Ringing the Curfew Bell: Sandwich’s Oldest Tradition

The Curfew Bell has been rung every evening in Sandwich since medieval times, with only a few breaks.

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Only eight towns in the UK still ring curfew. St. Peter’s Church, Sandwich. cc-by-sa/2.0 – © PAUL FARMER – geograph.org.uk/p/1478237

It was originally rung to tell residents to put out their fires. At that time, with many buildings constructed largely from timber, fire was a major risk. The word curfew is thought to derive from the French term couvre feu (cover fire). The custom is said to have been introduced into England by William the Conqueror, but more likely he simply enforced more strictly an existing regulation.

Only eight towns in the UK still ring curfew. Sandwich is unique, being the only town to ring the bell manually and regularly, six nights each week, using thirty-one volunteers. It is rung at 8pm for ten minutes except on Sundays and Christmas Day.

A small number of the bell ringers have been tolling the bell for more than thirty years and in some cases their fathers’ also rang the bell. Sadly the numbers of very long serving bell ringers is dwindling and with fewer people remaining in the town where they were born there is little, if any succession within families. Nevertheless it is heart-warming to know that there seems to be no problem with filling vacancies as they occur.

It used to be the case that the landlord of The Greyhound public house (now Tan Bueno restaurant) gave a pint to the bell ringer after he had finished ringing. I wonder if any of our current publicans would like to reinstate this tradition?

For sixty two years Sandwich Town Council has provided an annual supper by way of thanks to the bell ringers. The first Curfew supper was held in The Bell Hotel but since then has taken place in The Guildhall. The Mayor, or in his or her absence the Deputy Mayor presides over this. Retirees who rang the bell for a significant number of years are also invited and regale the bell ringers with tales of the bell ringers of yesteryear.

The Curfew Bell itself has been lovingly maintained, without charge, for many years by Tim Pettman.

One would think this tradition is worth highlighting in the town, but as yet it is barely recognised with some residents, and most visitors, not being aware of it at all.

Those in charge of the museum, including Sandwich Town Council have turned down an offer to pay for a display. Indeed I have been informed “it would not be in keeping”. What a shame.

I will leave you with a quote from a book written by Helen C. Bentwich and published in 1971:

‘One of the unusual features of Sandwich is the number of old customs which still remain. Traditions here die hard, and while sometimes in other towns and villages old customs are revived, generally with an eye to presenting something “quaint” to attract tourists, or even for television programmes, Sandwich, in its quiet way, ignores both. These old traditions are a part of the normal life of the town as it has been lived over the centuries.

‘The Curfew Bell is rung from St. Peter’s Church for three minutes every evening at eight, and has been rung at that hour continuously since the thirteenth century, except for a break during the Second World War.

‘The people of this century (20th) are less hardy than they were in 1852. Then the Council decided in their wisdom, to discontinue the sounding of the Curfew. But this was not pleasing to the inhabitants of the town, and the next year the Council received a petition, asking that the ringing of the bell should be continued. In 1948, the old man who rang the evening curfew became too old to climb the steep stairs leading to the belfry of St. Peter’s Church. He had been paid £5 a year by the Council for his service, and although the Council increased this sum threefold, no applicants for the post could be found. The people of the town were unwilling to discontinue the tradition, and a number of public spirited citizens volunteered as bell ringers, thirty men in all, each undertaking to climb the stairs and ring the bell on one evening in the month’.

 

June Summerhayes

Ex-bell ringer and Captain


Have you heard of the Save the Chimes campaign? The beloved bells in Sandwich and many other historic towns and villages across the nation are fighting for their survival. Read more in our latest post.

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