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The Sound of Distant Bells by Mel Robertson, from The Burford Times

Robertson, Mel, Author
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From the 1970s through the 1980s, Mel Robertson wrote many articles for the Burford Advance and Burford Times on the history of Burford Township. This clipping contains the article The Sound of Distant Bells. It describes children's attitude to Christmas in the 1920s. The article may not have been republished.

Newspaper clippings donated by Liz (Robertson) Brown; reprinted with permission from The Burford Times.
Date of Original:
December 6, 1995
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Provided by Liz Brown
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Protected by copyright: Uses other than research or private study require the permission of the rightsholder(s). Responsibility for obtaining permissions and for any use rests exclusively with the user.
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The Burford Times
Recommended Citation:
Robertson, Mel. (1995, Dec. 6). The Sound of Distant Bells. Burford, Ontario: The Burford Times.
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Full Text

The sound of distant


by Mel Robertson

LAST NIGHT, the first big December snow came and, like many of my older readers, this marked a time when, as children, we began to travel, in our minds, along that magic road that led through Christmas concerts, Christmas shopping, Christmas parcels, Christmas decorations and Christmas trees to the delights of Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. This magical trip may, in 1995, be considered to be unworthy of any comparison with the electronic delights of the Internet, but let us hope that we have not reached a point in our intellectual progress where it has become a sin to remember moments of love and kindness and those who were responsible for creating them.

This article is not a recollection of early Christmases, but rather a look into the minds of 1920's children and why they had certain attitudes toward their approach to Christmas. It is based on a time when there was no TV, no computers, few radios, few phonographs and when many Burford houses still did not have electricity. There was, of course, a regular bus service to Brantford and four "express" and two freight trains passed through six days of the week. Recreation facilities were almost nil, and firm but loving hands controlled the lives of most children. Churches played a much larger part in community life than they do today and the "golden rule" of social intercourse was widely practiced. Stores gave credit to most people and school teachers lived in the village and provided community leadership. Lodge loyalties were strong and (while most families of modest means employed "hired girls") there was general community harmony. Imagination and improvisation ruled most activities. In short, many things were different but not necessarily better or worse.

In looking over old 1920's papers, diaries, letters, etc., it is interesting to note how often the sound of bells is recalled as part of the journey to Christmas Day. This to my mind is unusual, for there is no reference to bells

in the Nativity story and scant reference to them in our standard literature of Christmas. However, it is possible that the memory of bells in 1920's Christmases is due to the fact that Burford children of the time were surrounded by the sound of many bells.

Burford was not a "village of bells" in the 1920's, but bells were everywhere. There were two church bells, one at the Anglican Church and one at the Congregational. These are still with us, although the Congregational bell now resides in the United Church tower. These bells rang several times every Sunday to summon the faithful to worship.

Next in municipal importance was the Bur-ford Public School bell on Maple Avenue North that from Monday to Friday rang ten times a day to regulate the lives of students. Of equal life-measuring influence in the middle of the village was the Post Office clock bell that rang 78 times during every 24 hours. Farther from the centre of activity were the bells of the six trains that passed along the line on Maple Avenue South. To people who are not familiar with the steam-locomotive age, every engine had a brass bell that the foreman rang as a warning whenever the train was approaching a crossing or a station. In the absence of 1995 electronic and mechanical sounds, these bells could be heard clearly in downtown Burford in the 1920's.

In winter, Burford had a considerable increase in bell sounds for, in pre-motorcar days, all sleighs were required by law to have bells on their horses. This was because sleighs traveled noiselessly and people were not aware of their approach. Sleigh bells could be divided into "working bells" and "traveling bells". Working bells were of two types - long bandaging straps of bells that hung over a horse's back, and big single bells under its chin. Older people will remember the dull clanking of these bells as bobsleds brought loads of ice blocks from the Red Mill to the butcher shop ice houses. On the other hand were the traveling bells - tuned sets of three or four bells that sat on top of a horse's collar and announced musically the approach

of a polished cutter bearing two or three ladies or gentlemen. The sound of these bells can best be described in the poem "Jingle Bells". Traveling bells received considerable newspaper condemnation in the 1920's when horses that had been standing in a cold church shed during a church service tried to warm up by racing up and down King Street "going like sixty" and terrifying pedestrians. Drivers of such spirited animals were either considered to be real sporting fellows or stupid idiots.

To complete the outdoor bells of Burford in the 1920' s was the occasional sound of the bell on Burford's little Ford fire engine that clattered uselessly as the two-man fire brigade rattled to a fire it could not put out.

Indoors, 1920's Burford children heard bells of several kinds - some good and some bad. The worst of these was the big brass hand bell our sadistic principal loved to clang at our daily parades to announce some horrible form of punishment he would hand out to anyone throwing snowballs or standing in front of the hotel. The sound of this bell was always followed by the principal screaming "take a hint now, take a hint". This was particularly horrifying to young school boys for we knew that the principal would not hesitate to inflict a dozen blows of the strap without any fear of Divine, or judicial, retribution. I could never understand how this sadistic person could have such nice children and how he would romp and play at the parties his children gave.

Other smaller hand bells dominated classrooms telling us when a lesson was to start or stop. These did not have the voice of capital punishment that the principal's bell had, but our school day was regulated by them. Of even smaller size and authority were the little push bells whose purpose I have forgotten, but whose sound I still hear.

Finally among local bell sounds was one that had a Christmas sound. That was when at the Methodist Church Christmas Concert, Wilfrid Eddy, dressed as Santa Claus, burst through the green b^fee doors at the back of the church and "Ho-Hoed" up the aisle holding a big bag of goodies in one hand and a -bunch of sleigh bells in the other. This was the only yuletide bell of my 1920's Christmas that toward Christmas. There were, of course, the folding red and green paper bells that hung among the other decorations but, since they emitted no sound, they were ignored.

So there they were - all the bells of a 1920' s childhood ranging from the solemn church bells, through sleigh bells, engine bells, school bells and Wilfred Eddy's Santa Claus bells down to the little dinging of bicycle bells. All rang with varying intensity and persistence.

Did any of these sounds make an impression on a child's 1920 journey along the mythical road to Christmas? Did any of us who took this trip recall the remembered sound of bells as a Christmas thing or was the sound merely like "noises off stage" that appear in plays? Maybe some did and some didn't. I didn't speculate then and I won't now. All I will say is that in the 1920's, when children did not come "complete with batteries", they had to make the most of what they had and what they heard. Maybe it's best to leave it at that.

However, before closing this article on local bells, it may be interesting to say a bit about bells generally for the study of bells, or campanology, is a long one and contains many religious, literary and superstitious references. From a religious point of view, the sounding of bells regulates the lives of monks and nuns who are called to certain devotions at certain times of the day by the sounding of bells. Then in churches and cathedrals, there is a vast variety of "changes" that can be rung by teams of trained bell ringers each handling the rope of one bell and following the directions of a leader. While teams of "change ringers" are common in the British Isles and Europe, most carillons in Canada are handled by a single carilloner who sits in front of piano-like keys which are activated by punching with the fist, or by a single operator standing in front of a set of ropes fastened to the wall. These are activated by the carilloner pulling them in accordance with the hymn or tune that is to be played.

A considerable amount of folk lore or religious custom has grown up around bells. One of these practices is the "tolling" of bells when a funeral is taking place. By "tolling" I mean having the bell just do a single "ding" and not a "ding dong". The custom is that the

church bell should be "tolled" once for each year of the dead person's age. This is done occasionally at Holy Trinity Church, Bur-ford, but it is not a common practice as it requires considerable strength and ingenuity. Another bit of folklore surrounding bells is the speed they are to be rung for certain occasions. For example, it is considered okay to give a fast ring to church bells if a wedding has taken place, while on Sunday the pace must be slower. It is also considered to be hilarity to "turn a bell over" when announcing some joyful occasion. "Turning over" a bell means that it is pulled so hard that it revolves on its trunnions and turns over, thus emitting a loud clatter. Occasions when this sort of bell ringing was allowed were strictly regulated by church or municipal authorities. "Turning over" the bell of Burford Public School in the 1920's was a capital offense Our principal always allowed students to ring the bell for noon or 4 o'clock, but woe betide the rascal who dared to "turn the bell over". Our principal considered that the "turning over" of the school bell was an insult to the academic dignity of the school and perpetrators were suitably strapped.

Many "peals" of bells have ancient or modern machinery to control what they do. For example, when touring France a few years ago, we went to see the famous tapestry at Bayeux. We put up at an ancient hotel opposite the cathedral. The rooms were excellent, the meals delicious and the rates (for France) were remarkably reasonable. However, in our enthusiasm in finding such accommodation, we failed to note that the cathedral bells rang every quarter hour. Then at the half, they played the first two lines of a hymn and at the hour the whole verse. We realized, after a sleepless night, why the rooms, meals and rates had been so good.

A famous superstition about bells is that if you stay in the tower while the bells are being rung, the sound will split your skull and render you "goofy". To test this silly superstition, Peter and I stayed in the tower of the cathedral at Freiberg, Germany while the bells were rung. While the sound was deafening, it was very interesting to see the great bells in action Whether this experience rendered me "goofy", I will leave to the judgment.

Another use of bells may be both semi-religious and social. I refer to the use of bells in welcoming the New Year. Some poets have been very adept at this. Edgar Alan Poe, for example, uses the word "bells" in his poem "The Bells" (a fairly short poem) more than 60 times. In another poem, Tennyson refers to "wild bells" welcoming a New Year and saying "farewell" to a dying year. There are many other similar references in literature. Bells also played a considerable part in practices called "Watch Night Services" that were held in many area churches in former years. In these, groups of young men and women met in church on New Year's Eve. A religious service was held that ended a few minutes before midnight. Then, if the church had a bell, everyone lighted a candle and went to the bell tower. At the stroke of midnight the bell was rung and all the candles were extinguished. When this happened, every boy grabbed the nearest girl and kissed her. This action was anticipated, so boys who wanted to kiss certain girls made sure they were standing next to them when the candles went out. Stories are told of girls who did not want kisses from certain boys stepping to one side. This often resulted in guys kissing guys to the mutual dissatisfaction of all concerned. Since I was very shy as a teenager, I did not take part in these events. Word got round through the "Playground Telegraph" indicating that "Watch Night" events were good for both the body and the soul. Locally the ringing of bells on New Year's Eve is carried out every year by two of Burford's best known citizens minus the candles and the "Kussy-wussy".

And so the sound of many different bells rang through the minds of 1920's children and we made certain choices of admission or rejection. However, since our minds had not been "made glad" by the wonders of CD ROM cyberspace, the Internet or the Simpsons, we had time to reflect on the choices we made. In the process, some of the sounds of those distant bells became associated with that greatest moment of love and kindness known as Christmas and, as the poem says, "I heard the bells of Christmastime, their great immortal message ring". There must be more to say on this subject, but I won't be the one to say it.

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The Sound of Distant Bells by Mel Robertson, from The Burford Times

From the 1970s through the 1980s, Mel Robertson wrote many articles for the Burford Advance and Burford Times on the history of Burford Township. This clipping contains the article The Sound of Distant Bells. It describes children's attitude to Christmas in the 1920s. The article may not have been republished.

Newspaper clippings donated by Liz (Robertson) Brown; reprinted with permission from The Burford Times.