In July 1881, a month before St Andrews Anglican Church in Cambridge was dedicated, Ed Hewitt, the proprietor of the local Criterion Hotel, offered to buy a 16 cwt bell if the Vestry could see its way to ordering a peal of six bells.
A fund was opened and members of the Vestry immediately subscribed £20. Mr Hewitt increased his gift to £100 on the condition that a chiming apparatus (about £40) was bought with the peal. The total sum would be £297 7/7d, and the total weight about 3,300 lbs. On the next outgoing mail to England they ordered six bells from Messrs A Vickers & Son of Birmingham, Sheffield. The chiming apparatus came from Henry Sainsbury's of London.
Nearly a year later the bells arrived in Auckland on the ship 'Cambria' and St Andrews became the third church in New Zealand to have a set of bells - one year after the Christchurch Cathedral. (Today they are the only set of cast steel bells rung in a church in New Zealand).
At the end of June 1882 the bells were on display in the Public Hall and a grand social was held by the parishioners. The Cambridge String Band played, the Sunday School children sang hymns and Misses Webber and Heaney played a piano duet. Henry Moore sang and Robert Dyer read a paper on 'Bells'.
A Church Workers' Association was formed to bring the people closer together, and a Bell Ringers Guild was proposed by Mr Garland and seconded by Mr Morse. After a canvas for ringers the Guild consisted of H Owen Garland, James Webber, Edwin Curry, Henry Turner, Jones, Tucker, Thomas Peek and William Morse. Owen Garland was chosen as conductor and James Webber as sub-conductor and they set to work to prepare temporary rules using the Christchurch Cathedral Bell Ringers' rules as a guide. Jones offered to oil the bearings every fortnight and Messrs Garland, Jones, Curry, Webber, Peek and Morse promised to attend for a month to chime the bells at Sunday services.
"Bell ringing in England in the 18th century attracted not only well behaved citizens genuinely interested in the art, but also a group who were work shy and pleasure seeking. These latter were in many cases good Bell Ringers. However they preferred to 'ring for money' which in a short time found its way to the local pub. They lost no opportunity to ring a peal.
"Apparently the Commonwealth did not encourage bell ringing, in fact just the reverse, with the result that the clergy in the early 1700's lost interest in the behaviour of the 'boys in the belfry'. Cursing, swearing, smoking and drinking became commonplace and when one parson complained, he was promptly locked out of the church tower by the ringers who had the locks changed. The position deteriorated to the extent that before a cleric would accept a new position, he would make discreet enquiries about the local bellringers".
The weather was very fine on 23 July 1882 as the bells of St Andrews were rung for the first time. They were dedicated by Bishop Cowie on Sunday 13 August 1882 and the offering of £16 2/6d was put towards the bell funds.
On 5 November the bells, after the evening service, "Sent out a merry peal over hill and dale". So said the Waikato Times, the local newspaper of the day. "The sounds of which carried the thoughts of many far away to the dear Old Country, where bonfires were blazing, rockets ascending and the bells from a thousand steeples reminding the people that 277 years ago the diabolical plot was discovered."
On the night of 12 December 1882, during the ringing of the last bell before service while the ringers were raising the bells to 'set', Edwin Curry was struck on the head by one of the bells, which had slipped from its wooden cradle. Owen Garland went to his assistance to raise the bell when, having relieved Edwin, the bell slipped from his grasp, throwing him from the bell chamber about 10 feet to the floor below, breaking his right arm. Both the injured were taken to Dr Waddington's for treatment.
It was soon obvious that the bells were not true to tone and by the beginning of 1883 the vibrations to the church were so great that damage was being done not only to the tower but the church building itself. Strengthening of the structure supports had to be carried out immediately. Ed Hewitt suggested that the Vestry accept Vickers & Sons' offer to replace the bells and he proposed that they should be heavier.
January 1884 the new bells arrived in Auckland and were soon on their way to Cambridge. David Richardson removed the old bells and installed the new ones. It was found at this time that the bells were not going to fit into the tower and swing all the way round. They are 30 cwt altogether with the tenor bell alone weighing 15 cwt and measuring 37 inches across.
Tuned in the key of F, they soon got the townsfolk's approval and Edward Hewitt was out collecting for more donations. With a credit on the first peal of bells the debt stood at £110.
The bells are unique, not just because they are cast steel, but in the way they are rung. Most bells are rung 'up', St Andrews' bells are rung 'down' or chimed, and they are the only known set of cast steel bells that are swing-change-chimed in the Southern Hemisphere.
Being swung only half way means the bells ring faster and the Bell Ringers have had to invent their own style of ringing changes. Instead of the bells ringing twice for one pull they ring (chime) once, making the job extremely labour intensive for the ringers.
A bellringer needs a discerning ear and a well developed sense of rhythm and timing. A ringer also needs to be able to follow instructions and concentrate. A bit of strength is needed to get things going but then it's a knack as much as a matter of strength and once the knack is acquired (some are naturals - some are not) it's just a matter of practice.
On 31 December 1999 St Andrews was the most easterly set of bells in the world to ring in the new Millennium - Midnight - 1 January 2000.
by C W Boyce 1936
The Bells of St Andrew's are now, perhaps, the sole remaining landmark of our early town.
And nothing seems left but their chimes renown.
They bring to our memory the good ones gone on,
They ring cheer, hope, and faith, to us still with the throng.
May we all now take heart that our lot has been cast,
By the Love, Help and Courage of fifty year past.
An Island we centre of Farm, Bush and Mine,
Let us touch cups with fervour and jubilee wine.
A smile to a stranger,
A cheer and a nod;
A Bob for a Downer
And thanks to our God.
Researched and written by Eris Parker and Susan Hague
Ref: Cambridge Museum Archives
St Andrews Anglican Church Archives, Cambridge