Don't believe everything you hear

The bell that once rang from Halifax city hall hasn't been heard since the explosion of 1917. Soon it will ring again.

“When we pulled it out of storage, it had green paint on it,” says Halifax councilllor, Waye Mason. He’s telling me about the bell that used to sit in the clock tower above City Hall.

One of the bells believed to be the bell that once rang above city hall in Halifax hangs off of a forklift in the Fairview Cemetary. Source: Coun. Waye Mason.

“People have been propping stuff up against it to paint for 60, 70 years.”

The story of the bell is one that city staff have stitched together as best they can in documents supporting the bell’s restoration to its original perch overlooking Grand Parade.

As far as anyone can tell, the last time the bell rang was at 9AM on December 6th, 1917 - just minutes before the fire on the Mont Blanc ignited the explosives onboard the ship.

City Hall wasn’t spared from the damage.

An informal meeting of council was held that morning in the city collector’s office. According to the minutes it was “the only room in the building not so badly wrecked by the explosion to be unfit for the purpose.”

According to city staff:

It is believed that the clock and bell were both damaged during the 1917 Halifax Explosion, however, it is unclear as to when they were both removed. The clock was already not a great timekeeper, and there were records of repairs, but it is unclear whether this was related to damage caused by the explosion. Based on archival images, it is thought that the bells were removed within one to two decades following the explosion. 

From then on, City Hall did not have a clock or bell, with very few records indicating whether they would be brought back. Throughout the 1980s, City Hall underwent significant renovations. As part of the Advisory Committee on City Hall Renovations Report submitted to Council in 1983, it was recommended that the clock and bell tower mechanisms be rehabilitated and restored.

In 1995, it appears that the electronic bell sound system was installed, as part of the G-7 Summit event and funded by the Halifax Foundation.

“Electronic bell sound system” is just another way of saying there is a nice speaker system hanging in the clock tower and a program that plays the right chime for the hour at hand.

In my conversation with Mason on today’s podcast, you’ll hear the electronic bells. It’s actually a high-quality recording of Old Tom, the bell that hangs above Westminster Abbey in London, England.

A photo of Big Ben in London, England, where the recording of the bells played at Halifax City Hall was made. Source: Michael Jin on Unsplash.

City staff suggest “the historical bells will sound the same as they did over a hundred years ago” once they are rehung.

I hate to nitpick, but that’s impossible. The land surrounding the bells has changed, and that changes the sound.

In the Halifax of 1917, the sound from a bell wouldn’t have had nearly as much to bounce off of as they once did. You won’t be able to hear the bell without also hearing its echoes and reverberations.

The seven story clock tower of 1917 likely dwarfed most of the buildings surrounding it. When the old bell is rehung, its song will be deflected off of nearby buildings where bankers and other office workers now look down on city hall.

In 1917, there was little to interrupt the sound of the bell as it rang into the sky.

The world we live in sounds nothing like the world of 1917, or even 2017 for that matter. We don’t get to hear what it sounded like then.

When the bells are finally rehung above city hall, I suspect they will sound more like the recording we hear today than the sound city staff heard when they arrived at work on the morning of December 6th, 1917.

I spoke with Mason about the bells on September 2nd of this year. We were scheduled to meet at 10:00 AM. I was late, but I’d already started my audio recorder to capture the sound of the ten chimes that marked the hour.

From Argyle street, the bells sounded like what you might hear if bells were ringing inside a cathedral. Noise bounces off the many hard surface surrounding parade square. There are more echoes than original sound.

Two of the bells suspected of being the original clock tower bell were pulled out for testing this summer. They’d been in storage at the Fairview Cemetary. Mason shared a video of the first ringing with me, which you’ll see below.

You can listen to my conversation with Coun. Waye Mason about the bells, and the city’s plans to restore them here (runtime: 25:28).

For further reading

Read the briefings from city staff on Reinstating bells to Halifax City Hall.

Read the Minutes of City Council from Nov 8 - Dec 20, 1917.