The Bells of St Bartholomew’s and Serjeant William Bennett Campion, 1882-1907

St Bartholomew’s Church, Clyde Road, Dublin, via Postcards Ireland

Emily Barney, Interior of St Bartholomew’s Church, Clyde Road, via National Gallery of Ireland.

From the Freeman’s Journal, 9 February 1924:


In the first days of a New Year, we find ourselves chatting of joybells. It seldom occurs to the present generation of Dubliners that our local peal of bells has figured in anything but joyous litigation, and in the old Four Courts too. The story is told in the Memoirs of William Bennett Campion, Serjeant-at-Law. Shortly after the erection of the bells of St Bartholomew’s, residents began to complain to the ecclesiastical authorities that the bells pealed at night, and played tunes every three hours, as they do still. The bells did not mind the remonstrances, and Serjeant Campion was consulted. He advised an action, and, strangely enough, immediately afterwards, chancing to drive past when the peal rang out, his horse bolted and galloped along Blackrock [now Merrion] road before it could be checked, narrowly escaping a collision at the corner of Elgin Road. The bells had won the first round.

The Bells Win

The application for an interlocutory injunction was based on six suitably strong affidavits testifying to the annoyance caused by the bells. The Master of the Rolls was against the chimes, and only granted an adjournment for three weeks on an understanding that the bells in the meantime were to stop altogether. The bells lost the second round, but at once rallied their supporters to the tune of forty affidavits firmly denying that ‘any rational person could be disturbed by the peals.’  Some even went so far as to swear that they found the ‘noises’ positive aids to slumber and were quite depressed by their temporary silence.

The bells were leading in the third round, and the memoir most pathetically adds:

‘Mr. Campion found himself completely outsworn. The judge veered round absolutely in favour of the defendants, who won in a canter.’”

A letter to the newspaper by Dr Maurice Neligan, who wanted the bells to stay.
Another letter to the newspaper, this time by the man who had taken the case against the bells, Arthur K Deane, published shortly after losing it.

A rare reference to the potential karma imperiling a barrister who has annoyed someone by the outcome of their advice or pleading! As anyone who has heard their beautiful peals can attest, the bells of St Bartholomew do indeed possess an esoteric power, and this story corroborates it. Perhaps it was fortunate for Serjeant Campion that he did not succeed in the case. 

As it was, the Serjeant, the acknowledged doyen of the 19th century Irish Equity Bar, lived happily on for many years thereafter, passing away at the age of 92 in 1907 after a knee-sprain at his summer residence in Greystones. The Belfast Telegraph of the 1940s recalls him as “a tall gaunt, well remembered figure, who worked on almost to the end in the Law Library, fond of saying in his old age: ‘my father was born 146 years ago.’” 

Brought up in a rectory in Cork, each year the Serjeant’s family visited Dublin, and here on one occasion in the 1820s or 30s the children were sent off in the care of a nursery maid who was so excited by the wonders of the shop windows and the delights of the city that for a time she forgot about her charges and young William was lost. A search, conducted for hours, proved futile until his parents, driving along one of the streets leading to Stephen’s Green, saw a chimney sweep dragging along a boy, obviously a captive. It was the missing William. The man was pursued, and his victim rescued.  According to the Daily Express of 1 February 1912, “[i]n those days it was a not uncommon occurrence for children to be stolen and sold to sweep as the latter found it difficult to find the little slaves they needed to crawl and clean the dark and filthy chimneys.  But for this chance rescue, as stated, the boy’s future might have been vastly different.”

Far from being disillusioned by the metropolis, young William subsequently returned to Dublin at the age of 15 to enter Trinity College. Later, he was to combine his professional practice with a forty-eight year lecturing gig in English Law at Queen’s University, Galway, lasting until his death. In the early years of the 1850s and 60s, his journey to Galway was initially taken in a barge that started from Portobello and took him as far as Mullingar, the remainder of the distance being accompanied by coach – in total two days; continuous travelling!

His obituary in the Freeman’s Journal of 21 September 1907 states that “he took no public part in politics himself, which probably accounts for him never having received what the lawyers call ‘promotion’ and the public call a job.”

A nice write-up of the Memoirs is to be found in the Irish Independent of 15 January 1892, which describes them as

“a brief, but far from uninteresting, record of the life of one of the ‘old school of brilliant Irish lawyers of the 19th century… William Bennett Campion was one who may not have made history, as the saying is, but at the same time it would have been a pity had he passed without the world being able to see the worth and charm of a personality hitherto known only to intimate friends. ‘Simplicity and childlikeness are the traits that one specially recalls of William Bennett Campion.’  Thus writes the author of this memoir, and certainly as one looks at the singularly open and expressive countenance as portrayed in the frontispiece, one realizes that there was a man of a ‘steadfast character which never deviated by a hair’s breadth from the lofty moral principles guiding a strenuous life that extended into the reigns of four different sovereigns’…

Records of the busy life of a successful lawyer are sometimes apt to drag, particularly when there are interspersed records of the case in which they may have happened to appear, but there are few dull pages in this short but exceedingly well-written book. It is those portions that deal with the personal traits and the character of a very charming figure that most interest centers. About the many brilliant lawyers with whom he came into contact during the last century, there is also much that is very readable. The Serjeant lived, indeed, among a race of giants in the law, and it is all the more remarkable to quote, therefore, the following advice – ‘Avoid litigation,’ he would say again and again, ‘remember it is the very last resource.’  

Perhaps the most touching pages in the whole book are those which deal with the close of an active and honourable life.  We cannot do better to finish this brief review than by repeating the closing lines of the book – ‘There amongst the quiet hills he was laid to rest, far from the busy scenes of which he once seemed such an inescapable part. But until the last of those who knew him have also passed away, he will not be forgotten.”

The Newry Reporter of 16 May 1912 records some other good stories from the Serjeant’s memoir, including a father who arranged a match for his daughter with a pig as a dowry, only to repent that the girl was pretty and might find a husband on easier terms, which was unlikely to be the case with his older daughter. ‘There’s Mary, the ould wan’ he said to the other father – they of course, were negotiating the affair – ‘She can have the pig with her and welcome.’ Mary and the bridegroom married and lived happily ever after.

Another story involved an eminent counsel who ‘accepted a brief and did not come near the court. After a while, his clerk wrote to the solicitors suggesting that the fee should be paid. ‘It had been sent, they explained, ‘pinned to the first leaf of the brief.’

Another eminent bishop was famous for his eloquence. Once, when he had been heard with enthusiasm, it turned out that he had come without a discourse and had borrowed one from the rector, who was regarded by his flock as driest of the dry. As an Equity barrister of acknowledged brilliance, Serjeant Campion would have well appreciated how a really good lawyer – or bishop – will know how to make the driest content sparkle!

Author: Ruth Cannon BL

Irish barrister sharing the history of the Four Courts, Dublin, Ireland, and other Irish courts.

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