So wrote Owen Manning and William Bray in their three volume, 2200 page “The History and Antiquities of the County of Surrey” which was written between 1804 and 1814 and followed on from earlier works by John Aubrey and others. In their description of Chertsey Church, they report that “the curfew-bell is still tolled here, in the following manner; from Michaelmas to Lady-day, at eight o’clock in the evening. The Clerk first rings up (as he expresses it, i.e. raises the bell); he then rings for a few minutes; lowers the bell down, and after a short pause, he tolls the number of the day of the month”.
Little did they know that they were describing the way it is still tolled over three hundred years later at 8pm between Michaelmas (29th September) and Lady Day (25th March).
According to the Abbey Cartulary records, Chertsey’s original curfew bell was cast three years into the tenure of Abbot John de Rutherwyk of St. Peter’s Abbey, Chertsey, in the year 1310. It seems however that this original bell was damaged in the collapse of the Abbey bell tower in July 1370 and a replacement bell was cast by the Abbey’s bell founding contractors from Wokingham who did so in 1380. The dedication of the bell reads “+ORA : MENTE : PIA : PRO : NOBIS : VIRGO : MARIA” – “pray earnestly for us Virgin Mary”. This “new” bell survived in the Abbey bell tower until the Abbey’s dissolution on 6th July 1537 and with the impending demolition, it was transferred to the tower of Chertsey Church which was also renamed from All Saint’s Church to St. Peter’s Church.
The Abbey Curfew bell is now the 5th bell in the ring of 8 bells and weighs 10 cwt or 500kg sounding an “A” note. Because this bell is now 640 years old, the ringers do not regularly use it to ring the curfew every night through the winter and instead use the 4th bell which is slightly lighter at 8½ cwt (425kg) and was cast in 1756.
Chertsey is now one of only a handful of places in the UK which still rings the ancient curfew. The term comes from the Norman French “couvre-feu” – to cover and extinguish the fire which burned in the centre of the house, thereby eliminating the risk of burning down the house and potentially the town, an event which actually happened to Chertsey in 1235. It was also a means of preserving public order as people who were found out and about after curfew were presumed to be up to no good.
So, once again, from Wednesday 29th September, the Chertsey ringers shall commence the ringing of the winter curfew bell.