The Newgate Bellman
IT was an ancient practice, on the night preceding the execution of condemned criminals, for the bellman of the parish of St Sepulchre to go under Newgate and, ringing his bell, to repeat the following verses, as a piece of friendly advice to the unhappy wretches under sentence of death:--
"You prisoners that are within, who for wickedness and sin, after many mercies shown you, are now appointed to die tomorrow in the forenoon, give ear and understand that in the morning the greatest bell of St Sepulchre's shall toll for you in form and manner of a passing bell, to the end that all godly people, hearing that bell and knowing that it is for your going to your deaths, may be stirred up heartily to pray to God to bestow His grace upon you while you live. I beseech you for Jesus Christ's sake to keep this night in watching and prayer for the salvation of your own souls, while there is yet time for mercy, as knowing tomorrow you must appear before the judgment seat of your Creator, there to give an account of all things done in this life and to suffer eternal torments for your sins committed against Him, unless upon your hearty and unfeigned repentance you find mercy through the merits, death and passion of your only Mediator and Advocate, Jesus Christ, who now sits at the right hand of God to make intercession for as many of you as penitently return to Him."
The following extract from Stowe's Survey of London, p. 125 of the quarto edition printed in 1618, will prove that the above verses ought to have been repeated by a clergyman instead of a bellman:--
"Robert Dow, Citizen and Merchant Taylor, of London, gave to the parish church of St Sepulchre's, the sum of 50L. That after the several sessions of London, when the prisoners remain in the gaol, as condemned men to death, expecting execution on the morning following; the clerk (that is, the parson) of the church should come in the night time, and likewise early in the morning, to the window of the prison where they lye, and there ringing certain tolls with a hand-bell, appointed for the purpose, he doth afterwards (in most Christian manner) put them in mind of their present condition, and ensuing execution, desiring them to be prepared therefor as they ought to be. When they are in the cart, and brought before the wall of the church, there he standeth ready with the same bell, and after certain tolls rehearseth an appointed prayer, desiring all the people there present to pray for them. The beadle also of Merchant Taylors Hall hath an honest stipend allowed to see that this is duly done."