The Tailors

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.

Malcolm Bland

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