Ring out the old, ring in the new
THE ‘GREAT BELL’ at the Guild Chapel is ringing throughout the town again thanks to refurbishment work commissioned by Stratford Town Trust. The Bell has a long and significant role in the history of the town and was originally cast as a curfew bell on 10th July 1633. William Shakespeare, who lived for some years close by the Guild Chapel at New Place must have heard the bell striking the hours many times, particularly in a time when it sounded the Curfew each night at 8pm. A previous Guild bell was famously tolled on the death of Shakespeare’s older sister, Joan.
The Curfew had been observed since the time of William I, usually known as William the Conqueror, the first Norman King of England, who reigned between 1066 and 1087. The Guild of the Holy Cross continued to do so, something which was later inherited by the Town Council from 1553 onwards. Living in a town like Stratford-upon-Avon, with its timber buildings and straw roofs, huddled closely together, must have been truly frightening. The sounding of the Curfew Bell signalled to the townspeople when all fires had to be extinguished, and it rang again early the next morning to signal that fires could once more be ignited.
The earliest known bell in the Guild Chapel was given in 1442-3 by Sir William Bishopton. It was recast in 1591, and repaired again in1615, shortly before Shakespeare’s death the following year. It no doubt rang to mark his passing as his funeral procession departed from New Place on its way to Holy Trinity Church for burial. The current bell weighs a 27 cwts. 3qrs. 2lbs and was cast on the 10 July 1633 by Hugh Watts 11 of Leicester. It is encircled by the initials of the members of the corporation for that year, including Daniel Baker, Henry Walker, Richard Hathaway and Thomas Quyney.
The tradition of sounding the curfew has been passed down from generation to generation. It was, until comparatively modern times, still rung by hand, when the bell was manually swung. Eventually no volunteers were available to carry this on, so an electro-magnetic tolling hammer with automated controller unit was fitted. Several years ago the tolling unit failed, and since that time there no curfew sounded until now. The refurbishment carried out by John Taylor and Co means that now the Curfew is again ringing out each evening over the rooftops of our historic town.