The batt, the night-crow, or a skreech-owle.
To these I heare the wild woolfe howle
In this black night that seems to skowle.
All these my black-booke shall in-rowle.
For hark, still, still. the bell doth towle,
For some but now departing sowle.
There is nothing more evocative than to be up on the high moors of a Sunday or a summer’s evening and hear the sound of church bells drifting up from a village below. This is a sound that has echoed around the moors for centuries and one whose meaning has changed throughout the years. Today the sound of church bells normally signifies that a service is about to start, a couple have just got married or there is some national celebration such. The sound of a single bell knelling tells all within earshot that there is 5 minutes left before the service starts or that someone is about to be buried. But go back deep into the realms of time and you can discover that originally there was a belief that the Devil and all his host are supposed to be afeared of the sound of a church bell. Hewett, (1976, pp. 41 – 44) writing in 1900 tells how:
“church bells were anointed with holy oil, and blessed by the bishop, from a belief that when these ceremonies had been performed, they had the power to drive the devil out of the air, to calm tempests, protect from lightening, and keep away the plague… A frequent inscription on church bells in the fifteenth century was, “voce mea viva depells cunta nociva”. This is proof of the belief that demons were frightened away by the sound of bells”.
It was always believed that if in a dream you actually heard the sound of bells ringing then this was a sure sign that good luck in any business transactions was to follow or an imminent wedding was around the corner.
But of all the bells the one that probably reminded folk of their mortality was the sound of the ‘soul’ or/and ‘passing bell’ mournfully ringing across the moor. Bede records how at the death of the Abbess St. Hilda in AD680 one of the sisters of a nearby abbey related how in her sleep she heard the sound of the bell that called them to prayers and was rung when any of them departed this life. This shows that the practice of ringing a bell on the imminent death of someone dates far back into history. Brand (1849, p.203) notes how in 1564 Queen Elizabeth I wrote the tradition of the soul bell into history:
“The following clause, in the Advertisements for due order, in the 7th year of Queen Elizabeth (1565) is much to our purpose: “Item, that anye Christian bodie is in passing, that the bell be tolled, and the curate be speciallie called for to comforte the sick person; and after the time of his passinge to ring no more but one shorte peale; and one before the buriall, and another short peale after the buriall“.
The general consensus for the practice of ringing the soul bell, as noted above, was twofold, firstly to summons the vicar etc to comfort the dying person and secondly to allow people hearing the bell to pray for the soul of the unfortunate man, woman or child. However, there is a third suggestion which relates back to the theory that demons were afraid of the sound of a church bell. It was thought that if the soul bell was tolled it would scare away all the demons that were waiting around the body of the dying person in order to take their soul into hell or to impede its journey into the afterlife.
Therefore I’d have you not to vapour,
Nor blame the lads that use the clapper,
By which are scared the fiends of hell,
And all by virtue of a bell”.
In the opening chapter of ‘Chronicles of Dartmoor’, (2006 p.15) Caldwell describes the following scene in 1866:
“Isaac’s hammer and the knitting of the old woman, were both arrested at the same time by the dull tolling of a bell.
“Isaac, it be the saule bell,” said the widow sitting in the the act of listening to the mournful and solemn tones of what in some places, is yet called ‘the passing bell’ though now in most disused as only a relic of Roman Catholic times.
“Ay, mother,” said Isaac, who had not only stopped his hammer but walked into the street, the better to ascertain the truth, “it is the soul bell but I wonder who can be dying for I have not heard of any illness?”
“I hear it now plain and plain – it be the ‘saule bell’,” said the widow in a tone of decision; and she put her knitting on the low stool and re-entered the cottage.
“Ay, ay,” said Isaac, talking to himself when left alone; “mother always prays for the dying : how good she is!”.
Mrs Bray includes the practice in her novel:
“He lamented,” said Nanny, “that the parliament had put down the soul-bell, as a popish and super-religious thing: for it is a hard case for a dying sinner, since everybody knows the devil can’t abide bells and the sound of the soul-bell kept him off: so the spirit, let out first, was sure to gain the start, and got by it what sportsmen call law; but now parliament have put it down by acclamation“, (Bray 1845, p.117).
The above passage also refers to the fact that the Puritans put a stop to this practice by act of parliament as it was seen as a popish practice and one to be stamped out. However, the practice slowly crept back into use as is demonstrated from the above excerpts taken from the mid 1800s only to slowly die out again in later years.
There are numerous adjectives to describe the sound of a soul bell; dull, mournful, soulful, solemn, etc. but how was the sound achieved? Hazlitt, writing in 1905 (1995, p.480) describes how:
“... may be performed in two different ways: the one is by ringing the bells round at a set pull, thereby keeping them up so as to delay their striking, that there may be the distance of three notes at least between bell and bell; and having gone round one whole pull every bell (except the tenor) to set and stand; whilst the tenor rings one pull in the same compass as before… The other way is call’d buffeting the bells, that is, by tying pieces of leather, old hat, or any other thing that is pretty thick, round the ball of the clapper of each bell, and then ringing them as before shewn, they make a most doleful and mournful sound, Campanologia, 1753, p.200“.
The latter method was being used at Belstone church as one long standing ringer commented how he remembered, “a muffled peal when the Rev. Milner died in 1929, (Walpole, 2002, p.36).
Along with the practice of ringing the soul bell has come several proverbs and sayings such as, “When thou dost hear a toll or knell, Then think upon thy passing bell“, “Never send to know for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee”, (Donne,1624), “It is perhaps that sauncing (another name for the soul bell) bell, That tolls all in to heaven or hell“, (Walter Raleigh), “His death which happened in his berth, At forty-odd befell, They went and told the sexton, and The sexton tolled the bell“, (Hood, 1826). On a more local note, one of the bells that hangs in the tower of Sheepstor carries the following inscription, “I call the quick to church and the dead to grave“. An identical inscription can be found on a bell hanging at Belstone church. In a similar sombre vane the following inscription of 1744 can be found on a bell in South Tawton tower; ” I to church the living call, and to the grave do summon all”, again, an identical sentiment was inscribed on the tenor bell of 1766 at Chagford Church and of 1790 at Lydford church.
Many years ago when the moorland communities were smaller and less mobile it would not have been difficult to know for whom the soul bell was tolling as everyone knew who was sick and dying amongst their numbers. Today things would be different as there is every possibility that someone could actually die without the community knowing.
Brand, J. 1849 Observations on the Popular Antiquities of Britain, Henry G. Bohn, London
Bray, A. E. 1845 The Novels & Romances of A. E. Bray, Longman, London.
Caldwell, A. M. 2006 Chronicles of Dartmoor, Nonsuch Publishing, Stroud.
Hazlitt, W. C. 1995 Dictionary of Faiths & Folklore, Bracken Publishing London.
Walpole, C. & M. 2002 The Book of Belstone, C. & M. Walpole, Belstone.