Church bells have traditionally been rung to celebrate major events or to sound a warning in times of danger.
In Jersey in the parishes of St Mary, St Ouen and St Peter the parish church bells used to be rung from midday on Christmas Eve until midnight on Christmas Day. Quite why this should have happened only in the three western parishes is uncertain, but it may have had something to with their remaining free in the early part of the French occupation of the island between 1461 and 1468.
The churches lost most of their bells, along with roadside crosses, church ornaments and other valuables during the Reformation , and each parish was left with just a single bell. Guernsey did not have such a reforming Governor as Jersey’s Sir Hugh Poulett, who was appointed in 1550, and retained all its bells.
Bells lost under water
Jersey’s bells deemed surplus were sold for £171 to be spent on fortifications, but it is said that they were lost in the entrance to St Malo harbour when the boat carrying them to France sank.
Sir Henry Spelman in his ‘’History and Fate of Sacrilege’’ published in 1632 is one of a number of writers to embellish the story and suggest that the submerged bells could be heard on the wind:
- ”At the end of Queen Mary’s days Sir Hugh Paulett pulled down the bells of the Churches in Jersey; and sending them to St Malo fourteen of them were drowned at the entrance to that harbour; whereupon it is a bye-word at this day in those parts, when any strong east wind is blowing there, to say ‘The Bells of Jersey now ring.”
The oldest surviving bell in Jersey is that at St Lawrence Church, dating back to 1592. Many churches’ bells are much more recent.
St Mary’s belfry contains a single large bell and four quarter bells cast in London in 1888. The big bell was cast at Villedieu, Normandy in 1910, replacing one cast there in 1841. St Ouen still has but a single bell, cast in Loughborough in 1971 to replace a French bell, which in turn replaced one cast in Bristol in 1812. St Peter's belfry houses two bells caqst in 1872 and 1873. These replaced Elisabeth and Marie which dated back to 1649 and 1754 respectively.
The Christmas bell-ringing in the three parishes could become extremely rowdy and parishioners appreciated the break for Christmas morning service. However, a proposal by St Mary Rector Le Couteur Balleine in the second half of the 19th century to introduce a further break for a Christmas evening service caused his parishioners to threaten to throw him over a cliff in a sack. He called their bluff and went ahead with the service.
St Peter could not make up its mind about the custom in the mid 1800s and passed successive Acts through its Ecclesiastical Assembly permitting and forbidding the Christmas bell ringing.
The bells are still rung to this day but not for an unbroken 36 hours. Parishioners do have a right of access to the belfries for the purpose of bell ringing.