Yorkshire Oddities, Incidents and Strange Events/The Wooden Bell of Ripon


Near the railway station at Ripon is a quaint block of old almshouses, with an ancient chapel dedicated to St. Mary Magdalen, of grey stone, backed by a grove of elms. The little chapel contains some curious wood carving, the original stone altar, and a large oak chest in which reposes a solitary curiosity—a wooden bell, painted grey-green. The chapel is fortunately unrestored, left in its picturesque antiquity to moulder away. Any one who had seen the chapel of Barden Tower some years ago, and what it has become under the hand of the restorer, will know what it is to be grateful that a venerable relic of antiquity has not been furbished up to suit modern taste. That St. Mary Magdalen's would have fallen into bad hands had it been given over to restoration may be judged by the hideous new chapel which the authorities have recently erected close to the almshouses.

By that wooden bell in the oak chest hangs a tale.

In the time of our grandfathers, Dr. W——, was Dean of Ripon, a divine of the old port-wine-drinking school.

Now St. Mary Magdalen's chapel was no longer used. By the ancient endowment there was to be a resident chaplain and daily service in the little church, which the inmates of the almshouses were expected to attend. But the chaplaincy and its emoluments were usually held by one of the canons of the Minster. The stipend went into his pocket; the duties were neglected. If the old almsfolk wished to pray to God daily, they might totter three-quarters of a mile up to the Minster.

Dean W——, took on himself the chaplaincy; that is, he appropriated to the stocking of his cellar the money bequeathed to the almonership of the Magdalen Hospital.

But his cellar fell low. The Dean wanted money; his credit with the wine-merchants was as low as his cellar. How was money to be raised?

One day he had the bell of the Magdalen Chapel removed from the gable in which it had hung for many centuries, and had hung silent for many years.

The bell was supposed to have gone to the founders; and the money paid for it to the wine-merchant; anyhow, soon after, a hamper of fine old crusted port arrived at the Deanery.

But Ripon people, though long-suffering, could not quite endure the "robbing of churches." Murmurs were heard; the Dean was remonstrated with. He puffed out, turning as red as a turkey-cock—

"Well, well! the bell shall go back again."

And sure enough next week the bell was seen once more hanging in the gable of St. Mary Magdalen's chapel as of yore.

The Ripon people were content. The bell was never rung, but to that they were accustomed. Who cared whether the old goodies in the hospital were ministered to or not? It was no affair of theirs if the founder's wishes were set at nought, and the walls of the Magdalen never sounded with the voice of prayer.

But next spring, as on many a former one, the swallows built their nests among the eaves, and found a place about the altar of God's deserted house, as they had done in the days of the Psalmist. When nesting-time came, some boys began climbing about the roofs in quest of eggs.

One of them, seeing a rope dangling from the bell, caught it and began to pull, when, to his amazement, the bell uttered no sound. He crept under it. There was no clapper; and what was more, it hardly looked hollow. His curiosity was excited, and he climbed up to it, and discovered that the bell was only a piece of deal turned, and painted the colour of bell metal!

The story sounded further than ever had the old bell; and for very shame the Dean was obliged to take it down, and hide it in the chest of the Magdalen chapel.

Autumn came round. The Dean had notable espalliers in his garden. His trees were too attractive to the urchins of Ripon to escape visits. This highly incensed the Dean; and one night, hearing the boys at his apple-trees, he rushed, stick in hand, upon them. One he caught by the scruff of his neck. The others fled over the wall.

"Oh, you young ruffian! you audacious young scoundrel!" roared the Dean; "where do you think thieves will go to hereafter? What do you think will happen to them here?"

"Please, sir! please, sir!——"

"Hold your wicked tongue, you rascal!" thundered the Dean, whistling his cudgel round his head, "I shall thrash you unmercifully now, and lock you up in the black-hole to-night, and take you to the magistrate to-morrow, and have you sent to prison. And then, if you go on with your stealing, sir! you will go—there!" And the Dean progged with his stick in the direction of the centre of the globe.

Then he shook the boy furiously—"one, two," bang came the stick down.

"Please, mercy, Mr. Dean; spare me!"

"Spare you, sir! no—three."

"But, please, Mr. Dean, my father made the wooden bell for you."

"Go along, you rascal," gasped the Dean, relaxing his hold, and rushing back into his house.

In 1877 the Dean of Ripon (Dr. Freemantle) wrote to me relative to this matter:—"My attention has been directed to an anecdote told by you in your book called 'Yorkshire Oddities' of the late Dean W——. I have made it my business to ascertain the correctness of the story, as it has excited a good deal of feeling in the minds of some of the old residents here. We have found a bell which was sent from the Deanery at least 40 years ago, and which has been in the crypt of the Cathedral ever since. It is exactly the same size as the wooden bell, which we have recovered from a heap of cinders." So Dean W—— did not sell the bell after all!