History of Bells and of the Halifax Explosion Memorial Bell Tower

Local historian and author Janet Kitz was an expert on the Halifax Explosion, and was also an active member of the Memorial Bells Committee which was a driving force behind establishing the Memorial Bell Tower monument in Fort Needham Park. Kitz prepared a brief history of the Halifax Explosion and the development of the Memorial Bell Tower to include in their 1985 time capsule. Her account was accompanied by a set of slides, numbered to accompany her text (CR58-28). As part of the Municipal Archives' commemoration of the Halifax Explosion, we present this digital version of Mrs. Kitz's history as faithfully as possible:

The Halifax Explosion Memorial Bell Tower

by Janet F. Kitz

Colour postcard of Halifax pre-explosion

Halifax looking north, prior to explosion. Sugar Refinery smokestack in background. HMA CR58-28.1

December 6th, 1917, dawned, a bright, clear morning. The Orr’s had just moved into their fine new house in Richmond, in the north end of Halifax a week earlier. It stood on Kenny Street, south of The Narrows, with a commanding view of Halifax Harbour and the ships of many nations that made wartime Halifax Canada's busiest port.

Mr. and Mrs. Samuel Orr, their six children, and Mr. William Orr, Samuel's father, made up the household.

That morning Mr. Orr Senior had left early to go to the family owned Richmond Printing Works. His son was delayed, and it was after half past eight when he set off, on foot. One of the children was recovering from measles, and so the whole family was excluded from school, normal practice at the time, to try to prevent the spread of infection. After their father had gone, Barbara and Ian, the two oldest, were watching the harbour from the big bay window in the dining room. They saw the strange behaviour of the Norwegian Imo, with the letters BELGIAN RELIEF prominently on her side, and the Mont Blanc. "They looked as if they were deliberately trying to run into each other,” Barbara reported. Mrs. Orr and the younger children joined them, on hearing their exclamations of excitement and disbelief. They all stared, fascinated, at the drama that unfolded. First there was the collision, quickly followed by a trickle of smoke from the Mont Blanc. Soon the smoke increased.

Ian, an enthusiastic ship watcher, said, “That looks like an ammunition boat.” Barbara was worried that it might explode, but their mother thought there was no danger. She could see that none of the sailors or dockworkers was moving away. Indeed, the waterfront was becoming more crowded by the minute as the fire engulfed the ship. The three oldest begged to go out to have a closer look, and were permitted to do so.

Black and white image of a large cloud of smoke

Smoke from the explosion. HMA CR58-28.2

Barbara decided to make a detour to see if a friend might be at home, so that they could watch together. As she ran down towards the water she could hear the shouts of the men fighting the fire. Now she stopped, spellbound, as the huge column of smoke rose, balls of fire darting up through it. Then all noise seemed to stop.

Suddenly she was no longer standing, but had the sensation of being violently moved, of somersaulting in and out of deep holes. She came to herself on top of Fort Needham, carried a considerable distance uphill by the force of the explosion. One tightly laced boot had vanished. She was covered with oil and soot, and her face stung from many small cuts. She tried to stand, but the pain was intense.

Black and white photograph of smoke above houses

Fire and smoke over Richmond. HMA CR58-28.3

She crawled, looking for help. Frantic people with appalling injuries were crying, "The Germans are here.” She tried to say that a ship had blown up, but no one would listen. She looked over towards her home, but there was only smoke and devastation. She had relatives on Gottingen Street, further away from the harbour, and went there. Still there was wreckage, but no fire. After a great deal of pain and uncertainty, she was taken to Camp Hill Hospital on a fish cart.

Newspaper reporters daily scoured hospitals and places of refuge, listed names of people and where they could be found. For some time after the explosion such lists appeared in newspapers, and were invaluable. An aunt read Barbara's name and hurried to Camp Hill. Barbara called out to her, but, to begin with, she refused to believe that the blackened girl was her pale, red haired niece. Blue T.N.T. marks are still visible, sixty-eight years later, but Barbara survived…the only member of her family to do so.

Black and white photograph of a ruined building

Ruins of Richmond Printing Company. HMA CR58-28.4

Her father never reached the printing works. Perhaps he stopped to watch the ships. Her mother and the three youngest children were killed when the house collapsed and caught fire. It was a wooden house with a coal furnace. The other two children died before they reached the harbour. Her grandfather, at the works, was not seriously hurt, but another uncle suffered injuries, a second was killed along with over thirty workers.

Grove Presbyterian Church, built in 1872, stood on the northerly slope of Fort Needham. It was an attractive building with a commanding steeple. In 1915, new seats, lighting fixtures and a pipe organ, were installed, as well as fine hardwood floors. The Reverend Mr. C.J. Crowdis was minister.

Black and white photograph of a church

Pre-Explosion photograph of Grove Presbyterian Church. HMA CR58-28.5

The hall, completed in 1910 and paid off by 1914, served as a social centre and Sunday School for the flourishing congregation. The evening of December 5th, 1917, was marked by a celebration in the hall. All improvements had now been paid for. From now on all would be clear sailing.

Colour image of a church

Pre-Explosion painting of Grove Presbyterian Church. HMA CR58-28.6

Kaye Street Methodist, opened in 1869, stood on a prominent site on the southerly slope of Fort Needham, its parsonage across the road on Young Street. The Reverend W.J.W. Swetnam was minister in 1917.

Black and white image of a church

Pre-Explosion photograph of Kaye Street Methodist Church. HMA CR58.28.7

Colour image of a church

Pre-Explosion painting of Kaye Street Methodist Church. HMA CR58.28.8

Both churches and manses were destroyed in the explosion. Mrs. Crowdis and her sister were very seriously injured. Mrs. Swetnam and her son, Carmen, were killed. In one instant 239 parishioners were killed, and many more blinded or maimed for life. Few had a roof over their heads.

Black and white photograph of ruined church and school.

Ruins of Grove Church and Richmond School. HMA CR58-28.9

That night some were in places of refuge far away from Halifax. Others were huddled in rooms with little protection against the snowstorm which added to the misery. A number lay in the cells of the local prison. Friends and relatives gave shelter as best they could in their damaged homes. Many more were in the overcrowded hospitals.

Black and white photograph of a ruined church

Ruins of Grove Manse. HMA CR58-28.10

Two other churches in the area, St. Mark's Anglican and St. Joseph's Roman Catholic, were also left in ruins, their congregations similarly dispersed.

Black and white photograph of a ruined church

Ruins of St Joseph’s. HMA CR58-28.11

For a hundred days the hospitality of other churches was accepted, but, on March 17th, 1918, the “Tarpaper Church,” a temporary structure built with Methodist and Presbyterian funds, was used for combined worship for the two congregations. Anglican and Roman Catholic services were also held there for a time.

Colour image of a church.

Temporary Kaye Grove Church, the “Tarpaper Church.” HMA CR58-28.12

To begin with, both ministers worked, and indeed had a great deal to do, helping the victims of the explosion. The depleted congregations fitted well together, and it was decided to create a new building, the Kaye-Grove Church, and to form a complete union. Mr. Swetnam accepted a call to a church at some distance from Halifax, and Mr. Crowdis was asked to act as pastor for the combined group.

In June, 1920, the union was officially recognised, and the name changed to the United Memorial Church, thus preceding the establishment of the United Church of Canada by over four years.

Colour photograph of the exterior of a church

United Memorial Church. HMA CR58-28.13

Colour photograph of a church bell.

Bell from the church. HMA CR58-28.14

In 1920, a chime of bells was presented to the church by Barbara Orr, in memory of her family. Her uncle made the arrangements for their purchase from a firm in New York. Barbara played the carillon at the dedication ceremony.

The inscription on the largest bell reads: "In Memoriam. Samuel Orr and his wife Annie S. Orr, and their children, Ian, Mary, Archie, Isabel and James, who departed this life December 6th 1917. Presented by their daughter, Barbara, 1920.”

For nearly fifty years the bells rang out. Carols sounded over the reconstructed area on Christmas Eve. A hymn called the congregation to worship on a Sunday morning. A parishioner, blinded in the explosion when he was a young child, remembers being taught to pull the great levers, and felt proud when he heard the melody that he could produce on the bells.

Colour photograph of the exterior of a church with the bell carillon covered by tarps.

Bells under tarpaulins. HMA CR58-28.15

In the middle 1960s it became obvious that, because of a structural weakness in the tower, it was unsafe to play the carillon. The vibration and weight of the ten heavy bells demanded a much stronger tower.

In 1975 the decision was reluctantly made to remove them from the tower, as a safety precaution, and they lay, covered in tarpaulins on the lawn in front of the church. A committee of elders made great efforts to solve the problem. The city was asked for help, and many avenues explored.

On Monday, July 4th, 1983, a meeting was called by the Hon. Edmund Morris, M.L.A. for Needham, to discuss the future of the carillon. Present in the church were the Hon Edmund Morris, the three members of the church committee, Judge R.E. Inglis, Dr. Ian MacGregor, and Mr. Roy Wilson. Mr. Bruce Nickerson, Q.C., Mr. Reginald Prest and Mrs. Janet Kitz had also been asked to attend because of their interest in the matter.

Mr. Morris was able to announce his success in obtaining a substantial grant from the Province of Nova Scotia, so that it would now be possible to consider building a tower, both as a home for the bells, and as an Explosion memorial.

After much discussion it was decided to form the Halifax Explosion Memorial Bells Committee, under the chairmanship of Mr. Reginald Prest the Hon. Edmund Morris and Judge R.E. Inglis being honorary chairmen. Judge Inglis, at that time a very spry ninety-six-year-old, had been active in church affairs for well over sixty years. Unfortunately, he died before the project, so dear to him, was completed.

Later the committee was enlarged to include others with interests in this area of the city, and those with expertise in such fields necessary for the work which lay ahead.

The first task was to move the bells for proper storage, where they could be examined and refurbished. As so often in Halifax's history, the Canadian navy was called in to help.

Black and white photograph of a man and woman beside church bell carillon

Mrs. Barbara Thompson (Orr) with the Rt. Hon. Edmund Morris. HMA CR58-28.16

On Tuesday, July 26th, 1983, with some ceremony, the carillon was removed to the Naval Armament Property.

Black and white photograph of church bell carillon being loaded onto a flatbed truck

Bells being removed to flatbed for transportation. HMA CR58-28.17

An architectural competition was held. The winning bell tower design was that of Keith Graham of the Core Design Group.

Black and white architectural sketches of a monument

Design of monument. HMA CR58-28.18

Some initial difficulties with the proposed site on Fort Needham were ironed out. On June 1st, 1984, the first sod was turned by Barbara Orr (now Thompson). Every ceremony has been well attended by explosion survivors, who express their satisfaction at having a suitable monument on Fort Needham, overlooking the scene of catastrophe, and the reconstruction of the devastated area.

Colour photograph of a woman and two men posing with a shovel at a sod turning ceremony.

Sod Turning Ceremony. Mrs. Barbara Thompson (Orr) with Dr. Ian MacGregor, 1985. HMA CR58-28.19

On a warm, sunny Sunday afternoon, June 9th, 1985, the dedication ceremony took place. The completed bell tower with the ten gleaming bronze bells reared above the large crowd, some of whom had travelled considerable distances to be there. Dr. Percy McGrath, now over ninety, came to Halifax from Kentville, just as he had on December 6th, 1917, when he was one of the first doctors to arrive to help the stricken city. This was a happier, and warmer occasion.

Colour photograph of a crowd

Spectators at the Sod Turning Ceremony, 1985. HMA CR58-28.20

There were fine speeches, but the highlight, was when the sound of the bells once again pealed over the area that was once Richmond, and was heard across the harbour in Dartmouth, whose northern settlement was also devastated by the explosion. Once again, as in 1920, the carillon was played by Barbara Orr (now Thompson), helped by her cousin Bill, in whose family she grew up. This time there was no need to pull down the large levers, as the bells have been electrified, and are played either from a small keyboard, or even electronically with a cassette. They can be programmed to ring at certain times.

Colour photograph of a monument

Completed Monument. HMA CR58-28.21

Colour photograph of a field with houses in the background

The Hydrostone. Original Relief Commission Housing. HMA CR58-28.22

Colour photograph of a field with hoses and Halifax harbour in the background

Site of the Explosion, 1985. HMA CR58-28.23

After the ceremonies, tea was served. Survivors, many of whom had not met for years, talked animatedly. Families, who had probably heard many of the stories before, stood by proudly. There had been sadness in remembering those who had died, but now the sun was shining, and a common bond linked those on the hill.

On December 6th 1985, the time capsule is being inserted. As well as other memorabilia of 1917 and 1985, are the letters of donors who related the experiences of their families during the explosion. Donations have come from as far afield as Scotland and California. Many are in memory of relatives who were killed. One family gave $25,000. Seven of their closest relatives died.

The tower and bells are a permanent memorial to the men, women and children who were killed, the identified and the unidentified, to those who were never found, the maimed, the blinded, to the thousands who lost everything they owned in the greatest man-made explosion till Hiroshima, the Halifax Explosion of December 6th, 1917.

It is also a reminder of the spirit and vision which led to the rebirth of a whole section of the city.

--Janet Kitz