The Devils Knell, West YorkshireThe bell-tower of Dewsbury Minster contains a bell with, it is said, a rather gruesome provenance, but with a (now) unique use every Christmas Eve.
Legend has it that ‘Black Tom’, a tenor bell, was donated to the church by Sir Thomas de Soothill as penance for the murder of a young servant boy. Sir Thomas supposedly threw the boy into a mill pond in a fit of rage at the lad failing to attend church!
The veracity of this story is questionable, with dates from the 13th to the 15th century offered for the heinous act, and even a variation in surnames for the killer.
Be that as it may, ‘Black Tom’ is used every December 24 for the custom of ringing the devil’s knell. For every year since Christ’s birth the bell is tolled once, and the last stroke is carefully timed to coincide with midnight on Christmas Eve. This means that now the ringing starts at about 9.45 at night. To ensure the correct number of strokes a ‘scorer’ marks each one on a special scoring paper.
There are several interpretations of the reason behind the knell. The most romantic is that it keeps the devil out of the parish for another year – a bit hopeful, especially in the light of the lead from the church roof recently having been stolen. Another has it that the knell recalls the death of the devil – “the old lad’s passing”, a generous gesture in line with the old tradition of marking human deaths with the tolling of a bell, or perhaps less generously a celebration of that death.
The devil’s knell, whatever the real story behind it and the true start date, is a throwback to medieval times, when visions of the devil loomed far larger in the public imagination
More British Folk Customs?