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St Johns to ring in a royal birth

St Johns Reid Bell Ringer Matthew Stokoe in the bell room at the church in Reid. Matthew will play the bells to mark the Royal birth.

St Johns Reid Bell Ringer Matthew Stokoe in the bell room at the church in Reid. Matthew will play the bells to mark the Royal birth. Photo: Rohan Thomson

As the world awaits the arrival of Baby Cambridge, so too does Canberra’s youngest bell ringer.

Matthew Stokoe, a Melrose High School student and the youngest bell ringer at St John’s Church, will be reviving the tradition of the ringing of the bells at the Anglican Church – one of Canberra’s oldest buildings – when a royal baby is born.

When Prince Andrew was born in the early hours of February 20, 1960, Archdeacon Fred M. Hill, who was the director of the parish, was woken in the middle of the night by a journalist who alerted him of the news Queen Elizabeth had given birth to her second child.

Any time now...  the Duchess of Cambridge is due to have her baby soon.

Any time now... the Duchess of Cambridge is due to have her baby soon. Photo: Chris Jackson

He made his way to the church in Reid, along with his young son, David, to ring the bells and inform the community. The bells rang for five minutes at 3am.  

Mr Hill has now returned to Canberra as the minister of the church and is looking forward to reviving the tradition which, at the time, made headlines at home and abroad.

“I remember the Canberra Times calling the house at around 2am asking if we were going to ring the bells now that Prince Andrew was born. It had been tradition for many years to ring the bells at the church when a royal baby was born,” Reverend Hill Jnr said.

The front page of the Canberra Times, February 20 1960.

The front page of the Canberra Times, February 20 1960. Photo: National Library of Australia

“We didn’t get any noise complaints from the neighbours but it apparently made the front page of The Times in London that we rang the bells in the middle of the night.”

Four years following the birth of Andrew, the church received a gift from the final non-Australian Governor-General Viscount De L’Isle. That gift was eight new bells, the largest weighing more than three tonne, to commemorate to the passing of his wife who loved Canberra. They were engraved with her name, Jacqueline, and installed into the tower which was built in the 1860s.

Even though many royal babies have been born since Andrew, the ritual of the ringing of St John’s bells died once the Archdeacon left Canberra.

Keen to reinstate the tolling tradition, Reverend Hill and young campanologist Matthew will be bringing back the bell ringing for William and Catherine’s newborn, which is expected any day (or night) now.

It will be the first time the Viscount’s bells will be put to use to mark the birth of a monarch and Matthew will ring them at anytime of the day or night.

The young musician has been playing the bells for six years. He first learned the craft by playing Christmas carols on the bells at St Andrews in Forrest. He now plays the Ellacombe chime apparatus every Sunday for five minutes before 9.30am mass in full regalia, which includes a top hat and tails. He practices every Monday afternoon and will play his first wedding in March 2014.

“My former teacher has asked me to be the official bell ringer for her daughter’s wedding, it will be my first wedding and this will be my first royal birth,” Matthew said.   

“There are 40,320 different formations of the eight bells you can play before you have to repeat any. I enjoy playing the professional ringing rather than Hymn tunes.”

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