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19th-century beadle with mace (staff)

A beadle, sometimes spelled "bedel", is an official of a church or synagogue who may usher, keep order, make reports, and assist in religious functions; or a minor official who carries out various civil, educational, or ceremonial duties.

The term has pre-Conquest origins in Old English, deriving from the Old English bydel ("herald, messenger from an authority, preacher"), itself deriving from beodan ("to proclaim", which has a modern descendant in the English verb bid).[1] In Old English it was a title given to an Anglo-Saxon officer who summoned householders to council. It is also known in Medieval Latin as bedellus.

The Domesday Book refers to Beadles as bedelli or under-sheriffs of manors.[2]

In religion[edit]

Mr. Bumble, a beadle in Oliver Twist, by Kyd (Joseph Clayton Clarke)

In England, the word came to refer to a parish constable of the Anglican Church, one often charged with duties of charity. A famous fictional constabulary beadle is Mr. Bumble from Charles Dickens's classic novel Oliver Twist, who oversees the parish workhouse and orphanage of a country town more than 75 miles from London.[3] The work of a real constabulary beadle of Whitechapel in that period may be exemplified by Richard Plunkett.

In the Church of Scotland, the title is used for one who attends the minister during divine service as an assistant.

In Judaism, the term beadle or sexton (in Hebrew: שמש‎, romanizedshammash) is sometimes used for the gabbai, the caretaker or "man of all work", in a synagogue. Moishe the Beadle, the caretaker of a synagogue in Sighet in the 1940s, is an important character in Night by Elie Wiesel.

In education[edit]

In the medieval universities, beadles were students chosen by instructors to act as assistants: carrying books, taking attendance, and assisting in classroom management.

In the collegiate universities in the United Kingdom (for example Cambridge, Oxford, Durham, and the University of London) and in universities in some other countries, the post of Esquire Bedell still exists. The beadle has varying duties, always relating to management or security (but not instruction), and often represents the college to outsiders through wearing a uniform and providing information. The position of Beadle still exists at the King's School, Canterbury, where the beadle's task is making sure that pupils are dressed correctly and arrive at lessons on time.

The Ceremonial Bedellus of Glasgow Caledonian University carrying the University's Ceremonial Mace

In Scotland, the ancient universities, as well as other newer universities, have a ceremonial bedellus, who is also sometimes given the designation of head janitor. Officially, the bedellus is responsible for the administration of the university buildings. The most notable responsibility of the bedellus is carrying the university mace in academic processions.

Jesuit secondary schools formerly maintained the post of beadle—some still do. In each classroom, a student designated as beadle reports attendance to the teacher, acts as messenger, assists in distributing materials, and leads the class in activities.

Other uses[edit]

Outside of religious and educational institutions, the designation of "Beadle" is most often held by officers of secular bodies of some antiquity.

Sometimes the title is used by uniformed security guards. For example, security duties at the Burlington Arcade, an upmarket shopping mall in Piccadilly, London, are carried out by staff called Beadles wearing what appear to be nineteenth century uniforms.[4] Also, Ely Place, a street in central London that was historically part of Cambridgeshire,[5] is patrolled by a beadle, and police cannot enter the street without the beadle's permission.[5] The Company of Cutlers in Hallamshire employs a Beadle to perform ceremonial duties.[6]

City of London[edit]

In the City of London the title is held by two distinct groups; both originated as "executors" or police for more senior persons. The first group are the Ward Beadles,[7] who hold the oldest elected office in the City (as functionaries, not as representatives) in their Wards. Their duties today are largely ceremonial in that they accompany the Aldermen in the eight major ceremonies of the civic calendar and open and close the Wardmotes (the election meetings for members of the City's Courts of Aldermen and Common Council). The second group are paid employees of the Livery Companies of the City. These Beadles are usually assistants to the Company's Clerk, being responsible for attendance on the Court and Master of the Company, originally to enforce its trade policy and uphold discipline (especially among the Company's apprentices) but now to act as Masters of Ceremony at formal banquets and to accompany the Master on civic occasions.[8] The title "Hall Beadle" is sometimes used by the Hall Manager of a Livery Hall responsible for the Company's treasure and the efficient running of the hall, especially if let on a commercial basis.


  1. ^ "Online Etymology Dictionary".
  2. ^ The National Cyclopaedia of Useful Knowledge Vol III, (1846) Charles, Kinght, London, p.26
  3. ^ Charles Dickens, Oliver Twist; or, The Parish Boy's Progress (first book edition, Richard Bentley, London 1838): location, see Chapter VIII.
  4. ^ Burlington Arcade Beadles Archived August 23, 2012, at the Wayback Machine
  5. ^ a b Quinn, Tom (2006). London's Strangest Tales. Portico. pp. 15–16.
  6. ^ "The Company". Retrieved 2019-01-04.
  7. ^ "City of London Ward Beadles – Home Page".
  8. ^ "The Beadles of London".
  • This article incorporates text from The Modern World Encyclopædia: Illustrated (1935); out of UK copyright as of 2005.