What is a ‘Gotch’

Have you ever heard of a gotch? I came across it recently in an article in a regional newspaper, and as it was related to bell ringing I asked Andrew, our tower captain, if he had ever heard of one. His reaction was “Is it something rude?” Well dear readers, fear not. It is in fact a relic from the bell ringing past.

A gotch is a large jug, either two or three handled, that was filled with ale or beer and kept by the ringers to give them some liquid refreshment. The link between bell ringers and beer goes back centuries, but before you say anything about bell ringers being a disreputable lot, in fact it was simply because water at the time was so impure that beer was a far safer bet (and we all know that ringing is hard work and the team needs its sustenance!).

There is also a suggestion that at one time ringers were paid in beer, and in the 1700s it was quite common for towers to have a gotch. The original gotches that do survive are now found mainly in museums, although some remain in their home church as an exhibition item. They are now quite rare; only about fifty are left in the entire country. They are not small jugs either; the one at Saint Peter and Saint Paul at Clare in Suffolk, which dates back to 1729, holds 32 pints and is 51 centimetres high.

A quick trawl on the internet shows that the bellringers at Hadleigh Church in Suffolk decided a few years ago to revive the idea of a tower gotch. They had a new one made to make practice nights “fun and enjoyable” (which of course they are, gotch or not!) The original Hadleigh gotch dated back to 1715 and held 16 quarts of liquid. It is inscribed with the ringers’ names and a rhyme:

“If you love me do not lend me
Use me often and keep me cleanly.
Fill me full or not at all
If it be strong and not with small.”

Inscriptions were apparently common on gotches; the three handled Beccles gotch dating back to 1827 says:

“When I am filled with liquor strong
Each man drink once and then ding dong.
Drink not too much to cloud your knobbs
Lest you forget to make the bobbs.”

The local blacksmith was the last person to carry this gotch up to the ringing chamber in 1912 – quite a feat of physical strength as it contained 33 pints!

Halstead church’s gotch dates back to 1658 and holds 4 gallons of liquid. At New Year it was carried around the town and the citizens were invited to contribute some “good cheer” and hopefully fill it up. It was then taken back to the tower to be drunk at the ringers’ leisure. It is slightly odd that it was made during the Puritan era when the ringing of church bells was forbidden, but it still has a cheerful inscription:

“Be merry and wise.
Use me much and breake me not
For I am but an earthen pot
As we sit by the fyre to keep ourselves warme
This pot of good liquor will doe us no harme.”

I can find no record of a Goldhanger gotch, but this set me thinking – why don’t we resurrect the idea and get a new one for St Peter’s? I’m sure we could find a local potter to make one, and put together a cheerful little rhyme for the inscription (perhaps a competition to find the best ditty?) And as we ringers all know, ringing those bells is thirsty work – perhaps we could ask the residents to fill it for us…….?