This article was first published in The Ringing World of March 4, 2005, page 197.
William Hall devoted a decade of intense and dedicated activity to the development of his peals websites and databases, but his work was cut short by his untimely death in April 2004 at the age of 44. William’s family were keen to see his work continued, and his websites are now again up-to-date and being maintained. This article tells the interesting story, pieced together from William’s files and discussions with his collaborators, of the development of his databases and websites.
William Hall on holiday with his daughter
An obituary of William was published in 2004 (RW 4864, page 696). He learnt to ring at St Mark’s, Jersey, where his father was incumbent, and was tower captain there before he moved to the UK in 1989 to live in Staffordshire. His professional life in banking and IT eventually led him to become Administrator, Chapter Clerk and then Finance Officer at Derby Cathedral. He rang at a number of Staffordshire towers and at Lichfield Cathedral, and rang 343 peals of which he called 81.
The Origins of the Database
Sometime in the early 90s William became peal recorder for the Lichfield Archdeaconry Society, and while in this post he transferred all its peal records to a computer database. This set him researching all peals rung for the Society, and then all peals rung at Staffordshire towers. William was a vigorous correspondent and meticulous record keeper, and his files show the work involved in uncovering the history of peal-ringing in Staffordshire back to the first peal in his database, at St Matthew Walsall, in 1781.
In early 1995, for some reason which he later claimed not to remember, William entered all the 1994 peals from The Ringing World into a database. He used this database to cross-check the report for 1994 of the Central Council’s Peals Analysis Committee, with what he described afterwards as ‘interesting results’, which given his skill as an administrator and eye for detail, presumably means his data was more accurate than theirs! He wrote to the chairman of the committee to explain his findings, was asked to repeat the exercise for 1995, and at the time of his death had been doing it ever since. At about this time, he also created files of all towers based on Dove, and methods based on the records of the Central Council’s Methods Committee, and began to use these to check the published information.
Soon after this, he was approached by the team working on the computerisation of the Felstead peal records. Canon Felstead’s records for 1992 and 1993 were incomplete, and William entered both years from The Ringing World into his database to help. He then decided to work back to 1989, chosen arbitrarily as the year he moved to the UK mainland. Throughout the decade of his work, William typed all the details in his databases by hand. He tried scanning, but abandoned the experiment because it was time consuming and inaccurate. His usual working routine was to spend an evening a week keying that week’s edition of The Ringing World, plus two historical ones - about six hours of painstaking work. William claimed in his emails not to be a good proof-reader. The accuracy of the information in his databases shows this was one of his typically self-effacing remarks, and also shows the quality of the checking software he developed.
In late 1999, William taught himself HTML and created a website for his Staffordshire peals information. He later explained that this was done as an experiment, and that his intention was always to use this as a prototype for internet publication of his full peals database. He worked on the latter throughout 2000, and in the autumn revealed its existence to six ringing friends who tested it for him. As part of the preparation for the full site, he had added conductors to his database, keying them in at the rate of two week’s work for every year of peals. On December 23rd, 2000 he took the plunge and emailed about 150 ringers with whom he had been corresponding on corrections and amendments to his data, to reveal the existence of peals.co.uk.
William’s files for the period after the launch have a large volume of emails about details of the site operation and suggestions for enhancements, but above all showing a response that he had created something of real value to the Exercise. To quote William: ‘It is a labour of love, and the challenge of putting a working database on the World Wide Web was reward enough for someone who has been playing around with databases for over 20 years’. To another correspondent he wrote ‘What started as a bit of fun purely to see if I could create a functional database-driven website has become something that users find very useful’.
Developments to the website followed very quickly; a search facility 3 months after it went live, and a continuing series of enhancements to allow it to keep up with an ever-growing amount of traffic. William began keying further years of history, and at the time of his death had completed 1985 and was part-way through 1984. He was also by this time checking each week’s peals against The Ringing World’s own data, and took on the job of preparing all peal corrections for publication, a task he carried out until April 2004.
The statistics of William’s work are remarkable. At the last database update on April 9th 2004 he had typed by hand 96,712 handbell and tower peals for the national site, and an additional 6,856 peals for the Staffordshire site. He also dealt with nearly 5,000 changes and corrections, as his correspondence files show. The accuracy and completeness of his work will be an enduring testament to his skill and energy.
Soon after William died, his family approached The Ringing World to see if his work could be continued. In the early summer of 2004, the family handed over William’s PC and his paper files. William’s software, written for his own use, was undocumented and several weeks of technical investigation and testing were needed to establish how it worked and how to adapt it to use electronic data from The Ringing World office. Discussions were also in progress with William’s estate to agree the basis on which his websites could be operated; these were eventually concluded in December 2004.
Once a licence for the website had been agreed, The Ringing World began the long task of bringing the site up to date. Over 4,300 peals and nearly 200 corrections and amendments were loaded to the website to bring it up-to-date. Peals.co.uk has authoritative details of every tower and handbell peal rung since 1985, facilities to search and select peals by many different criteria, and the ability to provide towers and guilds with online access to their records via a link for integration with other websites.