Passing Bell

The method of announcing a local person’s death has long intrigued me as it was once central to communities, whereby people would hear of a death and pray for the person to be helped to heaven. I am not clear when it died out, but it is mentioned a few times in Ronald Blythe’s Akenfield, from bellringer Robert Palgrave:

“The bells tolled for death when I was a boy. It was 3 times 3 for a man and 3 times2 for a woman. People would look up and say, ‘Hullo, a death?’ Then the years of the dead person’s age would be tolled and if the bell went on speaking, ‘seventy one, seventy-two…’ people would say, ‘Well, they had a good innings!’ but when the bell stopped at 18 or 20 a hush would come over the fields. People were supposed to pray for the departed soul, and some of them may have done. This practice was continued up until the Second World War when all the bells of England were silenced. It was never revived. The sexton got a shilling for ringing the death-bell.”

This is some more, from Sammy Whitelaw, farrier:

“I remember one cold November – I couldn’t tell you how long ago – and a woman came to me and said, ‘My Billy has passed, Sam. Ring the bel.’ I said, ‘How can I do that, Ma’am?’ The tower has al been scaffolded for the repairs.’ so off she went sorrowful. then I had an idea. I climbed up into the bell chamber, sat on the frame and banged the passing-bell with my hammer! I thought, old Billy won’t mind. It was that bloody cold. But all could hear of the passing and take note. ‘”



5 thoughts on “Passing Bell

    • The passing bell originated as part of the system of providing charity for the poor to pray for a person’s time in purgatory to be reduced. The community thus prayed for their neighbours as they were expected to be prayed for. It helped bind communities together past and present. These benefactions were a huge problem with the monarchs as the amounts kept increasing, hence the problems with Thomas A Becket and Henry- I think at the time of the dissolution the churches owned more property than the king and still rising.


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