On Saturday 29 January, members of the Australian and New Zealand Association of Bellringers (ANZAB) climbed the narrow stairs of St Patrick’s Cathedral’s south tower to play almost an hour of synchronised bell ringing. The occasion marked the 170th anniversary of the casting of the bells by the Murphy foundry and is believed to be one of the last remaining sets still in operation.

Bellfounding or the art of casting bells from molten metal (usually bronze), dates back to the Bronze Age when the ancient Chinese would create temple bells laced with elaborate decorations. The earliest Christian bells resembled cowbells and were originally considered a monastic craft. Summoning people with the use of bells is said to have been popularised in the fifth century when St Paulinus, Bishop of Nola in Italy, would call local monks to worship. Years later, Pope Sabinianus (530-606 AD) officially introduced the custom of bell ringing for the celebration of the Eucharist and marking the canonical hours.

The Diocese of Melbourne had only been in existence for a few years when its first bishop (later archbishop), James Alipius Goold OSA, commissioned the bells from coppersmith and bell founder John Murphy. Bishop Goold had been in Europe for the Ad Limina in 1851 and while there, attended the Great Exhibition at the Crystal Palace in London where Murphy was exhibiting his prize-winning bells. These caught the eye of the bishop who then placed an order for his newly established diocese.

The Murphy foundry cast the bells in 1852 and a year later they were transported to Melbourne. The tenor, the heaviest and deepest-sounding bell of the eight, weighs approximately 700 kilograms, and the whole set weighs around 3,556 kilograms. The intention was to hang the bells at St Francis’ Church on Lonsdale Street however there was no tower capable of housing them, so they sat idle until the south tower and belfry of St Patrick’s Cathedral were completed.

St Patrick's Cathedral with scaffolding at front, and St Patrick's School, Eastern Hill, Melbourne, ca. 1866 Charles Nettleton (1826-1902)

‘A fine volume of sound’

Upon Goold’s return to Melbourne in 1853, he found that little progress had been made on the construction of St Patrick's Cathedral, with the first attempt encountering labour shortages and increasing expenditures. Even the second attempt to build a cathedral large enough for Victoria’s growing population proved unsatisfactory, leading to the dismissal of existing architects George and Schneider. Eventually, Bishop Goold hired the newly-arrived English architect William Wardell and thus began a partnership that lasted almost 30 years.

In 1860, Bishop Goold blessed the foundations of the first three pillars in the north aisle of the cathedral, and progress continued over the next few years, with the nave and aisles ready for use by 1868.

After Mass on Sunday 29 November 1868, in the presence of the congregation, Bishop Goold blessed the eight bells with holy water and incense, and dedicated them to the Sacred Heart, the Most Pure Mother of God, the Immaculate Heart of Mary, St Joseph, St Francis Xavier, and All Saints.

It would still be some years later, however, before the public would enjoy the peal of the bells as their operation required a team of skilled bell ringers. Whereas St Francis' Church hosted a single bell, the new set required a team to practice the ancient art of change ringing, a system that follows special patterns (also called "methods") to make the bells sound in a different order each time they swing.

In 1869, an advertisement was placed in The Advocate calling for eight experienced bell ringers:

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.’

A year later, The Advocate published the following update:

Eight Members of the congregation have been practising 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.’

By 1873, the ringing of bells became a regular feature of St Patrick’s Cathedral, ringing in each New Year and calling the community to worship.

The bells today

In 1988, almost 140 years after their creation, the bells were in dire need of repair and maintenance. They were transported to the Eayre and Smith Bell foundry in England (these days known as John Taylor & Co.) and as part of their repair, the original wooden bell frame was replaced by a galvanised iron frame, which would afford a more rigid structure and facilitate easier ringing. To maintain their historical integrity, the bells were not tuned when they were re-hung in their original anti-clockwise pattern in the south tower of St Patrick's Cathedral.

From Eucharistic celebrations to weddings, funerals, papal visits and jubilees, the bells have signalled countless moments of significance in the life of the local Church of Melbourne. They may no longer be heard from ‘the hills surrounding pretty Heidelberg’, but locals can still enjoy the peal of these 170-year-old bells when the bell ringers practice every Tuesday from 5pm, and for service ringing prior to the 11am Mass on Sundays and other special occasions.

Their longevity speaks not only of the quality artisanship of John Murphy but is a reminder of Archbishop Goold's vision for Melbourne and the enduring faith of generations of Melbourne Catholics.