Stories Organisations Projects About Login

Summon the Living

Bells from Victorian community collections.

Prior to the advent of electronic sound systems, bells were heard ringing throughout the day. Large bells were attached to buildings. Handheld bells sat on tables and mantel pieces. Bells rang for morning prayer, school time, half time, and dinner time. Bells announced a fire in town or the death of a local. Some bells were passed around within their local community, or re-purposed as presentation gifts, being easily engraved and potentially useful. This story was originally inspired by Graeme Davison’s book The Unforgiving Minute: How Australia Learned to Tell the Time.

Banner image: Digital photograph of a bell from Lady Northcote Children’s Farm from the collection of Ballarat Heritage Services.

Photograph – Wreck Bell at Customs House, erected 1884

Port Fairy Historical Society Museum and Archives

This bell in the centre of the photograph hung in this position until the 1970's. The wreck bell was rung to alert the townspeople that a ship was in trouble in the bay.

More about this item →

Ships bell from the SS TIME, 1913

Queenscliffe Maritime Museum

This bell was recovered from the shipwreck of the SS TIME. In 1951 the parish of St Aiden's Church in Parkdale obtained the bell from the "Receiver of Wrecks". The "sour" tone of the bell irritated some of the congregation, and the bell was donated to the Queenscliffe Maritime Museum.

A ship’s bell was the vessel’s clock. Each four hour watch was measured out by the striking of the bell - the first half hour would end with one bell, the second with two bells, and so on. In the event of a fire on the ship, the bell was rung rapidly, followed by one, two or three rings to indicate the location of a fire - forward, amidships, or aft respectively. The ship’s bell was traditionally looked after by the cook.

More about this item →

Peal of three German Bells: Memorial to Frederick Stephen Stevens, c.1880s

Christ Church Anglican Parish of Warrnambool

These three bells were made in Germany and sent to the Melbourne Exhibition of 1881, where they won first prize. The bells are decorated with angels, and were guaranteed to chime to the sixteenth of a tone. The bells were purchased by Frederick Stevens, and donated to Christ Church Warrnambool as a gift in memory of his son, who died in 1879. The bells are the oldest matched peal in Australia.

The tradition of church bells was influenced by the pre-Christian belief that the sound of a bell ringing dispels bad spirits. These bells are inscribed in Latin and German, the English translations are as follows: The largest bell “Glory to God in the highest”, “I summon the living” and “I bewail the dead”; the second bell “Peace on earth”; and the third bell “Goodwill towards men”. Another inscription reads “Behold the stones cry, Honour to God in the height”.

More about this item →


Clunes Museum

This images illustrates the close association between bells and fire brigades. Most fire-fighters lived near their fire station, so that they could hear the fire bell, day or night. Horse-drawn fire carts had bells attached, which rang furiously as the fire cart bumped along at speed.

More about this item →

Photograph - City Oval

Prior to electronic sirens, bells were rung at Australian Rules football games to mark the end of each quarter. The bell in this photograph was moved to City Oval from the Presbyterian Church Smythesdale; if this happened prior to 1918, this bell would have been one of the town bells rung on Armistice Day, as the fire bell and all the school and church bells in Smythesdale were rung to celebrate the end of World War l, and to call the townspeople into the street for an impromptu procession.

More about this item →


Murtoa & District Historical Society and Museum

This bell has had several uses. It was purchased from an early pastoral run at Longerenong Homestead in the Murtoa area, and used at a local farm as a dinner bell. It was often the job of the farmer’s wife to keep time for the property, checking the parlour clock and ringing the bell on the verandah.

This bell was later used a as a school bell, when Higher Elementary School classes began in two small halls, the Murtoa Fire Brigade Hall and in the Methodist & Presbyterian Hall, in 1922.

More about this item →

Bullock bell, c.19th century

Orbost & District Historical Society

Livestock bells were widely used throughout the countryside during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, as Australian stock grazed on large unfenced plains. Bells were used on a leader in a bullock team, or on other stock, so they could be easily located. Initially bells were imported from England and America, but local foundries and blacksmiths also turned out bells.

More about this item →

Lady Bell, c.19th Century

Orbost & District Historical Society

Lady Bells were used to call servants. Some Lady Bells have a pair of brass legs dangling inside, as the clapper which strikes the bell. The face of a Lady Bell is often more worn than the skirt, because the bell is rung by shaking the top of the bell. This is an average sized Lady Bell, the larger the bell the deeper the sound. Really large Lady Bells would be used to call a servant from a far off room, the sound would be similar to a cowbell, not a very ladylike way to call a servant, but “better than yelling” (according to Dawnalysce Clifford, Lady Bell Collector and Blogger).

More about this item →

Town Crier's bell

Yarrawonga and Mulwala Pioneer Museum

This bell is attributed to a Town Crier in Yarrawonga, Victoria. Town Criers were also known as Bell Men, who announced public news and meetings, and were usually paid by the job. Bell Men needed an attractive loud voice, as well as bell ringing capabilities. This bell is missing a screw on top, but still makes a very loud ringing sound that reverberates for some time.

More about this item →

Small engraved bell, c.1900

Alfred Hospital Nurses League-Nursing Archives

A group of nurses presented this bell to the Alfred Hospital Nurses League around 1918, along with a note 'hoping it will be useful and also to show warm appreciation of our very pleasant Reunions'. The nurses may have donated the bell for use at meetings, bells were commonly used to start proceedings. A bell can call for silence.

More about this item →

Book - See how they Ring: Hand bell ringers of the Australasian Stage

Ballarat Heritage Services

Bell ringing family troupes toured Australia during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Few of their bells have been collected by Australian museums.

Handbell ringing evolved from practice bells for church bell ringers. The smaller bells have the highest pitch. Ringing techniques produce different effects, such as the tower swing, achieved by moving the arm up and down after ringing to increase volume, and the vibrato, a tremulous sound created with a sideways movement.

More about this item →

Hand bell, used during WWII

This bell is inscribed "Bell That Called The Boys Of The South Division Supply Column To Meals In Bombay, Palestine, Tobruk, Syria 1940-42". Perhaps the sound of this bell provided comfort for the servicemen, ringing out a familiar tone. The bell had travelled to the war zone after being “borrowed” from Ballarat Railway Station.

More about this item →

Crocheted bridal gifts, bell and shoe

Slovenian Association Melbourne

Slovenian Australian brides are traditionally given these ornaments as a keepsake from friends and relatives, to bring luck and happiness to the newlyweds. The crocheted bell recalls the joyous peal of wedding bells, and the excitement of the day.

More about this item →

Ticket punch, c.1975

Bendigo Tramways (managed by the Bendigo Heritage Attractions)

This bell was used by conductors from Brunswick Depot Melbourne, to show that a passenger had bought a ticket. At the time of writing, a passenger boarding a Melbourne tram scans their ‘MYKI’ card on a small machine, which emits a beeping tone.

More about this item →