A Christmas Bell

Today, 27 December, the Otago Daily Times informs us that on this day in 1851 the bell for First Church bell arrived in Dunedin. In fact, according to the Otago Witness of that very date, the bell was already in place, hanging from a purpose-built wooden tower. It was quite separate from the original church – a small wooden structure to the south-west – deemed to be of insufficient strength to bear the weight of the 3 cwt (hundredweight) or 152.41 Kg bell.

Cast in the Bell Foundry of C & G Mears, Whitechapel, London, the bell is inscribed thus:

TO THE FIRST CHURCH OF DUNEDIN

THE REVEREND THOMAS BURNS, MINISTER,

FROM A FEW FRIENDS OF THE FREE CHURCH OF SCOTLAND

Described by the Otago Witness as a ‘seasonable’ gift, the report not only expresses gratitude from the Colonists of Otago but also indicates the existence of a predecessor, kindly donated by the neighbourly John Jones Esq of Matanaka, Waikouaiti whose own settlement predated the 1848 Free Church Colonists.

The Christmas Bell of 1851 no longer tolls the hours of the work day, nor calls the faithful to worship, but remains prominently displayed in the grounds of First Church of Otago, firmly fixed to a stone plinth. And on that stone plinth is fixed a plaque declaring some important historic detail, borne out in the Otago Witness report …

Although the wooden bell tower was appropriately located atop a prominent hill, that hill was then known as Church Hill, the future site for First Church of Otago, designed by R A Lawson in neo-Gothic style and completed in 1873. But for generations of Dunedinites the locality is known as Bell Hill – and the bell remains, albeit silent, to assert that.