In just a few short months—and with the help of the more experienced members of the newly established Guild—Arthur swiftly grew more proficient. In parallel with his desire to continue to hone his skills as a hand bell ringer, he also sought to learn the art of change ringing, a secondary area of expertise among his Englishmen colleagues.”

Change ringing, developed in England in the 17th century, involves the ringing of the large tuned bells in church towers through series of sequences determined by mathematical principles. Dr. Nichols helped revitalize this lost art in and well beyond greater Boston.  He became an expert in change ringing and studied the arrangement of church bells in towers during his visits abroad. He oversaw the restorations of old tower bells and designed new installations in the Old North Church, King’s Chapel, Church of the Advent and others as far as the University of Chicago.

While his passion for change ringing did not diminish his fondness for handbell ringing, it was his spirited youngest daughter Margaret who introduced handbell ringing in the United States. In 1902, at the age of 21, she traveled to England with her father and, after ringing two peals on handbells, was presented a set of eight Whitechapel bells, a collection she continued to expand throughout her life. She also became the first American woman to ring a complete peal of tower bells and along with her father was inducted into the Ancient Society of College Youths.

Upon her return from England, Margaret, who married landscaper Arthur Shurcliff, worked tirelessly for over 30 years to promote handbell ringing in this country. The Beacon Hill Ringers, the country’s first community handbell ensemble that consisted of her friends and several of her six children, became well known for ringing Christmas carols in the area each year.

In 1937, Shurcliff founded the New England Guild of English Handbell Ringer, in her living room. In 1954, it expanded to become the American Guild of English Handbell ringers, at which time her promotion of the art culminated in the first American handbell festival.

Today, more than a hundred years later, the Back Bay Ringers, an advanced, auditioned community handbell ensemble founded in 2003, is committed to preserving and promoting Shurcliff’s role in the history of bell ringing. Through artistically sensitive performances and innovative community and educational programs, the small arts organization continues to expose the unique musical art of handbell ringing to new audiences in Boston and beyond.

The Holiday House Tour of the Nichols House Museum and six rarely viewed Beacon Hill private homes will take place from noon to 4 pm on December 13. Tour guests are invited to stop by the Nichols House Museum between 1-3 to hear the handbell performance and view five exhibit rooms that contain furnishings typical of proper Bostonians’ households at the beginning of the 20th century. A reception will take place at King’s Chapel Parish House, 64 Beacon Street, from 3 to 5 pm. Tickets are $100 per person.

Tickets for the Tour can be purchased via the museum’s website: nicholshousemuseum.org. For more information, contact the Museum at 617-227-6993 or [email protected].

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