“All you that in the condemned hole do lie,
Prepare you, for tomorrow you shall die.
Watch all, and pray, the hour is drawing near,
That you before Almighty God will appear.
Examine well yourselves, in time repent,
That you not to eternal flames be sent,
And when St Sepulcher’s bell tomorrow tolls,
The Lord above have mercy on your souls.”
If you were to find yourself in the condemned cell of Newgate Prison in the eighteenth century that cheerful advice above would be proclaimed, by the St Sepulchre’s church sexton, to every prisoner in the prison the night before they were sent to their deaths at Tyburn.
Twelve chimes from the handbell at the stroke of midnight was the ‘death knell.’ The idea was to try and help the prisoners repent before having their necks stretched.
The actual bell used in this ‘ceremony’ has not only been lovingly preserved but is on perpetual display in the church of St Sepulchre in London. At first glance, the somewhat ungainly looking bell could be mistaken for something rather innocuous: it just looks like a dusty old bell inside an even dustier old cabinet. However on closer examination, a ghastly curio and a reminder from a far less tolerant age is revealed.
A single glance at the thing will not fail, once you have grasped its purpose, to send a shudder through even the most stouthearted of men. The cabinet housing the bell of doom is attached to a pillar in the south nave of St Sepulchre’s Church.
The church was originally named for St. Edmund and is built on the site of the old Saxon church. The name was changed to St. Edmund and the Holy Sepulchre in the 12th Century.
When visiting this London church, please spare a thought for the prisoners who once quaked in utter despair and terror at the clang of the execution bell.
Paul Michael Ennis is a freelance journalist and crime thriller author, who also writes under the pen name Bill Carson.
Address: St Sepulchre-without-Newgate, Holborn Viaduct, London EC1A 2DQ
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