Twice a week, church bells ring out through Auckland’s CBD. Sam Brooks meets the people who make it happen.
If you happen to be on the Victoria Park side of the CBD on a Tuesday night or a Sunday morning, you’ll hear the sound of eight bells ringing clear as, well, a bell. If you’re on the Queen St side of the CBD, it’s a little bit more muffled. It’s a beautiful sound, lending the central city, currently bogged down with City Rail Link disruptions and plagued with empty storefronts, a bit of rustic beauty.
While downtown Auckland’s bells seem to ring like clockwork, in reality there’s a devoted group of people who make sure they ring every Sunday – the Tuesday night “performance” is actually a rehearsal.
I’ve lived adjacent to St Matthew-in-the-City (colloquially St. Matthew’s) for a few years now. Every Tuesday night, without fail, the bells act as a dramatic underscore to whatever I happen to be doing. Every Sunday morning, also depressingly without fail, the bells act as a decidedly epic alarm clock. After the Queen died in September, the bells felt like a near constant backdrop to the waves of lukewarm takes, parasocial grief and doomscrolling.
But who are the people behind the bells? On a recent Tuesday night I made my way up 53 steps, roughly halfway up the belltower, to meet the members of the St Matthew’s Bellringers Society.
Were it not for the ropes hanging from the ceiling, it could just be another Sunday School room. On a table in the middle of the room sit piles of books, snacks, and a model of a bell. There’s a little kitchen, a small whiteboard for notices, and half a dozen plaques commemorating milestones for the society and master bellringers throughout its history.
After Adrian Grant (captain) and Scott Pilkington (vice-captain) show me in, the rest of this week’s 13-strong crew file in. There’s Connor Hart, turning 13 this year, who has to be picked up early because it’s a school night. There’s Professor Edwina Pio, awarded an ONZM in just a few weeks ago, whose favourite bell is “2” (it’s one of the lighter ones). There’s Brenda Claridge, whose name adorns many of the prizegiving boards this year. She rang bells for the Queen’s Coronation… and her funeral, which was perhaps the most metal thing I’ve ever heard. All have their own reasons for joining, which they reveal with little prompting throughout the night, in between rounds (a bellringer’s “song”, if you will).
“I couldn’t hear the TV one night, so I came down to see what was going on,” Pilkington says. Seventeen years later, he’s still here. Professor Pio came via him, after seeing the bells in the background of a staff Zoom call. A woman named Chris had to find a skill to complete her Duke of Edinburgh challenge. Many rang back home in England, which leads to a pleasant array of regional accents bouncing around the room.
Pilkington doesn’t just serve as the group’s vice-captain, but also as a de facto ambassador. He’s the one posting changes on the group’s active social pages, and is the one most keenly explaining the group, its history, and the building to me. It’s helpful because bellringing, on paper (see below), is extremely confusing.
There are two kinds of change ringing. The simplest is called “call change”, where the ringers create different sequences of the bells striking order by swapping orders – bell 1 rings then bell 2 rings in one sequence, in another bell 2 rings before bell 1. “Method ringing”, however, is more complicated, with the sequences constantly changing throughout. Claridge, a veteran ringer who has come and gone from the society, explains that they ring certain pieces more simply because they “like them more”. (Pilkington elaborates more later on that they usually do less complex rounds on Sundays, so there’s less room for error, and use Tuesdays to practise more complicated rounds.)
If it sounds complicated, you wouldn’t know it from how relaxed the room is, even when they’re playing. Notes are whispered into ringers’ ears while they practise, corrections can be bellowed across a circle. As an observer, Pilkington reminds me multiple times to keep both my feet on the ground, lest an errant rope catch on my shoe and send me into some sort of Looney Tunes mishap.
Perhaps the most surprising thing about the act of bellringing is that it’s not a feat of physical strength. I have the upper body strength of your average storefront mannequin, and I’m able to chime and ring (apparently rare for a beginner, so definitely a fluke) one of the lighter bells without trouble. After that initial pull, the act of ringing involves jerking the rope slightly, to interrupt the bell’s motion, creating the ring.
I step quickly aside to allow the rehearsal to properly begin. People take their places at the ropes; the shorter ringers stand on pews to allow them to reach. Adrian shouts out a number, corresponding to a bell that needs a person to ring it and someone leaps to attention. While this is happening, Pilkington takes me up another few flights to take a squizz at the real stars: The bells.
The bells themselves are actually older than St. Matthew’s, which was only completed in its iconic neo-gothic fashion in 1905. They were cast in 1862 in London for the Royal Exhibition of that year, and Sarah Selwyn, the wife of Bishop George Selwyn, New Zealand’s first Anglican bishop, happened upon them. She decided that she wanted them for the cathedral that her husband was building, which actually ended up being Holy Trinity Cathedral in Parnell. High teas and jewellery auctions were held to fundraise to buy the bells and get them shipped to New Zealand.
If you’ve been anywhere near Holy Trinity recently, you might notice a distinct lack of bellringing. That’s because Holy Trinity Cathedral doesn’t have a tower that can fit eight massive bells. So the eight bells sat on a frame, out in the forecourt before being installed in a building across the road, where they lay, unrung, until St. Matthew’s was completed.
There are eight bells, the weights varying from 312 kilos to a full tonne (1,000 kg). Two of them are called “Peace” and “Joy” because Dean Gilbert Thurman, the namer, had a dry sense of humour. (Pilkington points out that the bells are actually quieter at street level than traffic is.)
They rang for the first time in 1912. They fell silent initially during World War I, and then World War II. There are competing stories on exactly why they fell silent – either the bellringers had gone to war again (unlikely given the wide age spectrum of ringers) or the military had specifically requested the bells remain silent so they could be used as a signal. Whatever the reason, they didn’t ring again until the late 1960s.
It was Bill Lack, according to Pilkington, who found a group of like-minded people to pay for the bells to be restored, and allegedly contributed by mortgaging his own house. He had promised his father that one day he would learn to ring bells, which obviously required some bells to ring. The restoration was finished in 1972, and the Bellringers Society was established, one of several across Australia and New Zealand’s 65 belltowers. With the exception of Covid lockdowns, the bells have rung every week since then, and the society celebrated its 50th birthday last year. They’ve yet to have their formal celebration, due to Covid-related chaos, but when they do, you’ll probably hear it.
The St Matthew’s Bells are unique in that they’re specifically cast to be a set of eight, and the eight make up a single octave (E-flat). Other churches, like Wellington Cathedral, have a mixture of different kinds of bells, and might even have spares.
While the sound of the bells isn’t especially loud in the bellringers’ room – you can hold a conversation at a little less than a yell – earmuffs are required when you’re up with the bells. Standing there while all eight bells – over four and a half tonnes of metal – ring is an elemental experience. When you’re that close, you’re not even really hearing the bells. You’re feeling them. Not only can you feel the ringing, but the tower actually shakes as the bells ring. This is a feature, not a glitch. If the tower didn’t move with the bells, it would fall down. St. Matthew’s has been standing for over a century, so I’m inclined to trust this.
Watching the group ring bells feels less like watching a band play music and more like watching a team play sport. The focus is incredible – split exactly between keeping their own time, and making sure they’re keeping in time with everybody else. When you’re sitting among them, it’s easy to forget that eight hunks of carefully crafted metal are swinging above us. Above the bells are little wooden slats which let the sound out.
In between changes, the ringers sit and chat. Some of them text. Some of them go over the pieces of music in the well-worn, browned books, with those blue and red zigzags going down the page. During an especially complicated ring, a ringer called Nick sits next to me. “I got into this because of my sister when I was nine,” he says. “She quite fancied a bellringer, and so she brought me along to the church.” He’s been trying to learn one piece for about three years in Auckland. He admits with a smile that he’s still “frankly shit” at it.
Why does he keep turning up? He shrugs, and says, “Your voice becomes part of the song.” Like any band, really. But not every band is made up of people moving several hundred kilograms of metal in unison. You can see how it would get addictive.
When the clock hits 9.15pm, rehearsal comes to a close with a grandsire triples round (a complex one, I’m told). Some ringers’ eyes dart between each other, watching for people falling behind. The less experienced ringers keep their eyes on their own rope. Watching them, it’s easy to forget that outside the tower, outside this tiny Sunday School room, tens of thousands of people can hear them.
Before the end of each round, the caller yells out, “That’s all.” Occasionally, they vary it with the decidedly more elegant, “This is all”. A few more bells ring, before stopping. A hum continues. For a few seconds, you’re not hearing the bells but feeling them in your chest. Outside, it resonates through the CBD, bringing a little bit more life to it. The eight people step back, they nod, their job done. That’s all.