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The Bells of St. John’s, Part 1


On Easter Sunday, April 20, 1924, the neighborhood around St. John’s West Toronto was treated to the melodious music of a carillon of 10 bells. The third St. John’s Church included a belltower designed to accommodate a carillon, but funds for the bells were unavailable when the building opened in November 1923. However, in March 1924, thanks to donations from long-time parishioners, Mr. T.W. Chadburn and Dr. A.A. Jackson, the bells were purchased from the famous bell foundry of Gillett and Johnston in Croyden, England. After arriving in Toronto, the bells, ranging from 46 to 127 cm in diameter and the largest weighing 1225 kg, could be seen outside the church on April 6, ready to be installed. On April 7, The Globe newspaper published a photo of the bells. Fast forward 99 years and there was no ringing of bells at St. John’s this Easter as there are no bells in the belltower. Sadly, they were removed in 2005.


The first ringing of St. John’s bells was big news, The Globe on April 21, reporting that members of other churches had conveyed messages of congratulations to St. John’s rector, Rev. Robert MacNamara. A special note of gratitude was also received from “an invalid, who had been taken out on a veranda to hear the bells and had received spiritual refreshment.” It was also emphasized that “the people of St John’s have grown to prize the internal and external beauty of their new church, and the installation of the bells has only increased their admiration.” On the following Sunday, the new bells were officially dedicated in a special service.



The installation of a carillon of bells in North American churches was rare, as was noted in the May 1924 issue of St. John’s Parish Magazine. There were only 3 or 4 church carillons in the U.S., but they were seldom used, “and of the three peals in Canada that the writer knows of only one is used, that at Vancouver, the difficulty of getting a number of men together to learn the art being the drawback.” However, “we almost every day hear of a fresh set being put in in either England, U.S.A. or Canada.” St. John’s seemed to be the only Anglican church in Toronto with a carillon at the time. Thus, from St. John’s “fine example,” it was hoped “that in a city so singularly full of churches we may not be so singularly devoid of the church’s crowning call to worship.” For more about carillon bells and how they were played, see the May 1924 article, “Something About Bells and Bellringers,” which continued an article in the April issue that, unfortunately, has not been found.


St. John’s bells proved to be quite popular, and practical. Hearing them drew people to the new church on Sunday mornings and there were also special bell recitals. St. John’s acquisition of its bells from England also prompted a change in federal tax law. When they arrived from England a $600 duty was charged to the church. However, since “West Toronto is richer for the chime of bells in St. John’s,” the rector and wardens appealed for relief from this duty. St. John’s finances were very tight due to the costs of the new church, but before the bells were even installed, as was reported in The Globe on June 7, 1924, “an announcement was made in the Finance Minister’s Budget that church bells would hereafter be admitted free of duty.” The $600 was thus returned to the church.


The bells were also used to call voters to the polls, as was the case during the October 23, 1924, provincial referendum on the repeal of the “Ontario Temperance Act.” As The Globe reported, “For more than an hour at noon the chimes rang out and reminded the people of their duty to cast their ballots.” Notably, the referendum results narrowly kept the Temperance Act in place until 1927 when the Liquor Licence Act was passed. However, because of a 1904 majority vote in the town of “West Toronto” (before amalgamating with Toronto in 1909) that banned restaurants from serving alcohol, the Junction West Toronto area remained defiantly “dry” from 1904 to 1997. By this time, the music of St. John’s bells had become much less heard, while their condition in the belltower had become less secure. What happened to the bells will be answered in next week’s bulletin.



The Globe, April 7, 1924, p. 11

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Contact Christopher Rutty – hhrs@healthheritageresearch.com – with your historical contributions in support of the SJWT-100th, and to volunteer to help out with Doors Open Toronto, as well other special activities and events being planned to celebrate St. John’s 100 years on Humberside.


To learn more about St. John’s rich history, visit: sjwt.ca/100th

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Carrie Cardwell
Carrie Cardwell
Apr 27, 2023
Rated 5 out of 5 stars.

Such a dramatic story! Was surprised to learn how rare clarion bells were in N. America. Loved the part about the duty charge being reduced because the bells added value to West Toronto

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