Pope Sabinian formally introduced bells to the Catholic Church around 605 AD, ordering the bells rung for each hour of the day to announce times for singing and praying.
Since then, the Church has been home to many great bells, of which St Patrick's has eight.
John Murphy was a Coppersmith from Dublin who, in 1843, branched-out into bell founding. He cast a bell for the Roman Catholic church in Tuam in County Galway. In the years that followed Murphy cast many single bells and at least eight rings of bells.
Many of Murphy’s bells were thinner in profile than bells cast by other founders and intended for ringing, but that did not prevent Murphy bells being awarded prizes at the Dublin and London Exhibitions and First Prize in 1900 at the Paris Exhibition.
When Archbishop Goold visited Europe in 1851-1852, he purchased a peal of eight bells for £500, cast by Murphy’s Bell Foundry in Dublin. The bells went on display at the Crystal Palace in London, at the Great Exhibition of 1851. Originally intended for St Francis Church, they arrived in Australia in the ship Lorina in February 1853.
The peal of eight is in the key of F natural and the tenor weighs approximately 700 kilograms and the whole peal weighs 3556 kilograms.
Fr Geoghegan of St Francis’ Church reported that the Bishop had brought eight fine-toned bells with him for which a magnificent tower would speedily be erected. This however was not to be the case. The bells sat in the porch of St Francis’ for many years.
The very existence of a full peal of eight cathedral bells in St Patrick's is noteworthy since few Catholic Church buildings in England had any bells. Since the disbanding of English monasteries in the 16th Century, Catholic churches were not allowed to announce their presence with bells. The Act of Uniformity (1559 AD) meant any outward observance of the Roman Catholic faith was illegal in England.
During the 1800s, when these laws were relaxed, very few Catholic churches acquired bells. Fewer still had full peals, with most churches directing their funds towards schools and missions, regarding bells as an unnecessary luxury. This is still the attitude in many parishes and unless a bequest is left specifically for bells it is unlikely that a church will look into acquiring a peal.
However in early Australia, no laws restricted Catholic churches from having bells and a few acquired a peal, although most settled for a single heavier bell, usually ordered from Murphy's Bell Foundry of Dublin.
The eight bells were finally hung in St Patrick’s, at first in a low frame at ground level in the western aisle. They were tested during the week of October 1868, and pronounced to be of ’very sweet tone.’ They were consecrated at 11am, on Sunday 29 November, 1868, in the presence of about five thousand people.
After Mass, Bishop Goold had the bells arranged before the faithful of Melbourne. The bells were covered with green branches and flowers. The ritual of the blessing of the bells entailed circling each of the eight bells twice, once with holy water, once with incense. Each bell was then anointed with chrism, the oil of consecration to God’s service. In Latin, he dedicated each in honour of its heavenly patron. The ceremony is based on that of baptism and distinguished citizens may serve as godparents. Mozart’s Twelfth Mass was performed by the choir of St Francis’ assisted by well known Melbourne musicians. Admission was by ticket.
The eight bells are dedicated to:
- Omnes Sancti Dei, ora pro nobis, (All ye Saints of God, pray for us.) Approx weight 2 cwt. 1 qtr.
- Sacre Cordi Mariae Dedicata (Dedicated to the Immaculate Heart of Mary) Approx Weight 3 cwt
- Cor Legem Continens (Heart containing the law (Sacred Heart)) Approx weight 4 cwt. 1 qtr.
- Sancte Patriti, ora pro nobis (St Patrick pray for us) Approx weight 5 cwt
- Sancto Francisco Xaviero Indiarum Apostolo Dedicata (Dedicated to St Francis Xavier , Apostle of the Indies) Approx weight 6 cwt.
- Omnes Sancti Dei, orate pro nobis (All ye saints of God pray for us. (All Saints)) Approx 7cwt. 1 qtr. This bell bears the coat of arms of the Franciscan Order, in honour of Fr Geoghan, the first Catholic priest to come to Melbourne in 1839.
- Mater purissima, ora pro nobis (Mother most pure, pray for us) Approx 10 cwt.
- Sacrosanctae et Individuae Trinitate sempiterna laus et gloria ad domini creatura per infinita saecula saeculorum. (To the most holy and undivided Trinity be everlasting praise and glory from every creature for endless ages.) 42 inch Diameter approx.14cwt. This bell displays Bishop Goold’s coat of arms .
Tunes were chimed on the bells in their low frame until they were eventually hung in the stumpy south-eastern tower. On 20 March, 1869, the cathedral advertised that: ’Eight Practical Bellringers are required for Ringing the Bells at St Patrick’s Cathedral. Specification and instructions may be obtained on application to the Clerk at the Cathedral Vestry.’
On 22 January, 1870 the following notice was published:
Eight members of the congregation have been practicing the ringing of the bells for several months past, under the instruction of a Mr. Murray who was employed in the foundries establishment in Dublin for some time, and the full band of eight members whom he has initiated into the ancient art now toll the bells musically, and produce a fine volume of sound, which on some occasions, as we have been told, is heard on the hills surrounding pretty Heidelberg.
The ringers of St Patrick’s began the custom of ringing in the New Year in 1871. Sometimes they rang with the St James’ ringers who only had six bells. In the late 1870s the members were: John Murray, E. Nolan, J. Nolan, J. Hugo, J. Sheehan, W. Shenton, J. Murray, D. Summerville, W. Coppock, J. Hoyle and J. Hanks. They also had visitors. The Ballarat ringers came one Easter Monday and were the first to ring Grandsire Triples on the bells.
According to Mr Shenton they ’floundered’ through a plain course.
By the 1880s, St Patrick’s Cathedral had become the leading tower for Australian change ringing. With John Guest’s arrival in 1882, the team practiced Grandsire Triples, and later Stedman Triples.
The bell ringers used to meet at Mr Guest’s home in Hanover Street where they would practice on handbells, ringing one each.
St Patrick's Cathedral was the only eight bell tower until 1885 when St James’ added their two trebles. Mr Shenton, who recorded most of this early ringing in his diaries, tells us that the touch of over a thousand changes was of Grandsire Triples and rung on 23 September, 1883, by Messrs Crang, Nolan, Guest, Hoyle, Clarke, Shenton, Murray and Freeman.
St Patrick’s Cathedral was consecrated on 27 October, 1897. The Leader described the occasion:
The ceremony, which lasted two and a half hours, started with a procession from the archiepiscopal palace where the prelates had vested, through the well-kept grounds to the cathedral, one portion reaching it by the entrance nearest to the palace and the other by the main entrance. Its arrival was signalled by a burst of music from the choir, which sang Ecce Sacerdos in Latin. The pageant was impressive in the extreme by reason of the brilliancy of the vestments worn and the representative and exalted capacity of the wearers The ringers wanted to match the grandeur of the occasion with some notable ringing. At 9.45 am they attempted a quarter peal of Stedman Triples. In the afternoon a start was made for T. Thurstans’ peal of Stedman Triples (5040 changes), the first time this had been attempted in Australia. It was unfortunate that after ringing for 1 hour 39 minutes two bells crossed and the attempt failed. Ringers who took part were: F. Whiteside 1, E. O’Shea 2, J. P. Nolan 3, E. Bryning 4, J. C. Nolan 5, M. O’Shea 6, A. Bames 7, J. Sheehan 8. The conductor was J. C. Nolan.
On the wall of the ringing chamber of St Patrick’s are some old photos and plaques which record something of the history of the society. A fading picture records the first touch of Stedman Doubles rung in Australia on July 10, 1893. Other plaques commemorate foundation members.
When Pope Pius X died in 1914, St Patrick’s bells rang for his Requiem Mass. No-one was to know at this stage that a Melbourne church dedicated to this Pope was later to have its own peal of ringing bells.
By 1959, the belfry was in an appalling state and the bells were becoming unringable. The bells remained silent until they were selected as the major Victorian project among the Bicententennial bell restorations. Starting in March 1988, the bells were sent to Eayre and Smith Bell foundry in Melbourne, Derbyshire, England.
The crowns were removed from the bells, the bells were mounted by single crown staples to cast iron headstocks. The wooden bell frame was replaced by a galvanised iron frame, which affords a more rigid structure and facilitates easier ringing. The bells were re-hung in their original anti-clockwise pattern and they were not tuned to maintain their own historical integrity.
The bells returned to Melbourne in November 1988 and were displayed in the Cathedral until they could be re-hung.
An Angelus bell was donated at this time by Mr. Edward Ochylski of the USA. He reported to me that he visited the Cathedral and asked of the then Dean, Fr Fred Chamberlain if he could make a donation. The Dean suggested that he could donate a bell. Plaques behind the alter commemorate Mr. Ochylski’s parents.
An electronic chiming mechanism was installed at this time for the eight bells and for the Angelus bell, the ninth bell. However, the original manual method was retained and the beauty of method ringing by bell ringers continues to this day.
More recent changes to the bell tower include a replacement for the electronic chiming mechanism which tolls the Angelus bell on the hour or the Angelus toll at 12 noon and 6pm. It used to toll for 6am, however, this was a little early for some of the Cathedral residents.
The new controls also ring a funeral toll and more closely match the true method ringing on eight bells.
Due to the unfortunate failure of the headstock on the 4th Bell and cracking on the headstock of the 6th, the entire eight headstocks were replaced by Eayre and Smith just 10 years after their installation.
The ropes have also been replaced by ropes from Pritchard’s rope works in England, 15 years after the restoration works.
More recently the lighting has been improved and measures have been taken to improve the soundproofing of the ringing chamber. A number of safety measures have also been included to bring the tower in line with modern health and safety practices.
The bells are unique in a number of respects. They are cast untuned, they ring anti-clockwise instead of the regular clockwise as most ringers would be accustomed.
They are thought to be the only ring of eight bells cast by Murphy Foundry in Dublin which are still in operation.
Compiled by Vincent Hunt (Bell Captain) on the occasion of the visit of the friends of St Patrick’s Cathedral 21 October 2004