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St Mary’s 7th century Church in Prittlewell was originally part of the manor of Milton before Southend-on-Sea became established.  The church bells were first noted in records in 1550 when a new bell frame was installed. At the time Edward VI, son of Henry VIII and Jane Seymore, was King of England.

For many years St Marys was noted for its ringing. Specials days sanctioned were the 29thof May, the 4th of June, the 6th of November and Christmas Day. On these days the ringers received 10 to 12 shillings as payment.  Apart from Sundays, the bells also rang on New Year’s Day, village fair days and when a coronation took place. Furthermore, if a great victory was celebrated the ringers were allowed refreshment at the public houses.

Yet, St Mary’s church bells will perhaps be best remembered for the long dispute between the vicar, Dr Frederick Nolan, and his bellringers. Dr Nolan was the third son of Edward and Florinda Nolan. Fredrick was born on February 9th 1779 at  Old Rathmines Castle, County Dublin, the seat of his grandfather. 

Nolan was educated at Trinity College, Dublin and later went to Oxford, where he entered Exeter college as a gentleman commoner. He was ordained on August 3rd 1806 and took priest’s orders three years later. He served the curacies of Woodford, Hackney and St. Benet Finck, originally in the city of London. At the age of 43, on October 25th 1822, Frederick Nolan was introduced as the new vicar of Prittlewell by Dr William Howley the then Bishop of London.

Nolan was a reputed scholar and theologian. He was elected as a Member of the Royal Society of Literature in 1828, became a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1832 and an Honorary Member of the Statistical Society of Paris.

On taking up his post at Prittlewell, Nolan moved into the adjacent vicarage where he installed a printing press. A prolific writer, at least twenty 20 of his major works were published which included The Romantick Mythology, in two parts, An Inquiry into the nature and extent of Poetick Licence, published under the pseudonym of ‘N. A. Vigors, esq’ and The Operations of the Holy Ghost.

Frederick Nolan, a gentleman painted 1830 by an unknown artist

Another title, Dr Nolan’s Warhurtonian Prophecies. Lectures on the Chronological Prophecies published in 1837 was advertised in national newspapers as an eight volume book bound in cloth, priced at 15 shillings. The Globe’s correspondent, writing in March 1840, said, ‘It was decidedly one of the most valuable books published for some years’.

            Dr Nolan served as Vicar of St Mary’s Church from 1822 to 1864. He married Angelina Boone (the sister of Harriet Scratton) in 1826. Nolan was described as a man of somewhat eccentric habits. His dispute with his bell ringers began in the spring of 1840 when he clashed with his parishioners as to the hours of ringing. Nolan lived close to the church, in the vicarage that adjoined the churchyard, so it is surprising, according to the bell ringers, that the previous vicar Dr Charles Belli had agreed the ringers could start their ringing at five in the morning.

The new vicar, who no doubt worked late into the small hours of the morning either writing or running his printing presses, considered that time too early, although the bell ringers maintained that Dr Nolan was fully aware of the existing arrangement. Nolan now said the bells were disturbing him and demanded the time be changed to 8.00am.

A new company of bell ringers, young men led by James Beeson, had recently been established. They had replaced the previous team of bell ringers who were described in the Essex Herald as ‘decayed from age’. The vicar’s edict was strongly resisted by Beeson’s ringers who saw no reason to change their timing as the hour had been sanctioned by in printed rules agreed Nolan.

By all accounts Nolan was not a popular figure with many of his parishioners. The mutual animosity intensified and came to a head on the morning of Sunday June 14th 1840, when between nine and ten o’clock, whilst the bells were being rung, Nolan, in an apoplectic rage, entered by the belfry carrying a carving knife and tried to cut the bell ropes.

The dispute escalated. Allegations and counter-allegations sallied back and forth. Dr Nolan tried unsuccessfully to prevent the bell ringers from entering the church.  A wide a range of bolts, bars and heavy locks were installed to bar access into the church. Nevertheless, the bell ringers still managed to get in by climbing on the roof and passing through a door which communicated with the belfry. The vicar claimed that when the bell ringers had failed to get into the church, the vicarage became a target. Nolan added ‘they beset my doors with handbells’ and on two occasions the windows were broken. Dr Nolan and his wife armed themselves with pistols for protection and discharged them on at least one occasion. No injuries were reported but they were responded to by groans and shouts of ‘murder’. 

Hatred of Dr Nolan was so intense that an effigy was burnt of him on Guy Fawkes Night by the angry parishioners. Nolan added ‘a threatening letter has been sent to me expressing the intention of the writer to set my house on fire’.

The dispute dragged on for months, seemingly without resolution. Threats of legal action proved useless. Eventually six of the ringers were summoned to appear before an ecclesiastical court at Dr Nolan’s behest.  However, when the ringers failed to attend on the due date they were subjected to imprisonment for contempt. Heavy fines were imposed and James Beeson, judged to be the leader, was taken into custody and jailed at Moulsham (Chelmsford) gaol for thirteen weeks. He was released after the court costs had been paid by subscription raised by fellow parishioners. He and the others were then bound by oath not to further molest the Vicar.

Songs and skits were published, one of the best known being sung to the tune of The Mistletoe Bough. An abridged version is shown on the following page.

The dispute was reported in the Essex Herald of 8th January 1841 under the heading,

Songs and skits were published, one of the best known being sung to the tune of The Mistletoe Bough. An abridged version is shown,

The dispute was reported in the Essex Herald of 8th January 1841 under the heading,

THE VICAR OF PRITTLEWELL V. THE RINGERS     ‘James Beeson, a journeyman plumber and glazier, of Prittlewell, is a prisoner in our old gaol, for having, with five others, omitted to appear to a suit in the Ecclesiastical Court, instituted by the Rev. Dr Nolan, principally for having rung the bells in Prittlewell church, but coupled with other minor charges, such as drinking in the belfry in opposition to Dr Nolan’s order to the contrary’.

The paper then summarised the events leading up to the incarceration of James Beeson. The paper’s tone was generally sympathetic to Beeson. They said he rung the tenor bell. He had a wife and three children and she was expecting a fourth. The papers also reported that although the bells belonged to the parish, the building which they were in was under the charge of the Vicar, (or resident Minister). The newspaper added that there also seemed to be some confusion about the rules regarding the timing of bell ringing.

In response a very angry Rev. Nolan wrote long letters to local papers expressing his indignation. The Essex Herald of 19th January 1841 published:-

‘SIR, A false and slanderous paragraph having appeared in your paper, in which unwarrantable liberties have been taken with my name and reputation, you will not, I presume, deny me the reparation of giving it this public and express contradiction.

For the space of seven months the parish of Prittlewell has been subject to the perpetual annoyance of a set of ringers, of whom Beeson was the leader. The keys of the church having been surreptitiously obtained at five o’clock in the morning. Although every method of persuasion was employed by myself and the churchwarden to induce them to desist until a seasonable hour, they were continued until nine at night. Since that time, the church has been repeatedly broken open and forcibly entered, by the offenders, with whom no verbal remonstrance, or menace of legal interference, has had any effect but that of driving them to unremitted acts of insult and violence.  No such printed rules as those to which your correspondent alludes were allowed or ever seen by me, if they had any existence’

Dr Nolan also added ‘I cannot pass through the village with my wife, we are openly insulted by mobs of them and their adherents’.

In his letter, Dr Nolan also claimed that the disorderly conduct of the bellringers had attracted numerous thieves from London to Prittlewell. He also asserted the ‘older bell ringers’ who were not the superannuated persons as The Herald suggested, but were perfectly capable of attending to their duties. The vicar implied the older ringers had been intimidated by Beeson to quit.

Dr Nolan concluded his letter with,

‘I shall have done with stating that I am wholly indebted to Captain McHardy (the then Essex Chief Constable) and the police inspector whom he has stationed in this parish, that I am enabled to remain in it, as it is my firm conviction, that my life and property would not have been safe unless under their protection’.

I have the honour to be, Sir,
Your obedient Servant,
Prittlewell, Jan. 12th, 1841’

With that the dispute with the Bellringers ended.

Dr Frederick Nolan was vicar of St Mary’s Prittlewell until his death aged 85 on September 16th 1864. He was survived by his widow Angelina.  Whether he still lived in the vicarage is unclear. In later years there are few entries in the parish registers of Nolan officiating at church events and before his death he had been totally blind for several years. He was laid to rest in County Meath in his native Ireland.

At the time of writing we understand there is complete harmony between the bell ringers and the present vicar of St Mary’s Church.

Extracted from a new book due soon.

MILTON, CHALKWELL and the CROWSTONE by Marion Pearce

© Essex Hundred Publications / Marion Pearce