Back to the Past with Ed Grimsdale: Summoned by bells and whistles

Its 1989, the Milk Factory is closed and its whistle is for ever silenced. PNL-140620-152456001

Its 1989, the Milk Factory is closed and its whistle is for ever silenced. PNL-140620-152456001

Here’s a passage from a Buckingham Parish Magazine from 1877.

“It is worth noting that Buckingham is one of about 300 parishes which retain the ancient custom of ringing the curfew bell.

“The practice appears to have originated as a precaution against fire, and it is commonly supposed that, by an order of William the Conqueror, all persons were obliged to put out their fires and lights at the sound of the curfew (couvre feu, cover fire) bell, which rang at sunset in summer, and about eight or nine o’clock in winter.

“Perhaps, there may be some connection between this and the very healthy mealtimes of our Norman forefathers:

“‘To rise at five, to dine at nine,

‘To sup at five, and to bed at nine,

‘Makes a man live to ninety and nine.’”

The winter curfew was reinforced in September, 1879 with the induction of a new Vicar in Buckingham, the Reverend Kiddle – he added a ‘Rise and Shine the Sun’s on the Decks’ bell soon after sunrise at 6am!

Such bells were termed ‘matitudinal’ ones, but not in Buckingham where whether they rang at dawn, noon, or dusk, all bells were ‘curfews.’

One man who reinforced Buckingham’s habit was Jack the Ripper. A rumour spread across Buckingham in the 1880s that Jack the Ripper had moved to Buckingham.

Fear gripped our populace and each evening everyone hurried to get indoors, lock and bolt the doors, extinguish the gaslights and hunker down.

Someone ought to research whether Buckingham’s birth-rate rose! Buckingham retained a rising bell late into the 20th century.

Additionally, the Milk Factory’s peremptory whistle ensured few were late for work or school.

It wailed like a siren at 8am (to work), 1pm (lunch) and 6pm (down tools).

But that wasn’t too awful. Imagine living in Aylesbury in 1899: its council debated how best to control the 30 ferocious ‘steam whistles’ that competed with each other to tell workers to report to their factory’s gates!

In the Second World War, Buckingham’s main siren was on the old fire station (now the rear of Barclays bank).

It sounded a test alarm at noon on Sundays. The idea was that our enemies would know it wouldn’t be cricket to bomb the British as they sat down to roast beef and Yorkshire pudding.

Back to curfew bells, I believe that Chesham and Buckingham were among the final handful of English towns to sound curfew bells, but I don’t know which one was the ‘winner’.

I wonder if our readers can enlighten us?




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