Centenary peal on church bells recalls a poignant chapter in Gressenhall village life

Church bellringers have marked the centenary of a noteworthy feat in a Norfolk village – an event that would ultimately add poignancy to its sacrifice in the slaughter of the first world war.

It was in June 1912 that the change-ringers at Gressenhall rang the first recorded full peal on the bells of St Mary's Church.

The 5,040 changes of Bob Minor were rung in about three hours by George Crown, Robert Freezer, Benjamin Hammond, Dennis Tye, Robert's son Ernest, and Arthur Berwick.

Within years, a bell would be tolling for the young man who conducted that peal and who never came home from the Western Front.

Ernest Freezer, described in the 1911 England census as an 18-year-old brickmaker, left his home at the School House at Gressenhall to fight for his country. The one-time soldier with the Norfolk Regiment was killed in action on April 10. 1918, while a sergeant in 11th Battalion The Lancashire Fusiliers.

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He is buried among more than 550 British, Australian and New Zealander soldiers in the hamlet of Croix du Bac, in France.

Present-day ringers decided to re-create as accurately as possible the 1912 peal as a way of commemorating the 100th anniversary. The successful attempt was rung by a band drawn from across Norfolk and north Suffolk: Judy Howard, from Watton; Kenny Frostwick, from Blofield; Gressenhall churchwarden Johnathon White; Roger Peckham, from Ashill; Ben Trent, who grew up at Great Ryburgh; and David McLean, from Lowestoft.

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Bridget Yates, who has rung the St Mary's bells for nearly 20 years and is an authority on Norfolk social history from her days as founder-curator at what is now Gressenhall Farm and Workhouse, said: 'I think it was a great thing to have done. It is so good to honour all the ringers who have gone before us.'

The band who rang in 1912 would probably not recognise much in the smartly-maintained, present-day ringing chamber and belfry at St Mary's. The number of bells in the commanding church tower has risen from six on which they rang the peal to eight and now – thanks to a successful fundraising project in recent times – to 10.

But one item in particular would be most familiar to those who survived the war years: a wooden peal board that dominates the ringing chamber, recording their names and reminding generations of ringers of their achievement way back then and of their prodigious young conductor.

Also hanging on the walls is a certificate confirming Ernest's election to the Norwich Diocesan Association of Ringers: the present-day band found it a while back on auction website eBay.

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