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St. Peter and St. Paul's Church, Swalcliffe

St. Peter and St. Paul's Church, Swalcliffe

Death in the Belfry: The Swalcliffe Church Tragedy

7 December 2023

In 1885, the belfry at St. Peter & Paul Church, Swalcliffe near Banbury was the scene of one of the strangest deaths in Oxfordshire's history.

Death at Swalcliffe Church

On 28 April 1885, 17-year-old Thomas Phillips visited the church to watch his friend John Green tolling the church bell for a death. After admiring the sound of the bell from below, Thomas Phillips announced that he was going to climb the tower to get a better view of the church's famous one-ton bell in motion.

A few minutes later the bell stopped ringing, and, to his surprise, John Green found that no amount of tugging on the bell rope would induce it to make a sound. Green claimed that he sensed something was badly wrong up in the tower, so rather than going directly up to investigate, he instead ran to fetch his uncle and brother.

St. Peter and St. Paul's Church, Swalcliffe

The entrance to St. Peter and Paul church, Swalcliffe. Credit: Photo: Basher Eyre, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

A scene of horror in the church tower

The trio ascended the tower and discovered a horrifying scene in the belfry. Thomas Phillips was lying below the huge bell, his body pinned to the floor boards, the weight of the bell's mighty clapper resting on his stomach. It took the strength of six men to move the bell so that Phillips's body could be pulled free.

Thomas Phillips was alive and able to speak at this point. He told Green that he had 'slipped' and that he thought that his arms and also his legs were broken.

I went up and found the deceased on his back under the big bell. No one else was there. As soon as I got to him Philip said “Pull me out, please." I came back down the steps and several others were coming up, and I said to them “Come up quiet for Thomas Phillips is nearly dead."

Testimony of John Green

A doctor is called

Thomas Phillips was a pupil of Mr G.H. Hall of Rectory Farm at the time of the accident, and it was to Rectory Farm that Phillips was taken. A surgeon, Mr Richard Laycock Routh of Sibford, was summoned to tend to Phillips injuries, and found that while his arms and legs were not broken, one of the vertebrae in his back was, rendering Phillips completely paralysed. He had also lost a lot of blood from wounds to his head.

Phillips died from his injuries at around 10pm that night.

Swalcliffe church tower

Swalcliffe church tower. Credit: Photo: Mike Faherty, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

How did the accident occur?

Exactly how Phillips had come to 'slip' in such a way as to find himself struck by the bell and wedged under the bell's clapper was subject of much debate. An article in the Bicester Herald on 8 May 1885 speculated that:

... whilst peering into the tolling bell, when mouth uppermost, his foot had slipped and he was precipitated into it, thrown beneath as it assumed a pendant position, and was crushed against a beam.

Bicester Herald, 8 May 1885

Thomas Phillips's funeral took place in his hometown of Bicester on 2 May 1885, and his grave can be found in Bicester cemetery close to the churchyard gate.


  1. Bicester Herald, 1 May 1885
  2. Bicester Herald, 8 May 1885
  3. 'The fatal accident of Thomas Phillips' (www.bicesterhistorynerd.uk)