The father of Eastbourne Bellringing

Before lockdown I visited the bell chamber at St Mary’s Church, Eastbourne and was interested to see an unusual marble memorial for Harry Packham Bennett in the form of a large bell.  Harry was clearly one of the bell-ringers and, as a former railway policeman, I was interested to see that he had lost his life on the railway.

The Bennett memorial at St Mary’s Church

Harry was the son of Henry (a harness maker) and Elizabeth Bennett (nee Bertenshaw) and was born in Cuckfield in 1831. (He was baptised 13th February 1831)

By the age of 20, Harry had moved to Eastbourne and was lodging with a family near Eastbourne Town Hall.  He got a job working as a porter at Eastbourne Railway Station and in February 1854 gave evidence at Lewes Court in the case of Henry Teague who had been charged with theft at the station.

That same year, 1854 he married Mary Ann Wood and they lived at 4b, Railway Cottages, Ashford Square a short walk from his place of work.  Two years later Mary Ann gave birth to their son who was christened ‘Harry’ and in 1859 a daughter Mary Ann, was born. This meant that both father and son were named Harry and both mother and daughter were named Mary Ann!

Ashford Square (left) Home of the Bennett family

The 1861 census shows that the family had moved to Grove Cottage. Harry was still a railway porter and was living in the house with wife Mary Ann,  daughter – Mary Anne  and mother in law (also named Mary Anne!) from Jevington.

The family moved again; the 1871 Census shows them at 10 Station Road and interestingly Harrys son (then 15 years old) had followed his father onto the railway and was working as a  railway goods clerk.

Harrys passion was bell-ringing and he was probably a founder member of the Eastbourne Society of Change-Ringers as he was their vice-chairman. On 26th November 1872 Harry led the ringing of two grandsire triples at St Mary’s Parish church where he took the second bell and was also the conductor.

The bells of St Mary’s Church (with Ian White)

By 1877 Harry had been promoted to Goods Foreman at Eastbourne. He was clearly a conscientious worker. In March 1878 he gave evidence at Eastbourne Police Court in the case of James Potter and Richard Sutton who had stolen horse feed from the railway goods-yard.

In 1879 Harry and other members of the Eastbourne Change Ringers went to ring at St Leonard’s Church in Seaford.  I have often been told that there is a traditional link between bell-ringing and a pint of beer (always after the ringing of course!) This is evidenced by the fact that when the bell-ringing at Seaford was witnessed by Mr Sylvester of the Lamb Inn at Eastbourne, Mr Spencer of the Star Inn at Eastbourne and Mr Goldsmith of the Kings Head at Lewes.

The Ringing Chamber at St Leonard’s Church, Seaford

The 1881 Census shows that Harry was still a railway goods foreman and his daughter, now a dress maker had a 4 year old son, William.

In May 1879 the ringers at St Saviour’s Church presented Harry with a testimonial. (usually a certificate and some cash) he was described as ‘the father of Eastbourne bell-ringers’ and the local paper (The Eastbourne Gazette) reported that he was ‘most energetic in his efforts in teaching the art of change ringing’ and that many local ringers owe it to him for the efficiency that they had obtained. 

The morning of Wednesday 12th August 1891 was wet and Harry was working the early shift. At 6am he gave instructions to shunter Edwin Benham regarding the movement of a goods train which had arrived overnight.  There was no sound other than the clanking of the goods wagons but when the train had moved off, the body of Harry was found on the line.  It appeared to the railwaymen that Harry had decided to take a short cut under the goods train rather than walk around it and when it had started to move he had been caught under it.  His body was taken to the council mortuary just a few yards away from the place of his death.

He was buried at Ocklynge Cemetery and I was keen to try to find it.  I was expecting to look at the faded names of dozens of eroded gravestones until I found the grave – but in the end one thing made it easy to find – the grave of Harry is decorated by a large carved bell!

His grave reads:

In loving memory of

Harry Packham Bennett

For upwards of 41 years in the service of

the L.B.&.S.C. Railway Company

who was accidentally killed

in the execution of his duty as goods foreman

August 12th 1891

In his 61st year.

This stone is erected by

Eastbourne Bell Ringers

As a token of respect for his success in teaching

In the art of change ringing in Eastbourne

Harry’s gravestone at Ocklynge Cemetery

In his will Harry left his estate amounting to £431.10s.9d (the equivalent of about £35,500 in today) to his widow.

When I hear the bells ringing every week just a few yards away from my home I often think that they were the same sounds heard by my ancestors who lived nearby, but now I will also give a thought to Harry and his passion for bell ringing.


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