Perhaps you’ve heard of the expression, “For whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee.” This bell at London’s St. Sepulchre-without-Newgate is the physical embodiment of that saying. The bell was purchased for £50 by a London merchant named John Dowe in 1605. He bought the bell on the condition that it would be used for one specific purpose.
At midnight on the eve of a condemned man’s execution (though it would not toll for murderers), the bellman of St. Sepulchre’s Church rang this bell 12 times outside the person’s cell. As the prisoner was led out of Newgate Gaol and across the street while being taken to Tyburn Tree to be hanged, the following lines were read out:
“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 Sepulchre’s bell tomorrow tolls, the Lord above have mercy on your souls.”
The convict was then given a set of rosary beads in the hopes that they would repent their sins as they were led to the gallows. This custom began in the 17th century and continued for the next 200 years. There are references to the Bell in John Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi and William Shakespeare’s Macbeth.
Facing the bell, and turning to your left, you will see a white marble arch. This would have been the doorway that the bellman would have passed through to enter the cells of Newgate Prison. The church itself is mentioned in the nursery rhyme Oranges and Lemons: “When will you pay me? Say the bells of Old Bailey.”
Know Before You Go
The bell is in a glass case on a pillar to the left facing the altar. As St. Sepulchre-without-Newgate is a functioning church, it is advisable to check the website for its current opening hours.