Describing himself as ‘a pedantic old palaeographer’, a friend of mine who had just read Ring Out, Wild Bells! (my previous post) suggested tactfully that I had misread the last word of the telegram sent to Charles Eamer Kempe on 21st June 1887. He was right, of course: what I had too hastily transcribed as ‘all three’ is actually the name ‘Attree’. It makes quite a difference.
I had assumed that the telegram referred to the three bells Kempe had donated to his local church, All Saints Lindfield, Sussex, where he was churchwarden. He had given these to enable a full peal to be rung in celebration of Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee. I admit that the word, as written out by a Telegraph Office clerk, looked more like ‘alt[h]ree’, but I had made the mistake of underestimating the clerk’s accuracy. The transcription error was mine, not his. What’s worse, I’d failed to notice that the word began with a capital ‘A’, albeit in the old-fashioned script form I was taught at my own primary school. So, on all counts my misreading was an egregious error, and I must apologise – not least to Mr Attree, whoever he was.
But I think I can identify him. Attree, I’ve discovered, was (is) a widespread Sussex name. In Kempe’s own immediate neighbourhood and in his own time, there were plenty of Attrees listed in the census returns of 1881 and 1891: a blacksmith at Bolney, an innkeeper at Cuckfield, gardeners, carriers and so on – all indispensible members of a rural community in those days. But Kempe’s family came originally from Brighton and in the late 18th - early 19th centuries both the Kemps*and the Attrees were property speculators. However, in Brighton in the 1880s perhaps the most well-known Attree was George F Attree, who combined two important businesses. As both undertaker and auctioneer, he provided what was doubtless a useful, two-in-one service, dispatching not only the deceased themselves but their belongings too. Indeed, George was a man of parts, with a keen interest in promoting bell-ringing. It was through his endeavours that the Sussex County Association of Change Ringers (SCACR) was founded in 1885, and he was its first Secretary.
So I think it likely Kempe would not only have known George but would have consulted him about his plans for the Lindfield bells. What’s more, I suspect Attree himself was one of the ringers of the Jubilee peal: already an experienced change ringer, he would have been a valuable addition to what might otherwise have been a team of novices: this was the first peal rung from the Lindfield tower – and ringing a full peal requires stamina, practice and terrific concentration. It may even be that this peal was rung not by local Lindfield men but by SCACR ringers brought in for the occasion.
I’d love to know if the name ‘Attree, GF’ appears on a board in the All Saints ringing chamber, recording this memorable first peal. If it does, then it should be no surprise that, after the peal was successfully completed, George sent Kempe a telegram on his way home, telling him the ring had been completed in precisely three hours seven minutes and reporting that the bells were ‘good and go well’.
In addition to my friendly palaeographer, I have had a number of responses to ‘Ring Out, Wild Bells’. Some sided with Ezra Pound; but for my own part I always enjoy the sound of a peal of six, eight or even twelve bells going like the clappers – a campanological simile, as it happens. In Tydd St. Mary, the Fenland village where I lived in the 1950s, the bells were rung every Sunday morning. My father, the Rector of Tydd, always regretted that the bell ringers, having come down from the tower, sat at the back of the congregation so that they could sidle out when his sermon began, to enjoy an early pint at the nearby Six Bells.
Even more vivid, however, than the Sunday peal, is my memory of the Nine Tailors being rung to announce a death: nine solemn strokes and then, at half-minute intervals, one stroke for each year of his life. The whole village stopped to count: men and women weeding between the emerging rows of peas would pause, unstoop and lean on their hoes until the bell ceased tolling – this I have not forgotten. ‘Never send to know for whom the bell tolls’, warned John Donne, from whom Ernest Hemingway later borrowed the phrase; ‘What passing bell for these who die as cattle?” demanded Wilfred Owen, and Thomas Hardy wondered
… will any say when my bell of quittance is heard in the gloom,
And a crossing breeze cuts a pause in its outrollings,
Till they rise again, as they were a new bell's boom,
"He hears it not now, but used to notice such things"?
It was this verse – and in particular the second line – that Seamus Heaney recalled when writing ‘Chanson d’Aventure’, the remarkable love poem addressed to his wife in which he relived the trauma of the stroke he suffered and from which he nearly died. As the ambulance hurtles him along familiar Irish roads the fear of being separated from his wife makes him recall at once Keats and a famous line from ‘Ode to a Nightingale’, the bell-ringer of a staunchly republican Irish village and his own efforts ringing the chapel bell as a student at St. Columba’s College:
Apart: the very word is like a bell
That the sexton Malachy Boyle outrolled
In illo tempore in Bellaghy
Or the one I tolled in Derry in my turn
As College bellman ….
that last word even summoning ‘the owl that shriek’d, the fatal bellman’ from Macbeth.
All of which is a long way from Charles Kempe and George Attree, if indeed it was George who sent the telegram. But it just shows how powerfully bells resonate – across time and poetry.
[Illustration: the Kempe arms, used as a mark to identify the S transept window of Hereford Cathedral, 1895
* It was Charles Kempe himself who added the final ‘e’ to the family name, seeking to revive a connection to the old family line that included Cardinal Kempe (c.1380-1454), Archbishop of Canterbury.
The Thomas Hardy stanza quoted above concludes his poem ‘Afterwards’ in Moments of Vision (1917). The lines by Seamus Heaney are from ‘Chanson d’Aventure’ in Human Chain (London: Faber and Faber, 2010) p.15.
I have written about Tydd St Mary once before, in Cuthbert, Dibble, Grubb.
I have also blogged about Heaney before: