When in the 1870s and ’80s Thomas North wrote books on the church bells of England, many of the traditions he described were already dying out. Here are three excerpts from English Bells and Bell Lore (1888).
In many parishes in the Midland counties … a bell, called the Gleaning-bell, is rung during harvest in the morning, and sometimes also in the evening, giving warning when gleaning may commence, and when it must close for the day. This is done that all – the old and feeble as well as the young and active – may have a fair start. In South Warwickshire this bell – called there the Harvest-bell – is rung at eight o’clock in the morning as a signal for the commencement of gleaning in order “that the children’s breakfasts be not neglected.”
Bells for the Funeral of a Spinster
At Barwell, Leicestershire, it was customary some years ago, to ring, at the funeral of a spinster, what was called her wedding peal as her dead body was being carried to the church.
The Sexton’s Bell
In 1792 a writer on Carnarvonshire said: “Not a century back, before the reading of the Gospel, a sexton used to go round the churchyard, with a bell in his hand, to call in stragglers to attend and hear God’s word.” Bishop Thirlwall relates another curious custom connected with the church hand-bell in recent times: “As I returned through the churchyard I was greeted very respectfully by a person whose dress seemed to indicate that he was a functionary of the church. I learnt that he was the sexton, but that he also discharges another very useful office, which, as far as I know, is peculiar to Kerry [Montgomeryshire]. It appears that it is by ancient custom a part of his duty to perambulate the church during service time with a bell in his hand. To look carefully into every pew, and whenever he finds anyone dozing to ring the bell. He discharges this duty, it is said, with great vigilance, intrepidity, and impartiality, and consequently with the happiest effect upon the congregation; for, as everybody is certain that if he or she gives way to drowsiness the fact will be forthwith made known through the whole church by a peal which will direct all eyes to the sleeper, the fear of such a visitation is almost always sufficient to keep everyone on the alert.”