Custom demised: Shaking St Peter’s Chains

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Congleton Wakes held on the 12th August was associated with a certainly unusual and probably unique custom called St Peter’s Bells or Chains. The Monthly Packet noted:

“On the Wake Sunday, from time immemorial until several years ago, an extraordinary musical performance aroused the inhabitants from their sleep very early in the morning. The instruments were horse collars hung round with numerous bells of peculiar shape; these collars were placed on men’s shoulders and, walking through the streets of the town, the men shake the collars vigorously and thus cause the bell to emit a loud noise. Formerly, a heavy chain was used; the bells were an innovation introduced a few generations ago.”

As the church was dedicated to St. Peter ad Vincula (St Peter in chains) the custom was doubtlessly pre-Reformation. This view is certainly supported by Coward in his 1903 Picturesque Cheshire notes:

In the town hall…..we may find a curious relic of Congleton, a broad leather belt adorned with big metal bells, which are known as St. Peter’s Chains. At the feast of the church, “St. Peter ad Vincula,” it was customary for the priests to parade in this belt, rattling the chains or chiming the bells, whichever you like to call it.”

Coward (1903) adds that:

“At the Reformation these chains passed into the hands of a family of chimney-sweeps, who for three hundred years held hereditary possession, claiming the right to make a noise with them on the feast day.”

According to Raven’s 1907 The Bells of England this was:

“at midnight on the vigil, girt about with leather belts to which were suspended a number of crotals…….and ended with an address at the Market Cross on the approaching festival and the lessons to be drawn from it.”

 However despite surviving the Reformation its demise was sealed by the very actions of those who had maintained it. For as Coward (1903) he continues:

 “perambulated the town, followed by a noisy crowd, chanting a proclamation which ended in an admonition to the Congletonians to get as drunk as possible during Wakes week.”

 Raven’s 1907 The Bells of England similarly is dismissive noting:

 “these bells, or “chains,” became diverted from their original intention, and the performance became degraded to mere incentive to drunken jollity, rather than to a reverent recollection of the great Apostle.”

 Not only this but there appeared to have arisen an argument between two sides of the family for carrying the chains and as a result some degree of conflict and time in goal. Coward (1903) notes:

 “At last the town clerk wisely settled the dispute by compensating each party with a gift of ten shillings, and at the same time gaining possession of the chains; the trouble was stopped, and now the belt and bells are retained as a curiosity, and the peace of Congleton is no longer upset by drunken rows.”

However, the town has become bereft of its most interesting custom! Fortunately they survive in the town’s museum.

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