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.

Otago Anniverary Day observations

Yesterday was supposedly an official holiday, just one day short of the actual anniversary, today, 23 March. The suburbs were eerily quiet and Dunedin’s CBD exuded a calm, relaxed atmosphere. Our regular lunch cafe was closed, as were many businesses. Only the optimistic donned white shirt and tie but the Dunedin City Council was serious in its Anniversary Day observance  – parking meters were in Sabbath mode – that is to say, not trading. Predictably, and in best Presbyterian response, all street parking spaces were full.

Even the hallowed grounds of First Church, that enduring testament (pun not intended) to the foundation of the Free Church settlement of Otago in 1848, were well patronised with ‘worshippers’ of a sort.  A heavily committed game of ‘touch’ (rugby, that is) between a glorious mix of age, size and gender brought a wry smile to the face of this regular passer-by and, co-incidentally, descendant of Presbyterian early settlers to Otago. One cannot help but wonder quite how the settlement’s spiritual leader, the Reverend Dr Thomas Burns, would have viewed this 2010 observance of Anniversary Day.

At least some of the regular flock was in attendance. More impressively, they were young – at least under 25 from my opposite-side-of- Moray Place perspective.  I’m sure Burns would have nodded in appreciation, before he frowned, first in disbelief then at his own lack of understanding. Not only were these ‘worshippers’ engaged in a form of sport yet to be invented in England, but the people themselves were of Pacific Island descent. For some decades now, this local immigrant group has worshipped in greater numbers at First Church than the descendants of Burns original flock. How ironic, that on 23 March 1849, the settlement’s first anniversary, Thomas Burns railed against the profanity of sport. Such festive celebrations kept all but some 60 pious souls from the service of thanksgiving he called that day.

By Jennie Coleman  23.03.10