Liskeard’s great church bells controversy

In the mid-1860s a new vicar – the Reverend F.S.Cook – took up residence at Liskeard in east Cornwall. He was disturbed to find that it was a custom in the town to ring the church bells to announce any interesting event, such as local election victories or successful law suits. The vicar did not take kindly to such indiscriminate secular bell ringing.

In November 1866 therefore, when town councillors made their usual approach requesting that the bells be rung during the annual mayor-choosing, they were firmly rebuffed. The Reverend Cook, annoyed that it was ‘only necessary that a man should have a sovereign to spare to be able to gratify his inclination to have the bells rung’, told the council that in future the church bells would be reserved for marking religious occasions and church services only.

Some councillors were outraged by what they perceived as an attack on their customs and independence. None more so than William Murray, an irascible fifty-year old auctioneer and spokesman for the drink interest, who had seen off a slate of pro-temperance candidates in the recent borough elections. His reply to the vicar was blunt: ‘I think that for a gentleman who is a stranger to come into our town … and do as he would in a small fishing village, ought not to be allowed’.

‘Excited men burst open the belfry door’

Citizens were encouraged to take direct action to defend the hallowed rights and privileges of the borough. The Cornish Times reported that ‘excited men burst open the belfry door, jingled the bells to their hearts’ content and their arms aching, in spite of priest and police. Since then effigies of the vicar have been repeatedly paraded in the streets and publicly burnt, he has been ridiculed in squibs, abused in letters and hissed as he passed along; some of the malcontents have absented themselves from church’.

Once roused, popular excitement was less easy to control. Things got out of hand and two nights of ‘indecent and lawless outrage’ followed. The Cornish Times hastily reversed its initial broadly sympathetic stance. Protests were now ‘participated in only by the scum of the place, or by thoughtless youths, encouraged by a few intolerant men, whose motives are as questionable as their conduct is censorable’.

Supporters of the vicar pointed the finger at the operators ‘of the ropes and pulleys … that set Liskeard mobocracy in action … audacious conduct based upon the too well grounded belief that the town was given up to their base will and pleasure’. There was clearly more to this episode than meets the eye.

Alarmed at the mayhem that had erupted, ‘respectable’ opinion in the town quickly let the matter drop. No one was brought to court for the disturbances and discretion was exercised. It’s not clear whether the bells were indeed reserved solely for religious occasions or not thereafter. But Liskeard’s Great Church Bells Question soon faded into the mists of history.