A History of the Bells

Bells originated in China in the 800’s B.C. there is an Assyrian bronze bell from the same period. Bells were introduced into France in A.D. 550 and into England about 100 years later.

Pope Sabinianus introduced them to the Catholic Church about A.D. 600.

John Murphy was a Coppersmith of 14 Thomas Street Dublin who established his business in 1837. In 1843 he branched-out into bell founding, casting 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.

John Murphy, who had founded the business, died in 1875. His son, John J. Murphy, then ran the foundry until it eventually closed. John J. died in 1948. In 1885 Matthew O’Byrne, who ran a foundry in James Street in Dublin, persuaded James Gaskin to join him. Gaskin had been the bell-maker at Murphy’s. Thereafter the Murphy Bell Foundry declined. According to Fred Dukes the last dated bell traceable to Murphy’s was cast in 1900.

Matthew O’Byrne (Byrne) cast bells into the 1960’s but later the foundry became a scrap metal yard and is no longer in business.

When Bishop Goold, Melbourne’s Roman Catholic leader, visited Europe in 1851-1852 he bought a peal of eight bells for £500. (Early tower minutes books put the original cost at £700.) They went on display at the Crystal Palace, Exhibition in London in 1851 and had been cast by Murphy’s bell foundry in Dublin. Originally intended for St. Francis Church, they arrived in Australia in the ship Lorina in February 1853. The peal of eight is in F natural. The tenor weighing approximately 700 kilograms and the whole peal weighing 3556 kilograms.

Father 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.

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 of Dublin. Yet this was not a tradition they had inherited from England. Since the disbandment of the monasteries in the 16th Century, Roman Catholic Churches were not allowed to announce their presence with bells, so even during the 1800s when these laws were relaxed very few acquired bells. Fewer still had full peals, 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.

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 on November 29, 1868 (Sunday at 11 am), in the presence of about five thousand people.

After Mass, Bishop Goold had the bells arranged before him and the people. 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:

  1. Omnes Sancti Dei, ora pro nobis, (All ye Saints of God, pray for us.) Approx weight 2 cwt. 1 qtr.
  2. Sacre Cordi Mariae Dedicata (Dedicated to the Immaculate Heart of Mary) Approx Weight 3 cwt
  3. Cor Legem Continens (Heart containing the law (Sacred Heart)) Approx weight 4 cwt. 1 qtr.
  4. Sancte Patriti, ora pro nobis (St Patrick pray for us) Approx weight 5 cwt
  5. Sancto Francisco Xaviero Indiarum Apostolo Dedicata (Dedicated to St Francis Xavier , Apostle of the Indies) Approx weight 6 cwt.
  6. 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.
  7. Mater purissima, ora pro nobis (Mother most pure, pray for us) Approx 10 cwt.
  8. 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 has Bishop Goold’s coat of arms on it.

For a while tunes were chimed on the bells until they were eventually hung in the stumpy south-eastern tower. On March 20, 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 January 22, 1870 the following notice was published:

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.

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 practised Grandsire Triples, and later Stedman Triples. At first they used to meet at Mr Guest’s place in Hanover Street and practise on handbells, ringing one each. Of course this 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 September 23, 1883, by Messrs Crang, Nolan, Guest, Hoyle, Clarke, Shenton, Murray and Freeman. In the following year, on December 21, the band rang their first date touch. This was 1884 changes of Grandsire Triples and took 1 hour 19 minutes. The ringers in order were: Crang, Nolan, Heather, Hoyle, Guest, Shenton, Murray and Hanks, and the conductor was Mr Guest. Afterwards several quarter peals and long touches were rung, but the early ringers were never successful in getting a full peal on these bells or at St. James’ where no less than 19 attempts were made. St Patrick’s cathedral became a popular tower for visiting groups of ringers.

An interesting note in the Advocate on June 1, 1889, records that The St Patrick’s Cathedral bellringers trialed tubular bells in the tower of Collingwood Town Hall where it is proposed to attach them to the Town Hall Clock.’

The Nolan family was particularly significant. On 10th July 1893 the first touch of Stedman Doubles rung in Australia was conducted by J.P. Nolan (Captain).

St Patrick’s Cathedral was consecrated on October 27, 1897. The Leader described the magnificent occasion:

The ceremony, which lasted two and a half hours, started with a pro- cession 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: James Sheehan, a foundation member since 1868, died on October 3,1901. Sylvester J. Hallissy, Honorary Secretary from 1887 to 1933, died on December 20, 1933 aged 64 years. John Christopher Nolan, Captain of the Society for 53 years, was born on June 2, 1863, and died May 1, 1942.

On May 5, 1901, a group of visiting Sydney ringers rang the bells of St Patrick’s. Afterwards the St Patrick’s captain hired a cab and escorted them around Melbourne to see the illuminations for the opening of Parliament. Then on July .1 of the same year the St Patrick’s band rang a quarter peal of Stedman Triples.

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 did 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 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 which are still in operation.


Graeme Heyes, Helen Pettet – “The bells are ringing”, Elizabeth Bleby - “We sing in a strange land”. Elizabeth Bleby – “Their sound has Gone forth”, Fr. Thomas Patrick Boland “St Patrick’s Cathedral a life”.Matthew O’Byrne “The bell Foundry” 1962., Cardinal Moran “History of the Catholic Church in Australasia”
Peter G Richards - Summary paper of early ringer’s minute books

James G. Murtagh, Advocate Newspaper, 26 February 1948
James G. Murtagh, Advocate Newspaper, 24 December 1958

Compiled by Vincent Hunt (Bell Captain) on the occasion of the visit of the friends of St Patrick’s Cathedral 21 October 2004