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Thieves didn't stop The Devil's Knell

By ERIC SHACKLE, in Sydney, Australia

Although thieves stripped lead from the roof of an ancient church in Dewsbury, Yorkshire, UK last month, the bellringers still managed to toll their traditional Devil's Knell shortly before midnight on Christmas Eve.

Observing a 600-year-old custom, a team of sturdy bellringers sounds the bell once for every year since Christ's birth, supposedly to mark the Devil's departure from Earth. That means that this year, the bell chimed exactly 2006 times.

When we first heard of the Devil's Knell four years ago, we asked the then Team Rector of Dewsbury, Canon John Hawley (now Archdeacon of Blackburn) about the custom. "The Devil`s Knell will be tolled from approximately 9.45pm on Christmas Eve, to finish on the stroke of midnight," he said.

"In the 15th century a local knight, Sir Thomas de Soothill, in a fit of rage murdered a servant boy by throwing him into a mill pond. To expiate his crime he gave the tenor bell, Black Tom, requiring it to be tolled at his own funeral. It is now rung on Christmas Eve to signify that the First Eucharist of Christmas proclaims the defeat of evil."

The History of Dewsbury Church, reprinted for 2006, says:

The Rector's view is that the Knell is not rung on Christmas Eve to defeat evil, as this is superstitious, but to proclaim Christ's victory over evil. However, in medieval times, people were very superstitious and hence it was probably originally rung to ward off evil spirits for the coming year.

The alternative name for the Knell is "Old Lad's Passing", which would seem to indicate the defeat of the devil.

Lauren ChadwickLauren Chadwick (pictured), a journalist who lives near the Dewsbury Minster (a church once associated with a monastery) reported theft of the lead in the local newspaper, the Dewsbury Reporter. She wrote:

Lead stripped from the roof of Dewsbury Minster has left the historic building at risk. Thieves took a large amount of lead from the roof of the Minster without consideration for the interior of the centuries-old building.

Without the waterproof lead covering, everything inside the building has been at risk of damage from rainfall. The Rev Kevin Partington, Minster rector, said a number of sections of the church, including the disabled toilets, nappy changing facilities and the popular heritage centre were covered in dust, dirt and rain which fell through the unprotected roof.

The Minster is in the midst of a fundraising drive to pay for vital refurbishments to the building and repairs to the organ. He said: "It has caused complete and utter disruption with the rebuilding work. It has put everything at risk.

"We are determined that the people who did this won't get the last word we will carry on and continue the work.

"The main area where the water ran in was over the heritage centre. Lots of people visit to come and see the history of Dewsbury, and we are immensely proud of the Minster's role in the life of the town."

Mr Partington said the roof needed to be repaired as soon as possible but he had no idea how much it would cost. He added: "It feels like a kick in the teeth. It's vandalism on a huge scale."

Thieves seem to be versatile in Dewsbury. The day after the theft of lead from the church was reported, police warned local motorists to be on their guard after a number of thefts of satellite navigation systems in Dewsbury.

"The devices have become the latest target for thieves as drivers often leave them on display when cars are not in use," said the Dewsbury Reporter.

On December 15, the Dewsbury Reporter displayed a banner headline: RIVAL GANGS RIOT. It reported that eight men had been arrested in Thornhill Lees. According to onlookers the row seemed to have arisen from disputes between rival gangs of Iraqis and Pakistanis. One man was severely injured, cars and property were vandalised, and one witness called it a 'mini-riot'.

Another story headlined Move Minster and knock down the mills! said that European regeneration experts had suggested putting the Minster in the town centre as one of several radical ideas to transform Dewsbury.

Delegates from cities in Belgium, Hungary, France, Spain, Germany, Italy, Slovakia, Poland, Romania and Bulgaria had met to share ideas that could shape the town's future.

They suggested making use of the riverbanks, knocking down dilapidated mills, fencing and walls and building new housing to encourage people to live in the town centre.

Ah, those town planners! It's a wonder they didn't suggested letting Black Tom ring out 2007 times every day next year as a Devil's Knell tourist attraction.

Two weeks ago, the Huddersfield Daily Examiner invited people from three different backgrounds to tell its readers what Christmas meant to them.

Shahid Malik, MP [Member of Parliament] for Dewsbury, and a Muslim, said:

This year I have hosted a number of community "mince pie and mulled wine" events at the Dewsbury Minster and at St Paulinus Hall. And I take great pleasure in helping switch on Dewsbury's Christmas lights each year.There are few better feelings than watching the faces of children light up with the Christmas lights.

Life can be mundane at times, and perhaps even slightly depressing as the winter nights draw in, and there is no better pick you up than the festive season.Worries and stresses are put to one side to join in the holiday spirit and be merry.

To the PC brigade I would suggest that they get down off their high horses and join in with the Christmas spirit. They might even enjoy themselves!

  • On December 21, the Chicago Sun-Times reported: "The Town Hall in Dewsbury, England, having limited its signs to 'Season's Greetings' for years out of fear of offending non-Christians, restores the word 'Christmas' this year."

NOTE FOR PHILATELISTS. The Dewsbury bell and Australia's Christmas bell (a flower) have both been pictured on postage stamps.

Australia's Christmas bell stamp


The English webzine Open Writing has also published this story, with an interesting footnote by editor Peter Hinchliffe.


Story first posted January 2007

Copyright 2007

Eric Shackle

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