Dealing its dole,
The curfew Bell,
Is beginning to toll,
Cover the embers,
And put out the light,
Toil comes with the morning,
And rest with the night.’
The ringing the curfew bell was once a commonly heard sound across the English countryside, calling workers to down tools or all villagers and citizens to damp down fires. Although the first law regarding curfews was passed in Oxford by Alfred the Great in A.D. 972, ( requiring all fires to be covered at night when the bell was rung ), it was only extended to the whole of England, after the Norman conquest. It was then that it gained the name curfew, deriving from the name for a metal cover which ensured that the embers did not ignite. This was called a ‘Couvre feu’. This, thus can be translated as to cover ( couvre ) and fire ( feu ).
Although, the order to ring curfew bells was abolished in 1100, many churches still continued the custom, at least to the Second World War. Indeed there are a number of recorded examples of curfew bells or curfew ringing in Kent, which have never been collated together and are worth discussing, particularly because close examination reveals some interesting reasons for their foundation or rather continuation.
One of the most interesting reasons is recorded at St. Margaret at Cliffe, Dover. Where the ringing was endowed by a shepherd. An account relates this endowment or possibly re-endowment ( it is not exactly clear which ), in the minutes of the vestry book of September 1696. It states:
“Whereas there has been, and is at this time, a parcel of land in this parish, called by the name of curfew land ( corfeu ), consisting of five rods more or less, which for some time hath been given by a shepherd, who one night fell over the cliff, yet lived so long as to make the said bequest for the ringing of the curfew bell every night for the winter half year…, and now finding the great neglect for some years past in the due ringing of the same, and to prevent for the future any danger which may ensue to travellers and other being so near the cliff for the want and due of constant ringing, if possible the like sad Providence may not befall any other, we, the minister, churchwardens and others, the parishioners whose names are underwritten, in reference to the donors good intent, herein do hereby order and decree that the said curfew bell be hereafter rung every night in the week, all the aforesaid winter half year, for the full time of quarter of an hour at least without any exception of a Sunday or Holy Day Nights; and he that rings is to have and receive the benefit and profit of the said curfew land, provided also that he whosoever he is or shall be clerk of the parish shall have the refusal of it before any other…And in case it shall not be constantly rung it shall be lawful for the said minister and churchwardens to receive the rent from him who occupies the said land, and to deduct from it every night it shall not be rung twopence ( and any commission ), which shall be given to the poor that come constantly to the church.
In testimony whereof we have hereunto set our hands Wm. Barney, S. Marg. Vicar, John Chittey, Churchwarden’
The bells at St Margaret at Cliffe were recast into a small set of eight bells in 1977 and now the curfew has subsequently been programmed into the electronic bell system, being chimed by electronic solenoids attached to an electronic keyboard.
A similar piece of folklore is believed to be the origin of Cowden’s curfew. The historian, J. C. L. Stahlschmidtt ( 1887 ) in his ‘The Church Bells of Kent; their inscriptions, Founders, Uses and Traditions’, notes that:
‘..that the donor had lost his way in the Forest and was guided home by the Cowden bells.’
Beneath the bells at Cowden is a board which reads that a Richard Still bequest 20 shillings a year from Waystrode Farm for the ringing of the ‘Great Bell’ at five in the morning and eight at night from Michaelmas to Lady Day for ever.’
It is possible that this was a survival of the morning and evening ‘Ave’ bells. Records suggest that Richard Still gave the rent as remuneration for a duty which the clerk or sexton has been performing for centuries. Certainly he did not originate the payment; for a William Jackson was paid £1 ‘for Ringing ye eight a clock bell’ in 1671.
The five o’clock bell ceased in 1875, as ‘the amount not being considered sufficient pay for the double work’. Presumably, the evening bell, was not kept up after the First and Second World Wars, when by law, such activities were curtailed.
Sandwich’s curfew bell does not appear to have any traditions, but it still continues to be tolled. Sandwich’s Curfew bell appears to be alluded to in historian Boys’ ‘History of Sandwich’:
“The sexton is appointed by the parishioners and he has a salary from the parish of 40/- for the tolling the tenor, whenever the service requires, the likewise rings the tenor bell very night at eight o’ clock, unless there to be a burial at the church and again in the morning at four o’ clock from a fortnight after Michaelmas to a fortnight before old lady day, except on Sundays and in the twelve days of Christmas, for which he has from the corporation annually £3 and an allowance of 6s 8d for candles and oil.”
The sexton had around an annual allowance of four shillings from the Corporation for ringing at the church ‘Bromelyese bell at one and the curfu at eight o’ clock’. The bell is still rung every evening at eight by the Sandwich Curfew Ringers. Apparently, they each take it in turn to ring the bell, with one date per month!
Another surviving curfew bell ringing is that rung at Canterbury Cathedral every night between five to nine and nine o’clock in the evening when the gates of the precincts are closed. The bell, called Bell Harry, was named after Prior Henry of Eastry, and was cast in 1635 by a Kentish Bellfounder, Joseph Hatch of Ulcombe. This is now electronically chimed after being rehung in 1981 as part of the overhaul of all the cathedral bells.
Curfew bells and their establishment are an interesting but neglected topic for folklorists. Hopefully, this article will produce more interest in the subject and bring forth more examples.