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Keen bellringers have been keeping the bells of St James Old Cathedral sounding since 1853.

Pictured (left to right): Andrew Cole, Leon Altoff, Jonathan Avery, Paige Kranz, Bill Cook, Audrey Falconer.

Photographer: Laura E. Goodin

West Melbourne holds a special place in the heart of Laura Goodin, a US expatriate who travels from Ballarat every week to ring the bells at St James’ Old Cathedral.

Laura lived in Essendon when she first discovered the old English tradition of bellringing, a fascinating pastime that combines her desire for community connection with her interests in music, history, culture, engineering, geography and physics.

The Cathedral’s band of volunteer ringers – who range in age from mid-20s to 70s – hail from across Melbourne and come together over their common passion for bellringing.

‘It’s really special to accomplish something as a team, relying on each other to work together,’ said Laura.

The eight massive bells are controlled by human ringers pulling on ropes, to produce intricate and beautiful patterns of sound.

Portrait photo of woman with short hair

Laura Goodin has made lasting friendships with her fellow bellringers in West Melbourne

Old English bell

The bells of St James Old Cathedral have been part of the Melbourne soundscape for generations

Photographer: Laura E. Goodin

The lasting friendships with her fellow band members, and a love of the Cathedral’s bells are what keep Laura coming back to West Melbourne, despite the distance.

‘Each bell has its own idiosyncrasies, and every tower is slightly different, so the Cathedral attracts bellringers from across the globe, who travel to Australia with our bells on their itinerary.

Laura explained that there is no set number of ringers, so the number of bells used and the approach taken varies.

‘Because of the way the bell tower is configured, it can also get quite crowded in the window-less chamber, so we’ve had to make adjustments during the pandemic.

However, bellringing is accessible to everyone, regardless of physical strength, with the Cathedral also housing a smaller and lighter mini-ring of eight bells.

Laura says their small size makes them an excellent entry into bellringing, for people of all ages, but especially young people.

‘It's terrific for helping children build coordination and teamwork in a supportive, non-competitive environment,’ said Laura.

The bellringers welcome visitors to their Friday evening practices. To arrange a visit, or to find out about learning to ring, contact Laura E. Goodin on 0432 695 505.

The ancient art of bellringing

History of bellringing at St James’ Old Cathedral

St James’ Old Cathedral is of historical importance as the first cathedral in Melbourne, the earliest surviving church in Victoria, and one of Melbourne's earliest surviving buildings.

It is one of the relatively few buildings in the central city that predate the Victorian gold rush of 1851.

Melbourne's first peal of bells - six of them - was hung in St James' Cathedral in 1853, and two more bells were added in 1885.

It’s believed that an experienced bellringer from England, who was in Melbourne banking his profits from the goldfields, saw the bells being hung and decided to stay in town and establish a band of bellringers.

The eight bells of St James Old Cathedral were the first in Melbourne to be sounded in the style of change ringing.

The bells immediately assumed a significant role in the cultural and religious life of the new City of Melbourne and the colony of Victoria.

While the Cathedral was originally built on the corner of William and Little Collins Streets, in 1913 it was moved stone by stone, to its current location on the corner of King Street and Batman Street, opposite Flagstaff Gardens.

History of St James' Old Cathedral

St James' Old Cathedral and tower

The church structure, including its bell tower, was moved stone by stone from Collins Street to King and Batman Streets in 1913

Photographer: Laura E. Goodin