Nova Scotia

Bells may soon toll again at Halifax's city hall

Bells that were removed from the city hall building after the Halifax Explosion will be reinstalled in the belfry as part of an ongoing renovation.

Municipality to install two bronze bells that were removed after the Halifax Explosion

A bell can be seen in the belfry of Halifax City Hall in this 1896 photo. (Nova Scotia Archives)

After more than 100 years of silence, the clanging of bells may once again peal out from the belfry of Halifax's city hall.

The municipality is planning to install two bronze bells that had been removed from the tower after the Halifax Explosion damaged the downtown building in 1917.

A tender issued earlier this week seeks a contractor to install the bells and replace the clocks.

The bells, which weigh 485 kilograms and 376 kilograms, had been in storage in the basement of a building at the Fairview Lawn Cemetery since 2007.

"We can have these sitting in a warehouse, or we can put them back up in place," said John MacPherson, the municipality's manager of facility design and construction. "From a heritage point of view, I think it's a benefit there to have these very old original bells put back."

While the larger of the two bells does not have any markings to indicate when it was cast or who made it, the smaller bell is marked with the words: J. Warner & Sons London 1853.

The larger of the two bells weighs 485 kilograms. (McIvor Conservation/Halifax Regional Municipality)

A heritage briefing filed to the municipality in 2016 notes that Warner & Sons were bell makers in London who "famously fabricated the first giant bell for Big Ben that cracked shortly after it was installed."

The bells to be reinstalled in Halifax, though, are in better condition than Big Ben's cracked bell, though they do have some corrosion and wear.

The history of the bells is still somewhat unclear.

The larger of the two could be the original bell of Halifax City Hall, the cornerstone of which was laid in 1888. The smaller one may have been initially used at the former City Market Building, built in 1854 at the corner of George and Water streets.

A spokesperson for the municipality said any new tips or leads on the history of the bells are welcome.

The municipality hasn't yet decided how often or when the bells will be rung. As a tender for the work has been issued, the municipality did not provide a cost estimate.

Clocks to be replaced

The clockfaces that will be removed from the tower were installed in 1999 by the Halifax Foundation, and electronic chimes were installed four years earlier, in time for the G7 summit in Halifax.

An electronic controller will operate the bells and allow the new south-facing clock to be reset.

As is now the case, the north-facing clock will be permanently set at 9:04:35, the exact time of the Halifax Explosion.

This photo, taken in 1903, shows city hall with a bell but no clock. (Halifax Regional Municipality)

The heritage briefing raises questions about how artifacts are stored and tracked in the municipality.

"It took some doing to find the bells at Fairview Cemetery and it raises the importance of having up-to-date and centralized records for these various, heritage assets. It is incredible how quickly information and the assets themselves can be lost."

The bell project is part of a multi-year renovation of city hall that includes the replacement of the roof, interior renovations, and upgrades to accessibility, air quality and energy efficiency. 

A timeline for the installation has not yet been established.

By 1920, there was no bell in the belfry at city hall. (Halifax Regional Municipality)

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Frances Willick is a journalist with CBC Nova Scotia. Please contact her with feedback, story ideas or tips at frances.willick@cbc.ca

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