Bells of remembrance

Page 2 – The story behind the Carillon

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Article in the Evening Post 15 May 1926 (PapersPast)

In 1927 the Wellington War Memorial Carillon Society placed an order to cast 49 bells for their proposed First World War memorial. The confidence with which the Society took this step was rather remarkable; they had neither a campanile (bell tower) in which to hang the bells, nor the money or land to build one.

The idea for a war memorial carillon had originated several years earlier when P.N. Denton, of W. Littlejohn and Co., Wellington jewellers and opticians, suggested the government construct a carillon – a musical instrument made up of large bells – as the national war memorial. [1] The government did not then care for Denton’s suggestion, but the idea of a musical memorial appealed greatly to many prominent Wellingtonians at a time when the city was considering options for a civic memorial. [2] In 1926 they formed the Wellington War Memorial Carillon Society and quickly began working towards the construction of a carillon for the city. [3]

In May that year the Society offered citizens the opportunity to purchase one of the 49 bells that would make up the instrument. Prices ranged from £30 (approximately $3000) for the smallest 25 bells to £1440 (approximately $143,000) for the largest bell, at a total cost of £9850 (approximately $975,000). [4] Such was the popularity of the scheme that within a week the bells were oversubscribed. [5] By the time the appeal ended, the total number of applications had reached 77. [6] Work now turned to allocating each bell to a person or group.

Preference was given to applications from next-of-kin of the fallen and New Zealand Expeditionary Force members. Several military bodies were also allocated bells. Many of the remaining applications – primarily from business and community groups – were merged and allocated to the larger bells. [7] At the end of the process 33 bells had been dedicated to next-of-kin and the remainder to battles, military units or other groups.

Bells on a packing pallet

Alexander Turnbull Library, PICT-000168

Bells for the Carillon, after being unloaded at Kings Wharf, Wellington in 1931.

Each bell was to bear an inscription in memory of those to whom they were dedicated. A sub-committee of the Society carried out the work of naming the bells and drawing up the list of inscriptions. [8] The names and inscriptions given for each bell commemorated the First World War, with the exception of a, the bell given to honour Wellington veterans of the South African War. In many cases the bell’s name recalled a battle or place where the person or people to whom it was dedicated had died or fought.

Having allocated the bells, the Society moved quickly to begin the casting process. The British bell founders Gillett and Johnston were awarded the contract. They began casting bells at their foundry in Croydon, South London, in late 1927. [9] With this significant step underway, the Society shifted its attention to the next phase in the creation of the memorial: finding a place to hang the bells once they were cast and shipped to New Zealand. The Society looked around for a partner to help them complete the project.

Turned down by their rival Wellington Citizens War Memorial Committee (which desired a symbolic memorial to the Wellingtonians who died in the war), the Society offered the bells to the government. It suggested the government use the bells to form a national war memorial carillon to stand alongside the proposed national art gallery and museum at Mount Cook. Having not yet furthered its own plans for a national memorial, the government readily accepted the offer. [10]

Large crowd at the National War Memorial

Alexander Turnbull Library, 1/1-020293-G

The dedication of the National War Memorial Carillon in Wellington on Anzac Day 1932.

Following a design competition for the complex and further fundraising to cover the costs of the project, construction on the bell tower began in 1931. [11] Less than a year later, on Anzac Day 1932, the new 50-metre-high National War Memorial Carillon was dedicated. At the dedication ceremony, the Governor-General, Lord Bledisloe, expressed his hope that the music played would serve to connect those listening with their history and the country through the playing of traditional folk music and national songs. [12] That evening English carillonist Clifford Ball and Wellingtonian Gladys Watkins gave the first recital from the Carillon. [13] The Evening Post reported that, ‘last night the air was filled with music for one entrancing hour. Thousands of people stood as if spellbound … listening to the music flowing out from the louvres in the tall tower and flooding the city with melody and harmony of indescribable beauty.’ [14]

Further information

'Bell campaign', Evening Post, 12 May 1926, p. 11

'Carillon for Wellington', Evening Post, 15 May 1926, p. 11

'Memorial carillon', New Zealand Herald, 19 May 1926, p. 12

'Over subscribed', Evening Post, 24 May 1926, p. 10

'Proposed allotment', Evening Post, 3 September 1926, p. 8

'The Carillon', Evening Post, 15 December 1926, p. 12

'All the bells named', Evening Post, 21 May 1928, p. 10

'National War Memorial', Evening Post, 26 April 1932, p. 10

The National War Memorial Carillon, Manatū Taonga – Ministry for Culture and Heritage


[1] Chris Maclean, For Whom the Bells Toll, Heritage Group Department of Internal Affairs, Wellington, 1998, p. 8.

[2] Maclean, p. 8.

[3] Maclean, pp. 8–9.

[4] ‘Forty-nine bells for £10,000’, Evening Post, 15 May 1926, p. 11; Maclean, p.9.

[5] ‘Over subscribed’, Evening Post, 24 May 1926, p. 10.

[6] Maclean, p. 9.

[7] Maclean, p. 9.

[8] ‘All the bells named’, Evening Post, 21 May 1928, p. 10.

[9] Maclean, p. 9.

[10] Maclean, p. 15.

[11] Maclean, pp. 15, 22.

[12] Maclean, p. 22.

[13] Maclean, p. 23.

[14] ‘The new music’, Evening Post, 26 April 1932, p. 10.

How to cite this page

'The story behind the Carillon', URL: https://nzhistory.govt.nz/war/bells-of-remembrance/history, (Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated 17-Sep-2021

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