Over the past 150 years here in Canada the penetrating, vibrant ringing of church bells have sounded in large cities right down to small villages. And for centuries in Europe, church bells have played a prominent role in the history of countries, communities, and places of worship. Church bells are the biggest and loudest musical instruments in the world. Enclosed in their prominent landmark towers, their sound can be heard miles away. These bells were rung to call people to church, to celebrate happy occasions and to commemorate important events. Church bells have been known and recognised as local fixtures that represent the enduring quality of community.
Bells were the common folks timepieces for many people up to the early part of the 1900’s. Clocks and watches were precision instruments that were made by hand and required a multitude of moving parts. And they were quite expensive. I received my 1st and only mechanical wristwatch for my grade 8 graduation in 1973 when I was 13. It was a very basic watch, but my parents paid around $25, which was a huge amount of money back even in the 1970’s when watches were becoming more common. This was an era when you could buy a candy bar for 5 cents, a soft drink for 10 cents. And gasoline was 30 cents per Imperial gallon, (which is 7 cents per litre). To put watches into perspective to today, I needed a very basic watch for my work and I ended up buying one a couple of weeks ago at the dollar store with todays microprocessor and button cell technology. My cost with taxes was just over 4 dollars.
For those who could not afford watches or clocks in those early days, civic buildings had bells that rung every hour. Church bells rang to remind people that worship would be happening soon. On ships, bells were rung every 30 minutes for the crews working onboard. Very interesting that their four hour shift is called a “WATCH” as sailors performed essential activities such as manning the helm, navigating, trimming sails and keeping a lookout. Sadly there is one other Canadian landmark which is now only a part of bell history. Many of their bells are now forever silent. They are the one room schoolhouses which at one time dotted our countryside. Some schools did not have them, but most did. They had a bell to announce that classes were going to start soon. I missed the one room schoolhouse by one year, but my older brother and sister had that experience. They had to walk two miles to get to their school at a place called Clowes, (which is no longer found on a map). When the bell rang, it indicated classes were to begin in 15 minutes. And if they were still more than a mile away, they had to really pick up their pace in order to get there on time.
Much like mechanical watches, the old brass bells and the rope mechanism that drives them are pretty much obsolete these days. I imagine there are very few foundries around anymore that would manufacture (a term called bellfounding) those brass bells and mechanisms. There are electronic bell systems nowadays that are so authentic, you cannot tell the difference between a bronze brass bell and an electronically produced bell sound. Electronic bells are much cheaper and far less expensive to maintain than the traditional brass bell and ringing mechanism.
It is an honour to be a lay pastor at a church that still has a working mechanical brass bell in the belfry. It is a swinging bell, engaged manually using a 2 inch thick rope that goes up from the bell tower below. Pulling on the rope engages a wheel which pulls the bell up. As the bell drops back down, the downward momentum of the bell causes a clapper to strike against the bell sending out that rich, vibrant sound.
This Sunday November 11th, 2018 at 5:00 pm. that old brass mechanical bell at Hillsdale Presbyterian Church will be tolled 100 times as part of a larger audible and moving reminder across the country of Canada marking the 100th anniversary of the end of the 1st World War. When that Great War finally ended there was a huge relief and celebration, and there were bells tolling all around the globe. In a Toronto Sun article, it mentions that back on November 11, 1918 when news of the end of the war broke, Canadian churches spontaneously rang their bells.
The initiative is the Royal Canadian Legion Veteran Affairs Bells of Peace campaign. This will see legion branches, churches, municipal buildings and naval ships ringing their bells 100 times. Beginning at St. John’s Newfoundland, and ending on Vancouver Island, British Columbia as the sun sets on different time zones across the country.
Ringing that bell will be a reminder that ordinary people just like you and me served and gave their lives for our freedom. The bell tower of the church itself is a time capsule of names and dates that have been written on the long ladder leading up out of the bell tower into the belfry. It is hard getting my mind around the fact I will be ringing that very same bell just like someone else did 100 years ago celebrating the end of the 1st World War. Ringing those Bells of Peace will honour the more than 66,000 Canadians killed and the more than 172,000 Canadians wounded in the First World War. Ten percent of Canadians who fought in this war did not return. Words cannot express how grateful I am for such a great sacrifice.
Our freedom we enjoy does not come lightly. From the 1st and 2nd World Wars, the Korean War, and modern day conflicts such as Afghanistan, and those who are currently serving in the military there was and is a huge sacrifice paid for the freedom we now have. #LestWeForget