Not ringing a bell

The church bells were ringing at a quarter past six on a Monday evening. Practice night is Wednesday, the cause for them to be rung at teatime on Monday was a mystery. “Perhaps it’s the invasion,” I said.

“That was Mrs Hawker’s job,” my mother replied. “Mrs Hawker was to go to the church and ring one of the bells if there was an invasion.”

“How would she know to do so?”

No-one seemed sure.

Turning to Hansard, I found a House of Lords debate in 1943, initiated by the Archbishop of York who wanted the ban on bell-ringing to be lifted. The Archbishop was supported by Lord Mottistone who said:

I think I can make good my case, In the course of conversation with an intelligent soldier I said to him: “We are all puzzled about this question of the ringing of church bells.” He replied: “Oh well, the Prime Minister likes to be able to tell you to ring the church bells to celebrate a victory.” I said: “Yes, that’s all very good no doubt but that is not going on.” To this he replied: “Of course, as a military expedient it is; frankly ridiculous. For be it observed.” said the soldier, “that if you want a warning to warn you of the presence of the enemy, certain things are essential. The first is that you must know whence that warning emanated; secondly, you must know that the means of giving the warning are in good order, In the case of church bells, neither of these conditions is fulfilled. If I am to be asked to regard this as a serious matter, then I must ask that all the 12,000 churches shall be properly guarded by the military, in order to ensure at all moments that the bells are not rung by Fifth Columnists or reckless people. Secondly, I must be given authority to put those 12,000 belfries in order.” I said: “Do you understand that in many cases the bells will not ring?” He replied: “Yes, I am advised that in a great number of cases either the ropes would break, or the bells would fall through the roof on to the heads of the people below.”

I do not know what action the noble Viscount, the Leader of the House, is going to take in this matter, but I think I am entitled to make a challenge to him as Leader of the House. If what I have said is true—if no sound military opinion can be found to say that we ought to rely upon church bells as a warning—I think that we ought to be told. If it is alleged that there is some sound military opinion which says that we should rely upon church bells as a warning, then let us be told the name and rank of the military officer who says: “We desire to rely on church bells as a warning.” I know that I am placing the noble Viscount in a difficult position, because I am perfectly aware that there is no such military officer in existence. Nobody who considers the matter can possibly regard this as a sensible method of giving warning of the enemy’s approach, unless the steps which were described to me are taken to ensure that it shall be efficient. Imagine the enemy arriving, and it being said that the church bells must be rung. You will first have to ask whether the Germans have fulfilled the necessary conditions, because I am told that there are three or four different conditions which must be fulfilled before the bells are rung. Finally, when the military Commander gives the order for the bells to be rung, imagine the fantastic moment when the man runs to the belfry, pulls at the rope, and down comes the bell and cracks his head. Are we going on playing this childish opera bouffe, and thus robbing ourselves of a certain measure of pleasure and satisfaction?

Lord Geddes cast light upon how the “childish opera bouffe” had become a nationwide practice:

I think it was the Chief of the Imperial General Staff who said: “How are you going to get these Local Defence Volunteers together if parachutists suddenly appear?” and somebody in the room—not I, but I could not be sure which of the others—said, “Why, we will ring the church bells, until we cart think of something better.” That was early in May, 1940, and the War Office have been thinking of something better ever since. That signal at that time was supposed to be used only in the Counties of Kent and Sussex and in the rural areas, but somehow or other the order became more or less sacrosanct, and spread all over the country. It was trimmed and pruned, and sprouted new legs and arms, and it became one of the essential pillars of the defence of the country. It is a complete mystery to me why that should be so, but I am assured by War Office representatives that it is.

The debate was of no avail, responding on behalf of the government, Lord Croft stated,

We share the desire of the most reverend Prelate that church bells should again come into general use, but so long as we are convinced that this is the only signal which can be regarded as a distinctive and definite warning no alteration in the existing arrangement can be made.

None of which answered how Mrs Hawker was to know when to ring the bell and how Fifth Columnists were to be prevented from causing a panic in the village.

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