SCM Volume 24 - Tapsel
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Written and Illustrated by WILLIAM J. ROBERTS


TAPSEL GATES are essentially Sussex, for I know of nothing similar in other counties.

Only six examples are now to be seen, but doubtless there were many more in use when they were first introduced as an ingenious and cheap method of preventing cattle from entering churchyards.

The name of Tapsel is one to conjure with in Sussex and, like many another surname and place-name, has many variants in spelling. These are due, it would seem, to the caprice or illiteracy of parish clerks, sextons and churchwardens, who recorded names in the Church Registers according to the common, local pronunciation.

Thus, the name is spelt Tapsel, Tapsell, Tapsil, Tapsayle, Tapsaille, Topsel, Topsil and otherwise, but all relate to the same family which, in course of time, became widely distributed throughout the County.

The first recorded mention of the family, I believe, is to be found in the Churchwardens' Accounts of the Parish of West Tarring where, under the date, 1577, is the entry:

"Imprimis, paid to Topsayle for casting of the bels [sic] the first payment iiis."

and another:

"Ite Paid to Topsayle in Tarring Street vid."

Thereafter and for many years there are many entries relating to reparation of bells and ropes and for refreshment of labourers.

All are concerned with the Tapsells, father and son, who were among the most noted of Sussex bell-founders--examples of their work are in many Sussex belfries. There is one of especial interest in Ashurst church, near Steyning, where, in the nave, is exhibited a plaster cast of an inscription on one of the hells, still in use, on which the maker has spelt his name Tapsil. This therefore may be the authentic spelling of the family name. Incidentally, with the name is also cast a crude and somewhat comic figure of a man, very like a scarecrow, which may be intended as the bell-founder's personal mark.

Fortunately, as a result of the painstaking research of the late Mr. Edward Sayers, it is possible to state with accuracy where the home and foundry of these folk were situated; these were in Church Lane, Tarring, nearly opposite to the east end of the churchyard.

Having thus established the antiquity of the family I regret to state that, despite much effort I have not been able to fix a date when and by whom the Tapsel gate was invented.

One writer, a dear friend of mine now passed on, was content, when mentioning Roger Tapsell, bell-founder of Tarring, to remark: "He made other things than bells, and it is likely that a peculiar kind of swivel gate, known as Tapsel Gate, is derived from his name." My friend's "it is likely" and "derived from his name" do not, I feel, justify any assumption that Roger was the inventor, nor can I find that he had aught to do with such things, being so busy with his bells. Moreover, as we know, his labours were not confined to his foundry at Tarring, for he and his son often travelled far afield throughout the County to repair old and cracked bells and even to cast new ones in improvised moulds, which he fashioned in holes either in the churchyards or contiguous to them. This must have been an extraordinarily tricky job, entailing the melting of metal, the tuning of the bells, and the transport of many impedimenta such as bedding and cooking utensils for the master and men who often had to camp where they were working.

It is my conjecture, of which I would welcome either factual corroboration or correction, that the Tapsel Gate came into existence in the early part of the eighteenth century and that its inventor was, in all probability, one John Tapsell, a carpenter, who lived at Mountfield in East Sussex, and who, as we learn from the notable and painstaking researches of Mr. W. H. Challen, of Worthing, was married on the 10th June 1753 at the Church of St. Alfege, Greenwich, to Sarah Hammond of that village.

If this John Tapsell was the inventor he must be accounted an ingenious person who sought to displace the five-barred gates in common use, cumbersome in weight and pro


Text Box: Friston
portions, which needed constant repair and adjustment and required a considerable arc of space when being opened or shut.

Such a gate, giving access to a churchyard, might well prove to be a nuisance which the Tapsel could obviate.

It was constructed of light wood, with slender stiles and bars, the only substantial detail in its make-up being the central pin or pivot upon which the nicely balanced gate is made to turn with the lightest touch. The pivot, made of oak or other hard wood, at times reinforced with metal, is firmly fixed in the ground and pierces the centres of the cross-bars through holes made for the pur­pose. These constructional details are seen in the East Dean and Jevington illustrations.

Furthermore, the confines of the gate are so arranged that even when it is swung full-circle, it must come to rest at the fixed "stops" on either side, to which it can be secured by hooks or by spring catches such as are shown in the Friston and East Dean photographs.

The design is particularly useful in barring cattle from the churchyard and yet is so slender that, when only opened half-way, it presents no obstacle to the bearers of a corpse, who may pass on either side without breaking step or shifting their burden.

Whether or not the Tapsel Gate was at one time a common object in our county church yards cannot, at present, be affirmed, nor have I been able to ascertain when or where the first was erected. Perchance some entry or entries may be found in Churchwardens' Accounts which would be helpful; but as yet I have only discovered one reference to the gates in Church records: it is in the General Accounts kept by the church-wardens of St. Pancras at Kingston by Lewes wherein, under the date 1729, is the item:

"Pd for setting up the tapsel gar 1s. 6d" ; a sum which, by the way, is of interest because at that period a master-carpenter charged 1s. 8d. and a bricklayer 1s. 10d. per day for their labours.

Although there are now but six examples remaining of the Tapsel Gate, they are all in excellent condition and functioning as of old.

These are to be found at Coombes, situated midway between Lancing and Bramber, near the west bank of the Adur; at Pyecombe, near Brighton, famous for the Smithy at which the finest shepherd's crooks were fashioned and where, incidentally, many Tapsells lie buried; at Kingston by Lewes, one of the lovely little churches in the Ouse valley; and a cluster of three in the churchyards of Friston, East Dean and Jevington.

Four of these bear proof of their age, but that at Jevington was restored in 1933 (the date is carved on the top rail) and that, at Pyecombe is, all too obviously, a modern form of the old gate it replaced.

Each of these churches is of considerable interest to archaeologists, set in picturesque surroundings, and will amply repay an un­hurried visit. This applies particularly to Coombes, where considerable internal repairs are in progress in the course of which ancient wall-paintings have been discovered.

In conclusion, I would wish to observe that any information which may seem to throw light on the obscure points mentioned in this article will be welcomed and gladly acknowledged by the Editors of the SUSSEX COUNTY MAGAZINE.

From Sussex County Magazine Volume 24 1950 - Page 497

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Updated October 28, 2005