There’s nothing quite like a ding-dong battle via a newspaper’s letters page and the Sussex and Surrey Courier found itself at the centre of a good one in 1915 and 1916.
World War One was raging across the globe, men from Crawley, Ifield and Three Bridges were marching off to fight, knowing they would not all be coming home - but what prompted Mr GA Parkhurst to put pen to paper?
He didn’t like the chiming of the church bells at St John’s.
Everyone is entitled to their opinion but Mr Parkhurst opened a can of worms when he told the good people of Crawley – under the impressive heading ‘The Death Knell’ – that he couldn’t wait until the bells wore out so he wouldn’t have to listen to them again.
The following is a series of letters which were published in the Courier from December 1915 onwards.
First we hear from Mr Parkhurst himself, who was lucky enough to be living at the Ancient Priors House, in the High Street - something he didn’t seem to appreciate.
He wrote: “Sir: As I write the Crawley Parish Church is droning out its familiar direful dirge, ‘ding, dong, oh’, for some departed soul.
I am glad to see in a London paper that a question has been asked in Parliament about the continuance of this intolerable nuisance.
In my opinion, shared I know by a number of my fellow townsmen who unfortunately live in the High Street, it is wanton cruelty to suffering humanity to toll the death bell for every man, woman and child who dies in the locality.
It is, more over, quite a useless practice; it can not assist the dead in any way, and only harms the living.
During my long illness this year nothing distressed and disturbed me more than the continuous pealing of the mournful death bell.
In addition to this the clock turret peals forth 94 times per day; then there is a special peal for the success for our soldiers at 5.45 daily; on Sunday mornings, peals at 6.45 and 7.45 alternately, for the same purpose, useful or otherwise, and the peals for the three church services to fill up the Sunday, so that taking things on the whole the sooner the church bells become worn out and useless the better, and they cannot last much longer with the use, or misuse, they get.
At least some consideration should be shown for our wounded soldiers and other inmates of the Cottage Hospital, whose nerves have been wrecked quite enough on the field of battle and from operations etc without inflicting upon them this nerve shattering, depressing and utterly useless custom.”
First to respond to the letter was some one calling themselves ‘Bell Rope’ - and you got the feeling he or she was not entirely sympathetic of Mr Parkhurst’s plight.
They wrote: “Dear Mr Church Bell. Well, Sir! What have you to say for yourself? Don’t you know you are said to be a great nuisance and useless?
Then why do you insist on ding-donging your ‘direful dirge,’ ‘your doleful death knell’?
And you have the brazen impudence with your little brothers to chime 94 times a day, for no good use at all, only to remind men their time is fleeting away, and taunting them with the fact that very soon they too must respond to your last call, your horrid death knell.
Oh, you gruesome fellow! Every evening, too, you are busy clanging again. Calling on mankind to come and pray for their soldiers and sailors, are you? What a lame excuse! Who wants to pray for soldiers and sailors now? Ah! Who? And on Sundays when Mr Parkhurst wants a nice rest you begin to bang at his ears; sometimes before 7am. Oh, brutal Mr Bell!
Then again, and yet again; 10.30, 2.45 and 6. Mr Parkhurst must be nearly frantic now
What’s that you say? Why did their forefathers so carefully cast you and put you up in the old bell turret? Oh! They were silly old men who didn’t know better.
Why you are even worse than Mr Parkhurst says. He did not mention the noise and clatter the whole eight of you sometimes make. What? A wedding? Joy bells, you call yourselves? Fiddlesticks! You are only cracking your old sides with laughter at their foolishness.
I am quite sure Mr Parkhurst never allowed you to fool him that way. Hallo! At it again? Midnight, too. What’s the row about now!
Another new year, is it? Merry old bells, did the poet say? Oh! They must have been crazy!
I suppose presently you’ll want to be clanging and banging with all your great relations to let the nation know of victory and peace declared.
Oh, bother the nation, and be quiet, do. You’ll disturb Mr Parkhurst.
Take my advice, Mr Bell, and don’t let me have to pull you up any more.”
Mr Parkhurst, naturally enough, didn’t take such cheek lying down. He was back within the week and, boy, was he cross.
He wrote: “Sir: I have read the childish drivel signed ‘Bell Rope’ in your last week’s issue, under this heading, with some amazement, not unmixed with contempt.
It seems almost incredible that a human being could display such an utter lack of sympathy or feeling. What right have I to plead for the sufferings of soldiers or sailors? What right have I to mention my own nerves? What presumption! What impertinence! This is the real gist of the diatribe of your correspondent.
There is no doubt he lives well away from the din of this gruesome bell, probably has never known what illness is and is not affected thereby.
My complaint was the tolling of the useless death bell, which, I reiterate, is a nerve-shattering and abominable nuisance, and I merely mentioned some of the many times the bells were used to show they were used quite often enough, without adding the miserable, wretched death knell.
Our Lord set aside Sunday as a day of rest, but evidently ‘Bell Rope’ does not agree with Him. So far as Crawley parish is concerned, it is pure impudence on my part to expect any rest after 6.45 on Sunday morning, but I can assure ‘Bell Rope’ that I am not the only one in Crawley High Street who commences the Sabbath with a bitter feeling of resentment for being awakened at such an early hour, after putting in six days’ hard work.
It may surprise the lofty ‘Bell Rope’ to know that I have been commended by many residents for my public spirited action in writing to your newspaper to complain about this intolerable nuisance.”
And so the battle of the bells was joined.
If Mr Parkhurst thought he had had the last word on the matter, he was sorely mistaken.
A truce was called over Christmas but two letters were printed the following week - from Crawleyite and An Old Resident - both of whom invited him to effectively like it or lump it.
An Old Resident wrote: “This person in his first letter stated his fellow townsmen were worried by this also. Well, Sir, being one that has been here about six times as many years as Mr Parkhurst I can say personally, as well as for others, that we all should be very pleased to hear the old church peal forth more frequently than now.
Let Mr Parkhurst remember the supposed ‘nuisance’ was not brought to him, but that he came to that; if he doesn’t like it let him return whence he came, which I don’t think was many miles from here, where there are also some lovely bells.”
Crawleyite added: “Mr Parkhurst must have been well aware of Crawley’s reputation for music (?) before coming to the town, and I understand he is an enthusiastic supporter of the band.
What would he say to the fact that many consider the weekly performance of our band (which doubtless gives pleasure to hundreds) a ‘thundering nuisance’. It all depends, of course, on the point of view.
Considering the dreadfully nervous state in which Mr Parkhurst exists one wonders that he does not exercise that right of which I am sure no one would wish to deprive him, namely, of shaking the dust of the place from his feet?”
For a week there was silence and everyone assumed Mr Parkhurst had conceded the battle and was hiding out in The Ancient Priors House with a pillow over his head trying to muffle the sound of the bells.
Not so. The following week, the Courier published his final letter on the subject which read: “Sir: I do not propose to answer the literary efforts of your two correspondents, ‘Crawleyite’ and ‘An Old Resident’.
To reply to persons so talented, so gifted, so mentally endowed, would be a task far beyond the ordinary average intelligence I possess.
The ‘Death Bell’ and all other bells will, I understand, be stopped by order of the Government on and after January 10th and thus end both the nuisance and this correspondence.”
And so, with a little help from the Government, the final, stylishly worded, victory went to Mr Parkhurst. And as the only correspondent who had the guts to put his real name to his words, his victory should be seen as total.
Though you do have to ask why a man so averse to the sound of church bells chose to live within a stone’s throw of a church.