Custom survived: Gopher Ringing Newark on Trent

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Anyone who has lived in Newark and or those who have been in the town at dusk in October and early November on a Sunday evening will have heard the peel of Mary Magdalene’s church…but I wonder how many would have known why.

Lost and found!

Newark is not unique in having an established annual ringing, often called ‘lost in the dark’ bells. In this case they are wrung from the twelfth Sunday before Christmas and then six Sundays after at between 5 and 6 pm basically from October to November.

At Newark it is called the Ringing the Gopher Bells. It has been broadcast on national radio in 1936 and featured on School’s Radio in the 1980s. The name is a curious one. It is believed to derive from a Dutch or Flemish merchant some say engineer. The story relates that he was crossing the marshes around Kelham, which at this time of year were well known for the mists which swirled around the Trent. As a consequence he became lost and strayed from the same route…and soon his horse fell into the marshes and began to get stuck. Fearing that his fate would either be the same or else murdered by robbers, he prayed for help. Then across the mists he heard the muffled sounds of Newark Parish church and his deliverance. Hearing the bells ringing for Evensong enabled him to find his direction and he arrived in Newark safe and relieved. Local tradition states that he provided money for the annual ringing before Evensong ever since.

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Name rings a bell?

The date and original benefactor have been disputed over time as any physical evidence has been lost. There are no papers, no benefactor board. We are unclear where it was money or land he gave. However, it was known that Flemish merchants did live in the town and research in Belgium has revealed evidence of the possible benefactor. Interestingly for although there has for over 60 years been an annual bell ringers’ feast which has toasted Gopher the meal again is not directly linked to the bequest.

In the History of Newark by Cornelius Brown does indeed mention names and trading associations in the city and notes the importance of Flanders as a trade route, often in exporting wool to Ghent and Bruge.

Indeed, research by Brenda Pask in Bruges has revealed a document recording the presence of a Janne Goffrays, an Englishman trading in Bruges in 1371 with Flemish merchants. Although, the fact he was an Englishman may be at odds to the story his location, name and associations suggest he may be the founder.  His trading association is not known and he may have been an engineer involved in dykes. More importantly the date is plausible because it is known that there was a spire which could hold a peel of such bells at that date. Of course his name you will notice is slightly different but that’s due to Anglicisation and bad spellings over the years. But perhaps we shall never know.

For whom the bells tolls

Apparently, except for the Second World War when all bells were silenced, it has been rung ever since the mid Nineteenth Century and probably ever since the late 1300s but again there are no clear records. It is easy to understand why this tradition continues if the present team are anything like previous – a dedicated group of seven enthusiasts who clearly really do enjoy and appreciate the opportunity. Organised by Mr John Raithby, the son of the Captain from the 1936 broadcast, a tradition within a tradition perhaps, his enthusiasm and pride is clearly very evident.  They certainly are put through their paces and watching was tiring enough. Mind you I would add it did look quite enjoyable and good for keeping fit – so if you do want to loose a few pounds get trim and preserve heritage they would love to hear from you – they do have bells free to ring! Then as Evensong arrived the bells were let down tied up and a cross was marked to mark the number of bells rung.

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