The #historical word origin of ‘Curfew’

As a novelist fascinated by the past, I love it when I come across words that are linked to interesting historical facts. This week I came across a peculiar sort of fire guard called a ‘couvre-feu’ (french – cover fire). A little research revealed that this fire-guard was the origin of the word ‘curfew’ which I have often had to take account of in my seventeenth century novels. The word was also used to describe the time of the extinguishing of  candles and lights. In Middle English it survived as  “curfeu”, which later became the modern “curfew”. Originally, William the Conqueror decreed that all lights and fires should be put out at eight o’clock, but at the moment I am working on a novel based around Pepys’s Diary, and in his day the curfew bell was rung at nine-o’clock.

The bell marked the end of an apprentice’s working day. As they had to be rung manually, and finding someone to do it was often a problem, the apprentices made up this rhyme:

‘Clarke of the Bow belle with the Yellow lockes,
For thy late ringing thy head shall have knockes’

The tolling of the curfew bell continued until Victorian times, when it was believed no longer necessary.

So what is this object, the ‘couvre feu’ ? Well it was a kind of metal dome that covered the embers of the fire when you retired for bed. Its purpose was to prevent a coal from tumbling out so that the fire could remain glowing overnight. The metal dome had a small hole cut in it so that bellows could be inserted in the morning to revive the fire. The one above, from the V&A Museum, is dutch and dated 1627.


In those days curfews and bellows were very common household items as fires were so difficult to start, requiring flint and tinder and a lot of patience!