The idea of being told it’s time for bed may seem ridiculous once you’re in adulthood.
But in the draconian times of medieval London, there was an enforced bedtime for the entire city at around 8 or 9pm.
The sounds of the curfew bell would ring out across the city every night and the city would plunge into darkness.
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The bell was technically rung to remind citizens to “couvre le feu” (where the word ‘curfew’ comes from), or “cover the flame” – namely, to put out fires and candles.
In a city constructed of wood and straw, flames left burning overnight were sure to cause a fire.
Even an errant spark could lead to disaster.
That very nightmare was realised later in 1666 when a fire that began in a bakery reduced much of the city to ash.
(Image: William Andrews – scanned from book Old Church Lore, William Andrews & Co., The Hull Press; London, , page 230)
Medieval Londoners, upon hearing the bell, would remove burning logs from the centre of the hearths, sweep away the ashes, and then sweep the cold ashes back over the fire to cover it.
This would mean there would still be a source of warmth without a burning flame.
The bell to put out flames and puff out candles, therefore, left little for Londonders to do but go to bed.
So in practice, the curfew bell was an order to go to bed.
However, the practice was not without its controversies.
Medieval London was a time of draconian laws, much of it enforced by the people themselves who made it a daily practice to watch each other, and keep each other honest.
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Anyone seen abusing a wife or employee might hear someone crying “shame!” (and if I could take this opportunity to suggest we all do the same at people standing on the left of the escalator…)
(Image: Robert Dimov)
People would try to shame those who weren’t even breaking the law and were just, put simply, annoying.
According to 16th-century historian John Stow, there were apprentices who believed the clerk at the church of St Mary-le-Bow deliberately rang the bell late in order to keep them working late, and their version of ‘crying shame’ was to make up a rhyme.
It went: “Clerke of the Bow bell with the yellow lockes. For thy late ringing thy head shall have knocks.”
While the evening curfew bell in the medieval period would have been heard across the city, today only two places in London still ring it, for tradition’s sake.
One is the Tower of London, where they ring the bell at 5.45pm – a useful way to let visitors know the Tower is about to close.
The other is Gray’s Inn, one of the four Inns of Court in London – though these days, the bell is an electric one.
(Image: Herbert Railton (1857–1910))
Andrew Mussell, Gray’s Inn archivist, said the chapel has only had a bell since around 1689 – perhaps replacing an old one – and was rung at 9pm.
“But the custom is doubtless far older,” he explained.
“The time the bell was rung was changed in 1986 to 6.45pm so as to reduce disruption to evening events, to mark the time to take seats for dinner, the end of Pension meetings and various other things.”
However, a 6.45pm bell turned out to be pretty disruptive to early evening events, so in 2015 the curfew bell was pushed back to 10pm – which, much like the Tower of London bell, marked the closing of the gates.