19 December 2022

Odd jobs: Ringing the bells at one of Canberra's oldest churches

| James Coleman
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Presbyterian Church of St Andrews

Gareth and Helen Rowe, long-time members and bell ringers at Presbyterian Church of St Andrew’s Forrest. Photo: James Coleman.

Over the past 20 years, thousands of Canberrans have stood in the same small wooden cubicle in the Presbyterian Church of Saint Andrew.

Eight white ropes, mounted in a metal frame, run through pulleys up the brick wall and into the ceiling far above. Give a rope a swift but strong pull and the unmistakable sound of a bell is sent out across the suburb of Forrest.

In the 10 days leading up to Christmas, members of the public, no matter the age, are invited to try their hand at ringing the eight bells that sit inside the spire of the inter-war gothic-style church. After all, few things are as synonymous with Christmas Day as the sound of church bells pealing.

Gareth Rowe, 63, is a long-standing member of the church and says it has almost become a Christmas tradition for some families.

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“We have opened the church from 7:30 pm to 10 pm every night in the 10 days before Christmas for about 20 years,” he says.

“Anyone who wants to come in can choose to ring out the bells in a variety of Christmas carols or just a tune in their head. We normally have between 500 and 700 people come, most of them as it gets closer to Christmas Day.”

Various music sheets are pinned to a board in the foyer, with numbers taking the place of notes. These correspond to numbers on the rope frame so people know exactly which rope to pull. As long as the tune is in their head, Gareth says they’ll get the timing right too.

“Some of them take a bit longer to work it out and make the tunes they want, but they still have a lot of fun doing it, and you get that immediate sense of achievement.”

There are eight bells at St Andrew’s, handcrafted by the John Taylor Bell Foundry in England (established in 1784 and still going strong), ranging in weight from 89 kg to 535 kg. Although the church itself might be one of the oldest buildings in the area, constructed by Simmie & Co in 1934 (the same company behind the Australian War Memorial and National Film and Sound Archive), the bells were only installed in 1963. Before this, a record player was used to play up to 78 bell-like tunes.

A plaque next to the bell-rope cubicle states the bells were donated “to the glory of God, in honour of motherhood and in memory of Margaret Rowe”. Margaret Rowe, Gareth’s great-grandmother, raised a family in very difficult circumstances in the late 19th century.

“Her husband would drink away money in alcohol, so she took her children to Western Australia to get away,” Gareth says.

“My grandfather wanted to honour his mother for all she did for her children, so he donated these bells in her name.”

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Unlike those in the nearby St Paul’s Anglican Church in Manuka, Gareth describes these bells as “fixed”.

“The bells most people are familiar with are the swinging ones you see in movies, like in the Hunchback of Notre Dame, where the rope swings the whole bell. Ours are still very much bells, but they’re bolted to a steel frame and the ropes are attached to cast-iron clappers inside each of them. These strike the inside of the bell when the rope is pulled.”

This means they can be played much like any other musical instrument, precisely and near instantaneously.

“It’s not a strength thing,” Gareth explains, pointing out that before the 9:30 am worship service each Sunday, anyone over the age of 12 is tasked to ring out “methods” or simple tunes played by bells across the world. Depending on the subject of the service, they can also play hymns such as ‘Amazing Grace’ and ‘When I Survey the Wondrous Cross’.

“We are limited to eight notes in the G-sharp major scale, but we’ve got a repertoire of about 20 tunes.”

For Christmas, carols such as ‘Silent Night’ and ‘Hark, the Herald Angels Sing’ come out, although there are always other more secular favourites such as ‘Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer’ and ‘Jingle Bells’.

“And one that almost everyone can play is ‘Happy Birthday’,” Gareth says.

There’s no need to book a bell-ringing at St Andrew’s – it’s a case of turning up from 7:30 pm to 10 pm between now and Christmas Eve and joining the queue. Supper and child-friendly activities are on offer to keep everyone entertained while they wait.

Visit the St Andrew’s website for more information.

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