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Article from "Overtones" on the occasion of
Nancy Poore Tufts' 100th birthday in 2010

An avid collector of miniature pianos, cats, Victorian caricatures, and bells; a self-described Anglophile; and a founding member of the American Guild of English Handbell Ringers, Nancy Poore Tufts of Washington, D.C., turns 100 on July 6, 2010.

Nancy Poore Tufts was born of American parents in London, England, but has lived most of her life on the family’s 14-acre Tulip Hill Farm estate on the Potomac River in Ft. Washington, Maryland.

Nancy has served many churches throughout the years as organist, choir director, and handbell director. She also had a handbell program at the Potomac School in McLean, Virginia, where her husband, William, taught. She is the author of The Art of Handbell Ringing, and she compiled one of the first published collections of original handbell compositions. Appropriately she served as president of the Guild during our country’s Bicentennial and was instrumental in the first planning stages of building a permanent AGEHR national office.

Getting Started in Handbells

Nancy first heard of handbells through Margaret Shurcliff and the New England Guild of English Handbell Ringers. In an AGEHR Tempo Setters video, she said, “I went three or four times [to Ipswich] and really go the itch.” She was an organist and choir director at Western Presbyterian Church in Washington, D.C., and wanted to add handbells to the music program there. She said, “I thought that [handbell ringing] was so beautiful and it would be such a splendid activity to add to my church program, because it is especially good for children—or for all people from 9 to 90.”

Those in charge at her church had never heard of handbells and had no interest in purchasing any. So she bought them herself. She ordered a set of 15 bells from Whitechapel in 1952 and waited anxiously before they finally arrived in 1954. She said, “They came about the first week in December. I was just on pins and needles, I wanted them so badly for Christmas.”

While she waited, she had interested some of her vocal choir members and other young people in playing. She also spent time writing simple carols on large charts that could be easily read at a distance. And when the bells finally arrived, her new choir practiced several times and played for a couple of services before Christmas.

Almost immediately, Nancy’s handbells made an impact in the Washington D.C. area. Dr. George Docherty from New York Avenue Presbyterian Church heard about the new bells at Nancy’s church. New York Avenue Presbyterian church was once home to Rev. Peter Marshall and was attended by President Lincoln. Nancy said, “[Dr. Docherty] loved bells and he heard that there were some bells down at Western Presbyterian Church, where I was presiding. He called me and asked if it would be possible to come up to New York Avenue, Lincoln’s church near the White House, and ring in the New Year.” She said that the church always had a band perform that night and that her ringers were invited to ring before them, then go out on the church porch and ring while all the area church bells rang. She accepted the invitation, and it so happened that a Washington Post photographer came by and snapped a picture. She said, “and there we were, plastered on the first page of The Washington Post on Jan. 1, 1955. So we were in business and the phone began to ring—and has been ringing ever since—until 1987, when I finally decided to retire from bell ringing.”

Potomac English Handbell Ringers

While her first church choir got handbells noticed in D.C., it was her community group, The Potomac English Handbell Ringers that gained the art form some real notoriety in the area. The group, which she started about the same time as her church group, started as an adult ensemble and eventually became an all-youth group. She said, “I gradually supplanted [the adults] as they dropped out with all teenagers. I found that it was easier to work with young people, because older people have the cares of the world on their shoulders.”

The Potomac English Handbell Ringers would build quite a reputation through the years thanks not only to their own hard work but to the efforts of their director, Nancy. She said, “I had a lot of chutzpah, and I would write…to anybody and say what a wonderful bell group we had, and I had a lot of interesting information, and didn’t they want us to come and play for them.” She commented that the Washington area was a “happy hunting ground for marvelous places to perform.”

One long-standing engagement for the Potomac Ringers was the ringing in of the New Year at Colonial Williamsburg, the historic district of Williamsburg, Virginia, something they did for 17 consecutive years. Nancy commented, “We had a marvelous time. We were really king of the mountain…down at Williamsburg; they really looked after us. We were put up for a couple of nights, all free meals, we could go anywhere we wanted there.”

The New Year’s Eve event at Williamsburg usually started with a play by the drama group from William and Mary College, followed by the Potomac Ringers playing a few pieces, then chiming the hour at midnight. Nancy said, “At twelve o’clock our largest bell there would ring 12 times…and then we’d play Auld Lang Syne and get everybody singing all over the huge auditorium…and then we’d play some more.”

The Potomac Ringers also traveled extensively to England. Nancy herself has traveled to the UK more than 20 times in her life and has taken the ringers with her six of those times. She says that to her knowledge, the Potomac English Handbell Ringers were the first American handbell ensemble to have toured there. She said, “I understand that the Yale male glee club had gone over in the ‘60s, and they had several bells just to illustrate one of their Christmas songs…but we were really the first to go over and give a complete concert and to tour around.”

Each time the group visited the UK, they made a special effort to visit the Whitechapel Bell Foundry. Nancy recalled their first visit there. She said, “They moved out a lot of machinery and made a big hall in one of their work rooms there. They gave the workmen time off to come to the concert…there were about 75 workmen at least. She said that, while they were familiar with change ringing on handbells, most of them had never heard musical handbell ringing. She said, “They were very much affected to hear their bells that they had cast and tuned and shipped to the United States…they were very much touched, and several of the older men wept.” She added, “On all of our trips, we always went to the Whitechapel foundry, and they always made a big fuss over us.”

The Potomac Ringers also have the distinction of not once but twice breaking the Guinness world record for bell ringing. According to Nancy, James Salzwedel’s group held the record in the late 1970s, having rung nearly 40 hours. The Potomac Ringers broke that record, much to the dismay of some British bell ringers. Nancy said, “What? Those Yankees winning the Guinness for bell ringing? So they got busy and beat our record. And I think another Brtitish group came in and beat their record. So we decided to beat THAT record!”

President of the Guild

Nancy became president of AGEHR in 1975. Her term saw the planning stages of the building of a permanent office and the search for a professional secretary and Overtones editor.

The timing of her election couldn’t have been more perfect for someone with her background, as it coincided with the United States’ Bicentennial celebration. Under Nancy’s leadership, the Guild set out to help celebrate the event on a nationwide scale. She said, “I thought it was an awfully good idea to select two of the best ringers in each state of the union and make one big bell choir, which would come together and practice in Washington for a week with a designated leader.”

The committee chose Bob Ivey to direct the group, which met for rehearsal at the American University and gave its initial concert in the Washington Cathedral. The mass ensemble then performed its concert in a one-week tour that took the group to the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, Independence Mall in Philadelphia, Rockefeller Plaza and the Lincoln Center in New York City, Lafayette Avenue Presbyterian Church in Brooklyn, Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City, and Tremont Avenue Church in Boston.

The ensemble was also recognized by the Bicentennial Committee as an official performing group celebrating the event.

Original Handbell Literature

Nancy is one of the first to inspire composers to begin writing original music for handbells. She felt it was important for the future of the instrument to see to it that original literature got published. She said, “I felt that handbell ringing wouldn’t really be accepted too well by the ‘experts’ until we had a decent repertoire and an original repertoire.” She said that only having arrangements and copies of other works does not speak well for an instrument.

Along with the Potomac Ringers, she sought, beginning in 1960, to persuade “people of some standing, people who had published music” to submit repertoire in a contest, with winning composers receiving $50. In later years the prize was upped to $75, then $100. Some of the pieces were published by Flammer Press in a collection called Original Compositions for Handbells.

In the preface to the book, Nancy said that she thought “the future of handbell ringing depended on the quality of music that would be written for it.”

Nancy also authored a book, The Art of Handbell Ringing, based on letters she received and answered as a columnist for the Choristers Guild.

Other Musical Endeavors

Besides the Potomac English Handbell Ringers, Nancy also organized groups at several churches throughout the years as well as one at the Potomac School in McLean, Virginia, in which she had several of the Kennedy and Grosvenor (of National Geographic) children.

She also served for many years as the music director for the Christmas Pageant of Peace, which took place annually at the lighting of the national Christmas tree. During her directorship she had several handbell ensembles perform, including her own Potomac Ringers, who performed when President Eisenhower lit the tree.

Nancy has also served the American Bell Association, an organization for collectors of bells.


After 35 years, Nancy retired from handbell ringing in 1987. She tried to retire earlier, she said, but the Potomac Ringers wouldn’t hear of it. She said, “I tried to disband [the group] a couple of years before, and they always made such a racket about it and I would stay a little longer.”

Finally, however, she did give it up. “It was quite a relief,” she said, “though it was very sad too. And so we had a big good-bye party here [at Tulip Hill] and a final concert, and all the parents came and a lot of ex-ringers came from all over the place. There must have been nearly 100 people around here. It was spring, and we could have all the windows open and people could be outside. And you know, those rascals had taken up a collection and they gave me a ticket for a trip to England. Isn’t that lovely?”

On turning 100

A 100th birthday celebration was planned for Nancy at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Ft. Washington. One child who was invited said to her “I’ve never seen a person 100 years old.” Nancy replied to him, “Well, neither have I, but on July 6, I’m going to look in the mirror and see one.”