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A History of the University Carillon

Uncovering for whom the bells toll.

The University Carillon — the bells in the Quadrangle — regularly rings out over campus, but few pay it much heed and fewer still know its history. Beyond the chiming of its bells lies a remarkable and contentious past which involved some of New South Wales’ most influential figures, and brought a Vice-Chancellor to the brink of resignation.

One of the most distinctive features of campus life is, in fact, a monument to the dead. The University Carillon is, formally, the University War Memorial Carillon — a memorial to the students, staff and alumni of the University who fought and died in the First World War. The outbreak of the war enraptured the newly federated Australia, with tens of thousands rushing to enlist. The University was no different, with some 1,800 students and graduates enlisting, 197 of whom would be killed over the course of the war. At a time when active annual enrolments totalled less than 2,000 during the war years, this was a significant number.

With the war’s end, the University Senate resolved to construct a “suitable memorial” for those “who have given their lives in the service of the Empire in the Great War.” A series of options was canvassed: a swimming pool, a hostel, a sports ground, and no less than a University War Memorial Boat Shed. It would not be until 1923, five years after the war’s end, that the Evening Students’ Association would put forward a proposal for a carillon to fill the role.

A carillon is a huge musical instrument, consisting of tuned bells played from a keyboard. Carillons are rare: only two others exist in Australia, in Bathurst and Canberra, and the University was to have the country’s first. The carillon proposal quickly garnered widespread support and planning began for the mammoth task of raising the necessary funds. Bells would have to be cast in England, transported by ship to Sydney and installed through the roof of a reinforced and restructured Quadrangle clocktower. The cost was expected to be £15,000 (about $1.2 million today). Each of the 49 bells would be funded by individuals or groups — £21 for the smallest, £1,500 for the largest — with the right of inscription afforded to some.

The endeavour provoked huge public interest, with an all-encompassing fundraising effort involving fetes, memorial services, plays by the Sydney University Dramatic Society and a visit from Dame Nellie Melba. Veteran organisations contributed significantly, with AIF (Australia Imperial Force) eventually being inscribed on the largest, 4-ton bell.

The intensity of support was seemingly motivated out of a perceived debt to the “Great souls who by their blood won for us this our native land,” as the carillon’s motto proclaimed. The war is seldom seen in the same terms today. There was a clear expectation that the carillon would forever preserve the memory of the dead, and though the bells still ring today, few now know for whom.

By the end of 1924, over £17,000 — almost £700,000 in today’s terms — had been raised. “Seldom has any movement so captured the popular imagination,” wrote the Sydney Morning Herald. John Taylor & Co of England were contracted for the princely sum of £17,397, which would cover bells, a frame, construction costs, and £75 for “the cost of carriage from wharf to University” of 47 tons of metal. Despite ordering 49 bells, the frame was wisely constructed to hold 54, which would allow for the instrument’s expansion decades later.  

With bell casting and construction plans well underway, the project appeared to be a triumph. But in 1925, a group of academics began to disrupt the University’s plans. They were concerned that the musical quality of the carillon would inevitably be compromised if it were housed in the Quadrangle clocktower, and that only a standalone campanile (a free-standing bell tower) could do the instrument justice.

Vice-Chancellor Mungo MacCallum was not pleased with the eleventh-hour criticisms. In April 1926, the University Senate gave the newly formed University Campanile Committee just six months to raise the necessary extra funds for their proposed campanile, or face the carillon as originally proposed. Had the Committee been successful, a 70-metre bell tower would stand where Fisher Coffee Cart is today.

The Committee’s member list reads as a Who’s Who of Sydney society at the time. Former NSW Premier George Fuller served as chairman, along with vice-chairman John Bradfield — the famed engineer who would go on to design the Harbour Bridge — and Isabel Fidler and Professors Wilkinson and Madsen, now the namesakes of University rooms and buildings.

The cost of a campanile was prohibitive. The Committee conservatively estimated that a further £25,000 would suffice, while Bradfield personally believed a minimum of £60,000 was required, far more than the carillon itself. Yet these harsh realities did not prevent the committee producing wild illustrations of grand towers, in some cases literally reaching to the clouds, which would stand “for a thousand years to come,” according to their fundraising brochures.

Not content with an audible reminder of the memorial, the Committee wanted a visible structure that was suitable for “not only the greatest but also the most beautiful set of bells ever fashioned by the hand of man.” No expense was to be spared. The tower would have a lift to carry sightseers to the top, electric lights and a large plaza at the base. It would be a “fitting monument of a great and glorious episode of adventure and suffering, death and victory.” In the opinion of one member, to settle for the Quadrangle clocktower would be “unworthy of the university, unworthy of our own past, of the example of our fathers, of the sacrifice of our brothers and sons and comrades.”

But things did not go smoothly for the Campanile Committee. Six months of fundraising became ten, and the Senate eventually received a letter from Fuller in February 1927 blaming a University cancer research appeal for drying up campanile funds. The Senate was deeply unimpressed. Chancellor William Cullen severely criticised the “extremely unsatisfactory” request for more time, the inactivity of the Committee and its continued avoidance of a final campanile design and cost estimate. The meeting was contentious enough to force a special Senate meeting to resolve the situation, in which a further one-month extension was narrowly granted to the Committee.

The Vice-Chancellor promptly resigned. MacCallum had repeatedly sought to emphasise the supremacy of the Senate and was incensed that, in his view, the Campanile Committee was undermining the Senate’s authority. He condemned the Committee’s “mischievous” vice-chairman Henry Barraclough for publicly requesting campanile funds beyond the Committee’s original October mandate. MacCallum rescinded his resignation only after Barraclough sent a deferential apology letter expressing his “sincere and unreserved regrets for his actions.”

His position secured and Barraclough admonished, MacCallum went on the offensive. A day after the special meeting, he sent a letter to the press imploring people not to contribute to the campanile fund, which he saw as unnecessary and a danger to planned fundraising for the University’s 75th anniversary. The campaign for a campanile was effectively over.

That a musical instrument could elicit such venom is indicative not only of the passion the project inspired in so many, but also of the strain which severe economic constraints and post-war austerity had placed on the University at the time. The present-day is not the first time that tertiary education has found itself in dire straits.

Final plans for the carillon were drawn up by Bradfield himself, and it was installed in time for Anzac Day 1928. At least ten thousand people turned out for its inauguration, accompanied by a full military ceremony with a procession by the Sydney University Regiment, a salute from a field gun and a prayer for the ‘King and Nation’, in scenes which are difficult to imagine today. Chopin’s Funeral March was the first piece played. Although the carillon was designed to automatically chime on the hour and quarter-hour, the mechanism “proved something of a flop” and “went into compulsory early retirement,” writes carillonist John Douglas Gordon.

The inaugural carillonist that day was visiting Englishman Bryan Barker. According to David Wood’s history of the carillon: “Mr Barker left Sydney shortly after this for the United States. Little has been heard of him since.” But others stayed and have become part of a select and tight-knit international community, with official University Carillonists taking on assistants and numerous honorary carillonists who often stay for long periods, such as Gordon’s extraordinary 58 years of playing.

While it briefly fell silent between 1973 and 1977 as some bells were recast and more added, the 54 bells of the modern carillon continue to play regularly for events, recitals and graduations, ringing out over a city which has largely forgotten their original purpose, but continues to appreciate their beauty.