Friday 21 October 2011

The Great Tom bell

Every so often, you run across an amazing and forgotten story that you know has to be preserved.  I just did.  So let me tell again the strange story of John Hatfield, the sentry at Windsor Castle.
I'm not sure what year this was, except that it was during the reign of William and Mary and Hatfield was born in 1668.  It was almost certainly sometime around 1690, when he was court-martialled for falling asleep on sentry duty on the terrace of the castle.

At his trial, he vehemently denied it, and to prove he had been awake at midnight - when he was accused of being asleep - he said he had heard something very strange.  Far across the countryside of the Thames Valley, he had heard the Great Tom - the bell in the tower opposite Westminster Hall - chiming thirteen times.

Needless to say, this story did not go down well with the court.  In fact, as far as they were concerned, it tended to prove his guilt.  He was condemned to death.

Before the hanging could be carried out, over the next few days, the news of his claims reached Westminster.  Several people swore that, on the night in question, they had also heard the Great Tom stirke thirteen.  It was a peculiarity of the mechanism caused by the lifting piece holding on too long.  It seemed highly unlilely that Hatfield could have heard it as far away as Windsor, but the fact that he did proved his innocence.  William III pardoned him.

I don't know what happened to him later - it would be good to find out - but he died at his home in Glasshouse Yard, Aldersgate, on 18 June 1770, well into the reign of George III, at the age of 102.

The Great Tom was an ancient thirteenth century bell, which used to be known as Edward, until the Reformation.  Inscribed on the side were the words, in Latin:

'King Edward III made and named me

So that by the grace of St Edward the hours may be marked'

The bell tower was demolished in 1698 and the bell sold to St Paul's Cathedral.  On the way there, it fell off its wagon at Temple Bar and cracked, was left in a shed in the cathedral for some years and was eventually recast in 1709 - in Whitechapel, the bell foundry which still exists - and hung in the bell tower of St Paul's where it sounds the hour.

It is also used to toll for the deaths of members of the royal family, the Bishop of London, the cathedral's dean or the Lord Mayor - but only if he dies in office - but that, as Rudyard Kipling might say, is another story.

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