Cathedral of the Holy Rosary - Vancouver, British Columbia

History of the Bells

Below is an article that was published in the October 20th, 1989 edition (no. 4095) of "The Ringing World" (page 944) describing the history of the bells of the Cathedral of Holy Rosary and its refurbishment in 1988 through 1990. Reproduced by kind permission of Alan F. Ellis.

A recent article by two of our ringers for the B.C. Catholic, a weekly newsletter of the Catholic Church in British Columbia recounted the history of the bells of our 90 year old church. The church and its bells are neither very old by British standards nor even when compared to the churches of Quebec and the rest of eastern Canada, but for British Columbia and Vancouver, which itself is barely one hundred years old, the cathedral is an older church.

As the bell fittings are to be refurbished shortly, we felt that fellow ringers might be interested because of the unusual history of the bells.

In 1900, the Oblate Fathers of British Columbia lent the money for a chime of seven bells to be obtained from the bell foundry of Paccard et Freres, which is located in Annecy-Le-Vieux, Savoie, France. A 1983 letter from Paccard's Quebec agent states that the original seven bells weighed 2100; 1229; 1051; 880; 624; 452 and 262 kilograms respectively. That makes the original tenor 41.25 cwt., quite a significant weight for a chime of seven bells. The seven bells were not a diatomic chime because the letter quotes the respective notes as "DO; MI flat; MI; FA; SO; LA and DO". The pitch of the original bells would therefore have been C; E flat; E; F; G; A and C.

The original seven bells had the seven sacraments cast into them. Nos. 2, 3, 4 and 5 of the recast bells have the sacraments of the bells that were melted down. The treble says "Augustus Ora Pro Nobis", Augustus being the Bishop's christian name. All the new bells have "1906" cast onto them. No. 5 has the new Vancouver City crest, whereas no. 6 has the old city crest.

Out of tune

The story goes that parishioners complained that the bells were out of tune and that something should be done! A Mr. A. C. Limpus, the son of an English rector but not himself a ringer at the time, then proceeded to convince the clergy and parishioners that the bells should be recast and hung for change ringing. This was no mean task as it was not until 1906 that the bells were returned to England for recasting, tuning and made suitable for ringing.

One little piece of information, written by Mr. Limpus, states that the original bells had no stays, sliders or ropes. The tenor was 60 in. across the mouth and the clappers were 1/20th of the bell weight.

The original bells had made their way to Vancouver via Asia and China but they were returned to England by ship, as ballast, around the Cape. The new bells were then shipped back to Canada by the same route.

Wheels, headstocks, bearings and frame are all from the Castle Green Foundry, of Llewellins and James located in Avonmouth, Bristol. The frame was marked originally by the foundry for re-assembly purposes but the markings have long since been painted over.

Of the original seven bells, three were kept and are now numbers six, seven and eight of the present ring. The tenor is reported as 16 cwt., in the key of F major, according to some tower records, but is 17 cwt. 1 qtr. if one takes the initial weight of 880 kilograms as being correct! Some weight would have been lost in retuning but 144 lbs. out of 1936 lbs. appears to be excessive. The strange thing is that there is no evidence of tuning on the older bells!

The ring was only the second in Western Canada after New Westminster. This initial ring was destroyed by fire in the late 1800's. For many years, the Holy Rosary Cathedral was the most westerly ringing tower in the world, but with Victoria's peal installed in 1936, it lost that distinction. They, themselves will soon lose out because of the new ring planned for Hawaii!

The first peal on the bells was rung by eight ringers from Britain, including Mr. Limpus, on July 1, 1911. This was originally Dominion Day, but is now known as Canada Day, as it celebrates the confederation of the country. A slate peal board in the ringing chamber records this occasion.

Part French

The first unusual item about the bells is that the ring is part French and part British, as noted above, and is unique in this respect. The second one, readily noticed upon entering the bell chamber, is that all the bells are hung to swing east-west only. The bells sit in four pits side by side with two sets of pits adjacent to one another, unlike the more common frame where one of more bells are swung at right angles to the rest.

The bells are housed in a steel frame supported by steel "I" beams bricked in to the stone tower. A clear space of some 2 ft. exists around the outside of the frame for good access. The bell chamber is some 55 ft. above the street and so presents no major stresses because of its relatively low height within the tower. Certainly the stress gauges installed in the tower across old cracks show no sign of problems and for this we are thankful.

The bells have cast steel headstocks but the gudgeons run in plain brass bearings which require frequent lubrication!

Ringing recommenced in mid-September 1957 following a lull of some five years. A movie of the ringing entitled "Ringers Required" was made in 1958 by the then ringing master, Mr. T. Collins. Of the people in the movie only Mr. Ted Lee, our current ringing master, remains a regular ringer. After the five silent years, bearings had dried out and ropes needed repairs. Although the work was considerable, no major maintenance was undertaken according to Mr. Ted Lee, who was also the ringing master at the time of the 1957 work.

Refurbishment required

A review of the bells and fittings in general a couple of years ago showed that if the bells were to remain ringable into the 21st century, then we would have to do considerable refurbishment. The bells could become unringable and possibly irretrievably so.

The review showed that we needed two or more new wheels because the originals were cracked, that clappers needed to be rebushed and that the slider guides required replacement as they had worn the wood into a concave shape. At least one pulley, and possibly more, requires attention because it has split. The largest item is the brass bearing replacement because of the need to lubricate them regularly. We could not ascertain the life remaining in the bearings because we could not see the thickness of metal left without actually lifting the bells.

The cost of the above work was estimated at $30,000. The ringers new that they had no access to that kind of money and almost dismissed the idea of carrying out the repairs.

Approved - and increased

Laith Reynolds entered the picture and offered to assist in raising the necessary money if we could get the church authorities' approval. Surprisingly, the church authorities not only approved the work but also agreed to pay for it!

A committee made up of ringing members was elected to prepare a report suitable for presentation to the church authorities and to follow through on the work until completion.

In early discussions with the rector, Father David Monroe, he suggested that we include in our estimates additional items, such as replacement of the rotted floor beneath the bells, altering the staircase up to the bell chamber, repairs to the stained glass windows, provision of sound control, replacement of the unsafest electrics and repainting of the bell frame. We added up the cost of the these additional items and now the estimate was $50,000.

The planning began some two years ago and at this time we expect the work to be complete in early 1990.

The first task of replacing the electrics proved to have minor altercations, as the contractor put additional lights too low so that they shone in the faces of the ringers. Needless to say, these were altered promptly.

The second task was the floor beneath the bells and it proved somewhat more involved. The initial scheme called for replacing the existing loose laid 2 x 12 in. boards with new 2 x 8 in. cedar because the old ones had rotted. This would have been simple enough except that in removing this set of boards, we came across additional rotting timbers beneath and to be able to evaluate the seriousness of this, we had to remove the old sound insulation that was left between the joists back in 1906 or before! This insulation was simply old rubble consisting of concrete and gravel, much of the former having turned to dust over the past 80 odd years.

Unpleasant surprise

When we had finally taken out the last of the rubble, removal of the 1 x 7 in. shiplap began in the areas where they had rotted. Then came our next unpleasant surprise. We found that the decay had spread to the main support timbers, which are 10 x 12 in. Now we were in a quandary. Should we replace three large beams and entire ringing chamber roof or should we remove the rotted sections and treat the beams. In this area the committee has no expertise, because even though there were general engineers, none has experience in timber rot and decay. We finally called in the top gun, namely a professor from the University of British Columbia. He informed us that our problem is 'ground rot' and that it was presently spreading due to lack of dampness, but then this is summer, what about the winter?

Luckily for us, these large beams only support the ceiling and not in any way connected with the support of the steel bell frame. It will be possible to remove the existing decayed areas and to make good. To do this will require the removal of the second type of sound insulation which is located between the large beams. This is made up of paper, straw, wood and all sorts of other 'sound absorbing' materials of 1906!

And we still have not started on the bell fittings!

In short supply

If one were in the UK, one could call up the nearest bell hanger and say, "we wish to have our bell fittings refurbished" and they would come and estimate and, after approval, do the job. Here on the west coast of Canada, it is not that simple. We could ask one of the UK companies to do the job and send all the bells and fittings back to the UK but this is obviously time consuming and extremely costly. We chose to have all the work done locally with one exception and that is we had new wheels and sliders made for us by Whitechapel. These have now arrived and are ready for the bell hanger.

Which bell hanger? Well, they are numerous in the UK but again are rather few and very far between here in North America. Luckily, Linda Woodford of Boston is an experienced bell hanger and she is to come and do the necessary hard work in late September.

Next problem! Getting the bells out of their pits and lowering the headstocks out of the tower. Any suggestions? The tenor headstock must weigh some 600 lbs, so even after we list the bell off the frame and block it up, we must then get this large weight out of the bell chamber and down to the ground. A sky hook appears to be the most likely means of accomplishing the task.

Bearings! Well, we had input from local machine shops and bearing manufacturers and found their input differs from the recommendations of Whitechapel. When we looked into the differences, we found that we are unable to use those recommended by Whitechapel even if we wanted to, because we do not have sufficient back-to-back clearance!

And so the fun goes on.

Oh well, only one more month to go before Linda's arrival on September 25. Hopefully the bells and their bearings will be back in service by October 21st as planned.

ELLIS, Alan F.
Vancouver Society of Change Ringers (20-10-1989)
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