When did Norwich have a night time curfew?

The Sir Garnet Wolseley pub overlooking Norwich Market stalls with St Peter Mancroft church in the b

The Sir Garnet Wolseley pub overlooking Norwich Market stalls with St Peter Mancroft church in the background. Date unknown. - Credit: Archant Library

Imagine not having a watch on your wrist, a clock in your house, never mind a phone in your pocket.

There was a time when curfew bells rang out across the city of Norwich. And they all have a fascinating history.

According to the 1927 edition of Roberts Norwich Almanac and Record, the ringing of the bells at night was believed to have been introduced as far back as late Saxon times, as a warning. For people to cover up and rake over their fires.

It was 600 years ago when the Assembly of Norwich agreed to appointed a number of night watchmen to proclaim “with kindly voice” that it was time to keep fire and light in their dwelling places.

They patrolled until 3am and the penalty for refusing was a fine of sixpence with half going to the Head Constable and the rest to the community.

These were times when fires caused death and destruction in Norwich and across Norfolk.

When looking back on our local history we have much to thank Francis Blomefield (1705-52) for and he writes about the bells of St Laurence Church in St Benedict’s, Norwich.

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“The sixth bell weighs about 15 cwt and is rung for a curfew bell, at eight o’clock every evening and also, from 1607, at four o’clock every morning, there being an acre of land in Earlham Field, called St Laurence’s acre, very anciently given to the rector who was bound to pay a person to ring it constantly,” he wrote.

The bell was said to be rung for an hour every night, all through the year for centuries, and the curfew bell in the parish church of St Giles’ was sounded daily throughout the year for more than 400 years.

The story goes that one John Colton, coming to Norwich one night, lost his way and was in danger of being drowned until he heard this great bell and directed his steps to the sound.

Norwich churches closed during COVID19 lock down Easter 2020. St Peter Mancroft Pictures: BRITTANY W

Norwich churches closed during COVID19 lock down Easter 2020. St Peter Mancroft Pictures: BRITTANY WOODMAN - Credit: Archant

When he died in January 1457 he wrote in his will that he was to be buried in the church in the Church of St Giles of Over Newport (the ancient name for this part of the street)) and he would give an acre of land to the parishioners on condition that they continued to ring the bell every night.

The land was off Earlham Road in Norwich and is now covered with fine houses in the appropriately named Curfew Terrace.

The curfew bell at the original St Mancroft Church was considered more municipal, probably because of its links with the College of St Mary-in-the-Fields where the City Assembly met and the official documents kept.

Then it was decided to pull down the old church founded by Ralf Guader, Earl of Norfolk, shortly after the Norman invasion.

The new noble and world-famous St Peter Mancroft, was consecrated in the 1450s.  It was wealthy Sir Peter Reade who gave his houses to the church so the great bow bell could  be rung at 4am and 8pm for the help and benefit of travellers.

From a famous Norfolk family he was a great wanderer and a soldier of fortune under Emperor Charles V. He was with him at the siege of Tunis and it was where he was knighted by the Emperor, and he was at the conquest of Barbary in 1535.

He died in 1568 and his body is interred at St Peter.

It was the year before, in 1567, when the mayor, Thomas Whalle, did not approve of the Dutch and Flemish weavers. Around 1,300 had settled in the city.

Bell ringing at St Peter Mancroft in Norwich. Picture: Danielle Booden

Bell ringing at St Peter Mancroft in Norwich. Picture: Danielle Booden - Credit: Danielle Booden

He tried to get the 'strangers' thrown out, and while that didn’t succeed he did make their life more difficult by a number of new laws, one being that no 'stranger' should walk the Norwich streets after the bell of St Peter Mancroft had sounded curfew.

The wonderful bells of St Peter have tolled for kings, queens, civic magnates and national heroes. They have recorded births, marriages and deaths and so much more.

In recent years the Mancroft Ringing Discovery Centre was opened to promote the history of the bell tower and to train a new generation of bell-ringers.

The curfew bells sound no more but the wonderful chimes are timeless and an important part of our history.

And we have much to thank all those who continue to ring the bells.