Bells have rung from St Paul’s since 1867, for moments of both celebration and mourning. The three bells installed in the church rang out Wellington’s first peal on 31 March 1867, and were New Zealand’s first full-circle ringing peal in the English style, meaning the first to have bells that tumble over in a full circle, making a beautiful diatonic sound.
St Paul’s c1867, when the bells were just installed, with Thatcher’s ingenious bell tower on the left, which also acts as the main entrance to the church.
The original bells were bought for £148 in 1866 from John Warner and Son, London, and installed in the church shortly after it opened. They were inscribed with various verses from psalms, and the date 1866 for the year they were made, and with a ‘By Royal Appointment’ coat of arms, as seen in the image above. The texts on the three bells were:
‘My tongue shall sing aloud of thy righteousness’
‘Their sound is gone out into all the lands and their words unto the end of the world’
‘In the evening and in the morning and at noonday I will pray’
The bells first rang on 31 March 1867. A Wellington Independent reporter wrote
‘On Sunday morning the ears of the inhabitants of Wellington were gratified by the unaccustomed sound arising from the ringing of a peal of church bells … although but a small one, is a great improvement upon the single bells hitherto used in our places of worship and arouses pleasant reminiscences of the old country.’
In these years people were still tied to the ‘old country’ and would not have heard multiple bells rung since coming to New Zealand. The sound of the bells would have been very emotional for some:
A poem was even published in the newspaper for the occasion, which you can read here.
The bells rang for some noted moments, including in November 1894 for the loss of 121 lives when the Wairarapa sunk: a ‘muffled peal was rung … and appropriate hymns and music were rendered’, and in June 1897 for Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee ‘after all the services joy bells were rung’. For funerals a muffled peal would have been rung.
As architect Peter Sheppard was written, three bells is inadequate for proper English change-ringing ‘but in all other respects this original ring was of high quality, properly hung in accordance with the best English tradition. The timber tower of St Paul’s had some structural weaknesses as a bell-tower but Thatcher’s unconventional layout using the entrance foyer as a ringing-chamber was ingenious. It produced the interesting and well-proportioned external expression while being economical of space.’
In 1868 the architect Toxward organised for the strengthening of the tower with braces. Contemporary records show that sometimes only one bell was rung, sometimes all three; there is even a rumour that the verger Robert Aldred could ring all three at the same time, one with his foot. Unfortunately, the bells did not ring properly together for very long. At some point the carefully designed change-ringing mechanism in the tower, which Sheppard wrote was ‘small but beautifully made’, had been broken, and it seems that by 1916 the bells were no longer rung in full circles as it was believed that the tower couldn’t support it.
Then sometime in the 1940s one of the three bells, the tenor bell, cracked – probably because they couldn’t be tumbled as they were intended. The cracked bell was sent for repair to William Cables, a Wellington engineering firm, and then then forgotten about.
In October 1958 Shaw, Savill and Albion, a New Zealand shipping company, gifted an old bell to mark their centenary. It was said at the time that it had been used on one of their old sailing ships during early colonial New Zealand, so was possibly already quite old by the time it was donated. It was dedicated on the Trafalgar Day service on 19 October 1958, to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Wellington Anglican diocese. This bell is still in the church, but is rung only occasionally for visitors.
The two remaining 1867 bells
The two remaining original bells remained in Old St Paul’s until the last Sunday service in April 1964. They were then moved to the new Cathedral of St Paul in Molesworth Street, in time for the opening of the new cathedral. (Later, they appear to have been melted down in the United Kingdom, to become part of the new bells for the cathedral). Therefore, when the government took over the church and handed the restoration project to architect Peter Sheppard, all he found was the broken change-ringing mechanism; after much study he uncovered how to restore the mechanism.
The Lost Bell – lost twice
So what happened to the original bell that was forgotten about? It was actually lost twice, which actually in the long-run saved it, as it meant it was not taken to the new cathedral and later melted down. The first time it was lost for perhaps two decades, until in the late 1960s, and then it was only found by luck. The husband of a staff member of the Historic Places Trust went to the engineering firm Cables to find an old piece of railway sleeper for a Mahler symphony, as he was the concert manager of the National Orchestra at the time. A Cable’s employee showed him the bell that they had been storing for all those years. It is clearly the Old St Paul’s bell as it has the psalm inscription and the date “1866” in the metal.
The bell was then lost from sight again – it was sent to a school in the Wairarapa, and then came back over the Rimutakas when it was given by the school to St Barnabas Khandallah. That parish paid for it to be repaired, and for some time it hung up on the lychgate and was chimed for church purposes; a large piece of the rim was broken off at this time. (Given that the bell weighs 240kg it is certainly fortunate it didn’t fall on anyone’s head while they were walking through the lychgate.) It was found there in 1990 by bellringer Terry Barrett, and in 1997 was retrieved by the Friends of Old St Paul’s, which funded its repair by a conservation expert.
Since 2002 it has been on display at the wonderful Wellington Museum, on long-term loan, in an exhibition about the history of Wellington in the 20th century. It would certainly be a good thing for it to return to the church at some point.
Today the church has a new set of changing-ringing bells, which you can read about here.
Sources: Terry Barrett, ‘The History of the Bells at Old St Paul’s’, 2004; W T Lack, Changeringing bells and bellringers, 1978; Wairarapa Times, 6 April 1867, Dominion; Wellington Independent; Patrick Lawlor, File Ref: 80-063-076, Alexander Turnbull Library; Dallas Moore, Old St Pauls: Tower and Bells chapter; Peter Shepphard, Old St Paul’s Bells, 1979 Images: Bells, Elizabeth Cox; St Paul’s Church, Mulgrave Street, Wellington. Ref: 1/2-021154-F. Alexander Turnbull Library, http://natlib.govt.nz/records/22400259;