Minster bells have been ringing the changes for four centuries

Church bells rang out yesterday to mark the death of the Duke of Edinburgh, and they will surely toll again during the coming week of mourning. Here DAVID MORGAN peals away at the history of a Croydon tradition that goes back more than 200 years

The Levens gravestone, still to be seen on the south side of Croydon Minster

Situated on the south side of Croydon Minster is a Georgian era gravestone.

Although well worn, the first part of the inscription on the memorial is still legible.

“In memory of Rachel Levens, husband Richard Levens, who died December 20th 1744 aged 65”.

Richard Levens died on September 16, 1748, aged 77 and he, too, was buried in the graveyard of what was known until the 21st Century as the Croydon Parish Church.

This couple are the only two named members of the Levens family I have found to be buried in Croydon. Richard Levens’s will is now in the National Archive. In it, he described himself as an innholder. He left bequests to a daughter, Elizabeth Cooper, and to five sons, William, Thomas, Job, Allingham and Joseph.

Four of the sons, together with Elizabeth, were left the sum of exactly one shilling. Joseph was left “all his goods and chattels, ready money, securities for money” and all other bits of “personal estate”. Allingham was left “wearing apparel”, plus the shilling. Joseph was appointed sole executor of the will.

This seems to be a very strange will.

Why were four of the children left just a shilling? Was there a big family falling out? Why was Joseph left all the remainder of the money? And why are there no in-laws named, when Richard Levens’ offspring appear in the church records as marrying and having children of their own?

Sadly, any answers about these questions can only be speculation, so we must turn to other sources.

The tablet that celebrated the impressive bellringing feat of 1734, according to Cooper’s book

A publication written in the early 1950s by James E Cooper entitled Bellringers and Bellringing, concerning the Ancient Society of Croydon Ringers provides background to the Levens family. The book in question can be found by looking in the Bellringers section of the Croydon Minster website.

Quoting a tablet that used to hang on the eastern wall of the ringing chamber before the disastrous church fire of 1867, Cooper informs us about several members of the Levens family. The tablet he referred to was a tribute to a special peal of bells that was rung on January 17, 1734, by the Society of Croydon Youths.

Of the nine bellringers on that day, three were members of the Levens family. Richard rang the treble bell, Joseph the No7 bell with Allin Levens sharing the duties on the heaviest bell, the Tenor, with William Norman.

Presumably, Joseph and Allin, are Richard’s sons, matching names from his will.

Joseph was the lead ringer and conductor of this marathon effort which lasted, we are told, exactly three hours and 12 minutes. There are two Thomas Levens names on the plaque. One was the ringer of the treble bell, the other was the Parish clerk. It seems probable that they were the same person doing both roles.

Cooper is very clear in his writing that Joseph, the Master of the Croydon Youths Bellringers and his older brother Richard are key figures in that group. He states that Richard, who was also the Parish clerk, died in 1746 and was succeeded both in the office of Parish clerk and in the belfry by his son who was also called Richard.

Joseph, says Cooper, died two years after the famous 1734 peal, a victim of “Croydon Fever”, the local name for an outbreak of typhoid.

This poses a conundrum, as Richard Levens’ will was proved in 1748 and his son Joseph who was the executor was alive then to carry out his administrative duty. The second difficulty in clarifying the exact details of the bellringers named by Cooper is that Joseph didn’t appear to have a brother Richard; certainly, there was no reference to him in the will. Three of the other siblings in the will can be traced, however.

There’s a tradition for bellringing in Croydon going back more than 200 years

Job Levens became a shoemaker.

His will, proved in 1778, showed that he lived in Dulwich but was “late of Croydon”. He had a wife Sarah and a son James who are both named in the document. Two other brothers named in Richard’s will ended up in Dulwich, too.

William, who became a carpenter, had his will proved in August 1772. In it, he gives a generous bequest to his brother Allingham, with William’s daughters Elizabeth and Sarah also well provided for.

The next portion of the tale reads almost like a script from Have I Got News For You, when the teams have to find the missing word or phrase from a passage in a guest publication.

In this case, the guest publication is The Church Bells Magazine.

In an archived copy from 1872 we read:

“Mr John Holt of London discovered a method of ringing ………………………….. which had hitherto been looked upon as impossible.”

The correct missing answer was “bell changes”.

The editor informed his loyal band of readers of Mr Holt’s publication issued back in 1753 about change ringing. Among the list of subscribers to this pamphlet was Mr Joseph Levens, Croydon.

And this is the chart of the bell changes needed for a bob triple

Joseph must have been keen that the Croydon Ringers were at the forefront of new techniques. The magazine also recalls significant bellringing events all over the country. A peal of Bob Major was rung at Croydon on January 22, 1782. The list of ringers on that day included Thomas Levens on the No7 bell, as well as noting that he was also the Parish clerk.

An obituary published in The Gentleman’s Magazine in 1804 helps us further in building a picture of the Levens’ influence on Croydon life.

Thomas Levens died on November 15, 1804. The obituary went on to say that for many years he was the Parish clerk for Croydon. He was also a barber, and a publican, “keeping the White Horse on Dubbin Hill, near the church”, what is known as Duppas Hill today.

Thomas Levens provided music for dinners, balls and other occasions, and he taught psalmody, as well as the flute, violin, bassoon and French horn.

He was for many years one of the wardens at the Royal Mecklenburg Freemason’s Lodge at Croydon. “He was a thorough good man, well respected and left a large family.”

This, one assumes, was Cooper’s source of evidence when he wrote that Thomas was skilled at the flute and that you could imagine him leading the singing in church before the installation of the grand Avery organ in 1794.

One of the roles of the Parish clerk back in those days was singing psalms as well as reading the lessons. Cooper adds that Thomas, like his father, was buried in the churchyard near the south porch, but no record could be found and no memorial stone remains.

I wonder whether Richard Levens with whom we started the tale and who described himself as an “innholder”, was the publican of the same White Horse Inn, which just transferred through the Levens family?

From a Levens’ gravestone dated 1744 to the obituary in 1804, there were 60 years of the family’s solid footprint in Croydon. Not all the historical and genealogical loose ends are tied up yet though. There are still many questions to be answered.

In 2019, Jo Brand joined the current crop of bellringers at Croydon Minster for a Channel 5 programme

Was there a Richard Levens who was left out of the father’s will or was there another branch of the family? It seems very probable that the latter is the case.

National Archive wills inform us that there was a branch of the Levens family living in Addington. We know, also, that there were Levenses living in Dulwich. There was also a will of a Thomas Levens who died in Croydon in 1805, with a wife Mary, a son Richard and a debt from a William Taylor of £24 to be collected.

The musical and bellringing life of Croydon Parish Church was certainly enriched by the Levens family’s presence. Joseph’s leading of the ringers resulted in that landmark achievement of 1734 when the first 5,000 change was achieved here. Thomas with his musical gifts would have entertained and uplifted many a spirit.

Bellringing at Croydon was elevated in its mathematical artistry in a significant way during this 60-year period.

A poem printed in the Church Bells Magazine of 1872 began thus:

Those Croydon bells, those Croydon bells
How many a tale their music tells.
Of peals attempted, left undone
A sweeter tale to tell, my lines shall run.

The Levens family had a big part to play in the life of those bells.

Read more: Wool, perriwigs and rotten boroughs: the Gorgeous Georgians
Read more: The Miller’s tale of Mendelssohn’s visit and a lifetime of music


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1 Response to Minster bells have been ringing the changes for four centuries

  1. Michelle says:

    Thank you – these snippets of Croydon history are always so interesting

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