Thursday, May 5, 2016

Are Church Bells a Nuisance?

St. Peter, Norbiton, Surrey
Update: I am informed that the current Vicar of Norbiton has set the bells to sound only on the hour.

Up the steep mountains, down the green dells, 
Flows the glad music—Happy church bells!*

In May 1866, 150 years ago this month, the Rev Robert Holberton of St Peter’s Norbiton, Surrey, set to working a handsome new clock in the church tower. The bells chimed the hour - and the halves and quarters as well - round-the-clock. Norbiton Hall, just over the London Road, was occupied by (later Sir) William Hardman, a barrister primarily engaged in literary pursuits, and married to a lady of "a nervous and somewhat delicate constitution." Poor Mrs. Hardman could get no sleep, day or night. The new bells were indeed of a formidable size and, at least to Mr. Hardman's ears, they rang louder than the ordinary. He offered to make a donation of fifty guineas in exchange for an end to the bells from 10 pm to dawn. The vicar and vestrymen met and palavered. Various schemes to muffle the bells were considered but - in the end - Rev. Holberton informed the complainant that the sounding clock plainly "gives general pleasure to the people of Norbiton." It must be remembered that few people could afford to keep a watch or a clock in their homes. Hardman took the case to court but lost in a ruling still considered something of a precedent in "nuisance cases." In the eyes of the law, "however harsh it may seem, the sick or the dying cannot be protected by the court from the torments of ordinary sounds.”

* Church Bells (1900) by Peter Burn, Lake District poet. 

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