RingingMatters at a...
RingingMatters at a...
Fri Jun 13 19:20:02 BST 2003
Dear Mary et al.,
My father was vicar of Wellington, Herefordshire, from 1946 - 1951. Although
I was only a young lad at the time, I recall occasions when news of a death
was brought to the vicarage and my father would go to minister to the grieving
family having sent one or other of my elder brothers to ring "The Tailors".
The phrase, "The Nine Tailors", is very much the product of Dorothy L Sayers’
book of that name. I believe that the more correct term is simply "The
Tailors", and "Tailors" is, of course, a corruption of the word "Tellers", which is
why the bells were rung.
At a time, after the war, when villages were very close communities often
comprising families which had lived there for generations (many of which were
inter-related) "The Tailors" announced not only a death in the community but also
a huge clue as to who had died. The tenor tolled slowly three times for the
death of a child, six times for a woman and nine times for a man. (Hence an
old saying: "Nine Tailors make a man".) These were rung in groups of three
blows which a significant pause between the groups. After a further pause the
tenor would toll out the number of years of the deceased. Thus, three blows
followed by three further blows followed by, say, 37 more blows would "tell" the
community that a 37 year old woman had died. As the number of 37 year old
women in a parish was probably limited, the identity of the deceased might be
guessed. Of course, in such close communities any serious illness was probably
common knowledge and this would also help to identify the deceased. This, at
any rate was the practice in our village 50 odd years ago. It may have varied
in other parts of the country.
"The Tailors" are not to be confused with "The Passing Bell", which I never
heard rung. From my understanding of the practice, when the doctor visiting a
very sick patient decided that there remained no hope of recovery he sent for
the priest/parson to administer the last rites. In his turn the parson sent
for the sexton to ring the "Passing Bell". This was done by ringing the tenor
very slowly until the patient passed away. The purpose of the bell is saidto
have been to alert heaven to the imminent arrival of a new soul, a sort of
warning to St Peter to stand by his gate. It was also a sign to parishioners to
pray for the unfortunate patient. I can think of nothing more depressing to
any poor soul on his/her sick bed than to hear the mournful tones of the tenor
proclaim that it is time to prepare to meet one’s maker. Upon the death of
the unfortunate the sexton would be told to stop ringing and, after the passage
of a few minutes, to ring "The Tailors". Of course, if the "Passing Bell"
ceased and there was no further ringing, the parishioners would rejoice that
their prayers had been answered in the form of a recovery of the condemned
All this reminds me of a verse in that clever poem by Thomas Hood, "Faithless
Sally Gray", about the death of one of her ‘acquaintances’:
His death, which happened in his berth,
At forty years befell.
They went and told the sexton
And the sexton tolled the bell.
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