Bessie to the Rescue

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Here you will find a description of the RVHG, including a brief outline of the activities of the group and details of many of the interesting historical facts associated with this ancient community.

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“Bessie to the Rescue”

The Story of the Repton Steeplejack:

The slender spire of  Saint Wystan’s church has long been admired as a graceful landmark in the Trent Valley. Two hundred years ago it was also the scene of a life-and death drama involving an intrepid steeplejack, Joseph Barton, and his brave 10-year-old daughter, Bessie.

The spire of the parish church was struck by lightning during a violent thunderstorm in 1804, only twenty years after a similar incident, and before the installation of a lightning conductor. The large copper ball surmounted by a cross was dislodged and several layers of stonework were damaged. Joseph Barton, a steeplejack living in Repton, was engaged to carry out the repairs and it took him several weeks to complete this highly skilled work.

In order to reach the top of the 90-feet high steeple, Barton had to first erect a series of his wooden ladders, starting from the tower battlements which are 120 feet above the ground. His own safety depended entirely upon his skill in roping and fastening these ladders securely. At last the repair work was completed and a new copper ball and a cross were put on the top. The vicar, churchwardens and the villagers were all delighted with the finished results.

As well as his ten pounds payment, it was decided that Barton would be presented with a new coat, hat and waistcoat in public appreciation. He was feted by the villagers and treated to many rounds of drinks for his achievements until he became intoxicated, not for the first time. It was then that he boasted that he would ascend the steeple, change into his new clothes at the top, and throw down the old ones to the large crowd which gathered 210 feet below him.

Barton took up his new clothes in a bundle, together with a stout rope to throw upwards from the last ladder to loop over the copper ball so that he could climb atop it. He laughed as he threw down his old hat from the battlements before he began his most daring climb to the top. The rowdy crowd fell silent. Soon he managed to throw the noosed rope over the ball and cross and pulled himself up to the very top. He strung his fine new clothes over the arms of the cross and began to take off his old clothes.

To his horror he could see that the noose had given way and the rope was fast slipping from his reach, cutting off his only means of descent. It dawned on him that it was his own stupid folly which had placed him in this awful predicament. He now panicked and clung to the cross in desperation, praying to his maker in this hour of great need. He prepared to die.

For several minutes the crowd, pale-faced and silent, was paralysed with fear. Next they heard a faint cry coming from Barton, who had sobered up and gathered his wits: “Send for Bessie.” Nobody thought that a 10-year-old girl now could help her father in his desperate plight. Then some of them recalled that she had been seen scaling ladders to take Barton’s meals to him.

Bessie was fetched to the church and coolly began her climb to try and save her father. She took a coil of rope with a strong noose at its top, which she threw up to him from the ladder. The crowd cheered as Barton caught the rope and then fastened it securely under the cross. Without pausing to put on the new clothes which had so nearly cost him his life, Barton followed Bessie safely downwards to the tower and then to the ground. Everybody clapped and cheered at the young girl’s heroism, and Barton embraced his daughter for saving his life.

[This Repton Tale was based on an article in the Nottinghamshire Guardian of July 4th 1903 by Miss Matilda “Tilly” Shaw of Milton Road, Repton, compiler of Tilly Shaw’s Scrapbook]


According to another writer, Joseph Barton, having escaped with his life at Repton Church, was working on nearby Twyford Church a few years later when the scaffolding broke, and he fell from its low spire and was killed.

The late Dr. Harold Taylor, the Anglo-Saxon expert and author of books and articles about Saint Wystan’s, has also climbed its spire and taken photographs from its top. He died in 1995, aged 88, and his obituary in The Times said: “Taylor kept working well into his eighties, having celebrated his eightieth year by climbing the steeplejack’s ladder to the top of Repton’s 200ft spire.”