Ring the bells that still can ring

By Ian McKechnie

Ring the bells that still can ring
St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church. Photo: Roderick Benns.

It’s a warm spring day in London, England. Sunday May 19, 2019, to be precise. My cousin, his girlfriend, and I have just left the famous Globe Theatre where we took in a performance of William Shakespeare’s Henry V.

After walking some distance, we come within sight of Southwark Cathedral, its 13 bells ringing out across the nearby River Thames. (As Charles Dickens, who watched Southwark’s bell-ringers over 150 years ago, reported, “the tenor’s voice becomes louder and louder, the ladder and walls shake more and more, until at last, as we are going to step onto the platform of the bells, we shrink back as from a blow, from the stunning clash of sound with which he greets us.”)

Lindsay’s fire hall. Photo: Roderick Benns.

Two days later, we find ourselves in the city of York. After supper, we approach the soaring facade of York Minster, the huge cathedral completed in 1472. The setting sun illuminates the minster’s dual towers as its 35 bells ring out across the city’s streets. For centuries, they have made a distinctive sound as a result of the “full-circle” ringing technique, in which the bells swing in a complete circle at the behest of bell-ringers stationed below.

A month later, I was back in Lindsay, and found myself in the sanctuary of St. Paul’s Anglican Church for the funeral of the late Harold James. During the final hymn, we could hear the bell in the church’s spire-topped tower pealing out across Lindsay. It was ringing not merely in mourning, but in celebration for the life of a gentleman who had contributed so much to this community.

Bells have long been vital parts of western culture. They both delight and warn, making our ears perk up in times of grief and celebration.

Here in Lindsay, it was this latter function of bells which played an important role in the town’s early history. In 1861 there was a catastrophic fire that consumed much of the downtown, and views of Kent Street in the latter part of the 19th century reveal a bell mounted on the roof of a commercial block that now houses A Buy and Sell Shop.

More familiar to residents today is the large bell mounted in front of the fire hall on Cambridge Street. Cast by the Troy foundry in 1872, the 1,300-pound bell originally occupied the cupola over the Lindsay Town Hall. On Sept. 24, 1902, it was carefully lowered from its original home and elevated to its new position in the fire hall’s tower, alongside the tower’s now long-gone clock.

The original town hall bell was, after being installed in the neighbouring fire station tower, subsequently replaced with a new bell.

“The operation was watched with great interest and no hitch occurred,” the local newspaper reported. For many years, an aptly-named Mrs. Bell (wife of then-Fire Chief James Bell) was responsible for ringing this bell whenever an alarm was sounded. Automation rendered such bells obsolete, and it was eventually removed from the tower for reasons of weight.

A week prior to the town’s fire bell being installed in its new location, the Grand Trunk Railway had installed electric bell signals at its Victoria Avenue and Lindsay Street level crossings. An electrical circuit set in motion by passing trains made the bells sound continuously, warning drivers of danger. Locomotive bells were sounded whenever trains approached stations, and their melodious clang-clang-clang formed part of Lindsay’s daily soundtrack for over 130 years.

When one thinks of bells in small-town Ontario, they usually think of quaint little schoolhouses or churches. Cambridge Street Baptist, St. Mary’s Roman Catholic, and St. Paul’s Anglican Church have all been blessed with beautiful-sounding bells, and stories abound of young people riding up on the pull-ropes as they rang the bell[s] to summon people to services.

One of the most familiar bell-like sounds in Lindsay comes not from a real set of bells at all, but from a digital carillon in the tower of St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church. Installed in 2017, the Orville Locke Memorial Carillon replaced an earlier electronic carillon dedicated in 1978 to the memory of the Rev. Orville Locke, a beloved former minister.

This carillon chimes away every hour and plays familiar hymn tunes three times a day, often overshadowing the automatic bell atop the old town hall, and carrying on a long tradition of bell-ringing in Lindsay.


  1. Joan Abernethy says:

    I love the sound of the bell-like hymns that chime out over the air in Lindsay. It defines a certain delightful and unique je ne sais quoi about our community that gladdens the heart. So yes, indeed, “ring the bells that still can ring”. Summon the light to break through our common imperfection in defiance of the growing darkness. Methinks the muse of Cohen would approve.

  2. Ingrid Kern says:

    Just sitting by the river having a summer picnic lunch when the lovely chiming of bells wafted through the trees. What a magical moment, reminiscent of the bells of our distant youth.
    Even if it’s electronic, it can evoke the same wonderful emotions.
    Ingrid, Scarborough

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