Sunday 13 August 2017

That "Beastly Clang, Clang, Clang" - Some Entertaining Vignettes on Bells

The Dunedin "Town Bell"
in daily use until it fractured in
tragic circumstances in July 1863
[From my own Collection]

I have, over the last couple of years, been researching bells and have unearthed some wonderful and quite entertaining if not hilarious references, being not just of the ecclesiastical kind, which I thought well worth relating. I find it quite surprising how the subject - or sound - of bells could have engendered such public outpourings of displeasure and fervent dislike. This distaste of bells truly appears almost akin to how some still react when hearing the spine-tingling and emotive skirl of the bagpipes. 

What, I wonder, would the majority of these complainants have made of the very loud but melodic and evocative change ringing cacophony of Sunday morning bells in the Altstadt of the German city of Dresden as the Catholic Hofkirche and Lutheran Frauenkirche bells each attempt to loudly drown out the other? But I for one certainly enjoyed it, purchasing a somewhat expensive souvenir CD of the Frauenkirche bells. This was, I might add, considerably louder than the change ringing of the First Church of Otago carillon bells in Dunedin (there is a video of these bells at the bottom of this page). I do hope you will enjoy these fascinating 'vignettes' concerning bells as much as I have.

An interesting early use of bells in Dunedin is something that I had previously been unaware of, being virtually that of a 'Town Crier';

"In the days of the good old Town Board of Dunedin, that august body had the privilege of licensing criers, by means of their bells, to announce the glad tidings of auction sales and public meetings to the delighted inhabitants. It was then a regular and lucrative occupation, and honourable office for which there were more applicants than would be licences. This mode of giving public information was, like the proclamation of marriage bans [sic] in the church on Sundays, voted a bore, and was accordingly put down."

With two rival ringers "resolving to ring each other out" and no doubt creating a public nuisance, William Mason, the first City Mayor, outlawed this practice in 1865. But according to a correspondent from 1882 they were still permitted "to blow trumpets". I wonder if this bye-law has ever been removed??? In June 1875 the Lawrence Town Council also followed suit but going one step further, passing a bye-law prohibiting the use of bells including other musical instruments;

"49th,- Any person ringing a bell or bells, or blowing any trumpet or horn, or beating any drum, tambourine, or gong in any street or public place within the Town of Lawrence, for the purpose of crying or calling any matter or thing whatever."

Until 1863 the Dunedin Town Bell on "Bell Hill" would be rung at  "the usual hours of eight, twelve, one, and five o'clock." to alert the townspeople to the correct time. On the 7th July 1863 the bell, perhaps itself being overcome with heavy emotion, fractured whilst being mournfully tolled as the nine bodies of the Campbell family and their two servants from the 'Pride of the Yarra' steamboat tragedy were being brought up the harbour to Dunedin, only adding more misery to this melancholy day. You can read my Blog on the early history of timekeeping in Dunedin, which includes the history of this bell, HERE.

But from August 1863 the Town Board of Invercargill, and on the motion of Mr Garthwaite, decided they would have their own Town Bell. Judging by the 'strong' wording of the report they may have needed it;

"Early rising is to be henceforth inculcated upon the inhabitants of Invercargill, through the medium of the Town Bell, which will be violently rung every morning precisely at a quarter to eight."

Little did the good residents of Invercargill know that just over 100 years later they would have an even earlier 'wake up call' in the form of the noisy early morning departure low over the city of a Dunedin bound NAC Boeing 737-200 jet airliner, becoming known as "Invercargill's alarm clock". But even this rude awakening has now passed into history.

And we must spare a thought for the unfortunate bellringer in Invercargill who, in October 1864, went round loudly ringing his bell as an invitation for the townspeople to assemble at the grand terminus of 'The Great Northern Railway' to witness and cheer on the departure of the very first official train from the station on their new (and soon to be infamous) 'wooden railway'. But instead of being met with excited anticipation the unfortunate bellringer met with "groans and boos and other vocal indications of disapproval". The reason for their vocal displeasure was that the general public had been totally excluded from the two opening excursions, a "splendid luncheon", and the evening ball at the station. The disgruntled townspeople went on to organise their own apparently very successful "do" in a local theatre, complete with a brass band. I wonder if the hapless bellringer dared attend?

Church bells have also engendered some strong emotions. The English essayist and poet Charles Lamb (1775-1834) wrote that; "The cheerful Sabbath bells, wherever heard, Strike pleasant on the sense, most like the voice Of one, who from the far-off hills proclaims Tidings of good to Zion". But for others the sound of the church bell was more like purgatory, causing an outpouring of emotion bordering almost on the point of absurdity.

But thankfully there is only one reference to someone actually stealing a church bell. The "Waikouaiti Herald" reported in 1869 that a practical joker had stolen a Church bell in the town, but moreover carrying out the theft, "while the people were engaged at prayers". Or did the brazen thief just desire a lie in on a Sunday morning? I certainly suspect others had at least entertained such thoughts.

And from "The Bruce Herald" of March 1874 what could be worse than a squeaky Church bell? And I daresay if the office-bearers had not provided the necessary funds the Minister, The Rev. Mr John McAra, would quickly have done so himself after reading this particular report;

"Is there no fund out of which the office-bearers of the Balclutha Presbyterian Church could devote a sum sufficient to purchase a bottle of oil, with which to oil the bearings of the church bell. On board a ship, when a block makes a similar noise from a like cause, it is said to be cursing the boatswain. We should be sorry to hear of the church bell that it was cursing the parson."

But the mere sound of church bells was too much for "Churchman" who wrote to the Editor of the "Mount Ida Chronicle" in June 1881;

"Religious Humbug : Sir, I wish to enter my protest against the nuisance caused by the ringing every morning of the Episcopal [Anglican] Church bell [at Naseby]. I don't mind these things at proper seasons, but I do object to the useless clanging of the bell at 8 a.m. every work-day. Nobody goes to the church but the parson [The Rev Mr Hobbs], I should think, for men can't afford to lose time, when they should be at work, for the purpose, and, if he is so anxious to let people know how good he is, I think he might take some less irritating way to do it... The bell-ringing... is a public nuisance..."

Next to vent his wrath is "T.M. Smith" writing to "The Otago Daily Times" on the 24th April 1882;

"Talking of desecration, let anyone listen to those horrible bells on Sunday - that they call tolling people to the house of God : a more infamous din could not be invented. If they call themselves keepers of the Sabbath let them keep it quiet."

"T.M.S., replying on the 5th May 1882, writes to also alert the public to the injurious effect of bells on the public health;

"Bells are like bag pipe music - all right a good way off... Many serious objections might be urged to bells, but the one I chiefly urge is the injurious effect they have on the weak, the nervous, and the dying. All medical authorities agree on this. The bell that used to be rung over our very own Hospital was discontinued on this very account, and I fail to see that what was considered injurious to the inmates of a public institution should not be considered so to the public."

On the 10th May 1882 the "The Otago Daily Times" itself now felt obliged to add weight to the argument against church bells by re-printing an article from the "Timaru Herald";

"In the means used to invite the attendance of the public on Sundays there are great possibilities of improvement. Whether the bell is a bad one, or is badly hung, or is badly rung, we cannot say, but more horrid and irritating sounds than those that issue from it, it would be difficult to imagine. A good deal of sentiment often attaches itself to church bells, but not to bells of this kind. To hear the bell of the Presbyterian Church is to have aroused in one feelings of hatred and malice and all uncharitableness in the highest possible degree. The bell is not at all in keeping with the rest of the church property."

We next find "Peaceful Citizen" writing to 'The Otago Daily Times' in March 1885;

"Sir, - Can you inform me through your paper if the ringing of the Knox Church bell is left at the option of the ringer, and if so, if there is any power in Dunedin to make him hold his peace? I live close to the church, and dread every Sunday coming, for the horrid clanging of the church bell causes much strong language to issue from me on the man who rings the bell. First he begins as if some divine was about to be interred in his narrow bed, clanging in a solemn, mournful tone, which gradually increases until you would think the church itself was on fire; then suddenly stops, and finally gives two or three last peals intimating that the ringer has not yet begun his prayers. If it is necessary to have a bell rung before church, let it be so as not to spoil the appetite for Sunday's dinner, which is of far more importance that church to yours, &c."

Writing to "The Otago Daily Times" in October 1898, one disgruntled citizen makes an equally impassioned plea, but with at least a measure of grace in that he indicates that he would be happy with something more melodic.

"Dear Civis, - What is your opinion re ringing church bells? Nothing worries my nerves so much as the beastly clang, clang, clang. And as this is the only relic of ancient custom, when no one had watches or clocks the bell of a village was rung to call worshippers to church. But now everyone can raise at least a Waterbury [cheap American pocket watch], consequently this abominable nuisance should be put down. I can appreciate a peal of bells, but just listen to the horrid row of, say, Knox or St. Matthew's on a still Sabbath morn. Ugh! One would think some urchin was striking an old pot with a poker.

This writer has neither syntax nor sentiment; I question whether he has even a grievance. he has 'nerves', he says; but that is nothing peculiar. Most people have nerves; yet it never occurs to them to wish silenced ' the sound of the church-going bell.' It isn't fewer bells we want, but more and more musical. Our leading Presbyterian congregations have each set up an organ; which of them will first set up a chime?"

The desire for "a peal of bells" was raised again by the Editor of "The Otago Daily Times" on the 10th March 1900;

"We have in Dunedin two church steeples more graceful than the 'star pointing pyramid' if less lofty - First Church and Knox... Yet never a peal of bells have we, though steeples imply bells as the cassock implies the priest. The one without the other is an impiety. In Gothic architecture the steeple is what the campanile is in Italian - a bell tower, without more nor less. A church steeple that has no bells stands self-condemned, therefore as a mere simulacrum, and sacrilegious at that. It is not enough to hang up a utilitarian church-going bell, with lamentable note to call the faithful to prayers.

Steeples so sprightly as those of First Church and Knox postulate the melody of a chime. Without a peal of bells how are we to celebrate fitly a victory, a fashionable wedding, a birth at the manse? On Ladysmith Day our chief instrument wherewith to make a joyful noise was the Town Hall fire-alarm. Along with it jangled in cheerful dissonance half a dozen cacophonous school bells. Their joint effect was the music of an iron foundry; in dignity it barely surpassed a kerosine tin serenade at a wedding. No community above the level of barbarism can respect itself on such terms as these.

I propose therefore, and demand that we establish in Dunedin a peal of bells, and that we have it ready for the approaching capture of Pretoria.. The duty of executing this great public work I assign with confidence to the First Church... "

The writer would have needed to wait another 75 years before the melodious peal of Whitechapel bells emanated from the First Church of Otago bell tower;

"Tunes can be played on the 12 bells from the clavier. Eight of the bells are hung for traditional change ringing by members of the Society of Change-ringers. The bells are regularly heard before the 10am Sunday services and at other times. It is understood that outside Britain this is the only Presbyterian Church in the world to have change ringing."

With some foresight, 'The Southland Times' of the 25th May 1881 reports on the Primitive Methodist Church in Don street in Invercargill as being the "happy possessors" of  the only Church bell worthy of the name in those parts with "its sonorous tones being in marked contrast to the thin tintinnabulations [ringing] of its weaker brethren." The writer states that; "it would be a matter for regret to allow these 'ancient' and venerable bells to find their way to the melting pot, for a day will come when they would be looked upon with some curiosity by the Invercargillites of the future."

And all things come to pass. In 1989 Invercargill would resurrect their precious town clock and chiming bells which had been in storage since 1943. These are indeed now 'looked upon with some curiosity by the Invercargillites of the present'.

Finally, as mentioned above, here is the UTube video of 'change ringing' in the First Church of Otago (Presbyterian) in Dunedin. You will see the actual bell ringers' in the bell tower part way through the video. The eight Whitechapel bells date from 1975 but the Gothic style church, the masterful work of Architect Robert A Lawson, dates from 1873.

Copyright : This blog may not be reproduced without my specific written permission. Excerpts may however be quoted for non-commercial use provided this site is acknowledged.

Sources :

- Papers Past [National Library of New Zealand / Te Puna Mātauranga o Aotearoa]
- "Southland's Pioneer Railways" by J.O.P Watt (From my own collection)