AWA's "Carillons"



I'll admit to being a bit surprised when I first heard that Australian electronics company A.W.A. (Amalgamated Wireless Australasia) used to manufacture "carillons".  I'd toured the AWA factory back in the 1960's and I don't remember seeing any bells!  A.W.A made radios and later TVs.  What would they know about carillons? 

This ad gives us the clue....

Aha!  "Amplified Chime Carillons".  But what are they?  Fortunately, a search of the National Library's Trove database yields us some more information....

A Description Of The Carillon

(taken from the Singleton Argus, Friday 31 October, 1947)

The A.W.A. electronic tubular bell carillon is an instrument entirely new in design and in itself a complete reproducing unit for the change music so dear to the hearts of all English from the music written for the people of the low countries of Europe and others of ancient law.
The instrument is independent of any type of recording, as is so often used as an inferior substitute for this type of music.
The carillon was developed to its present high standard in the laboratories of A.W.A. by its own technicians and engineers to break the long silence of so many of our beautiful churches.
A complete set of bells with the same musical range would be practically unprocurable to-day, and in many instances prohibitive, because of the high cost originally and in the cost of installation, even if a belfry or tower of suitable mechanical strength was available to house them.
The instrument also, like others of its type, does not interfere in any way with the existing organ and allows players to fully express themselves as to their interpretation of music by light and shade, because soft and light striking of the keys has been made possible. Softer reproduction than by the bell types has been made possible.
Sounds are sent out by high powered amplifiers.


Half notes are included in the range of one and a half octaves (C to F') which enable practically any piece of music to be faithfully reproduced. This factor is one of the utmost importance.
Scope of tunes which can be played on the carillon is practically unlimited.
When an electric carillon recital was given a short time ago in Sydney by Mr. Philip G. Woods, organist at St. Anne's Church, Ryde, he played the following items:
English Change Bells (Grandsire Peal in Eight Bells; Steadman's Plain Course).
Clock Chimes and Strike.
Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring (Bach).
Silent-Night, Ring Out, O Bells, Rule Britannia, John Peel, Ashgrove, White Wings, Land of Hope and Glory.
Killarney, When Irish Eyes are Smiling, The Minstrel Boy, Believe Me If All Those Endearing Young Charms.
Blue Bells of Scotland, The Bonnie Banks of Loch Ye Banks and Braes.
Silent Worship (Handel), Beautiful Isle of Somewhere, Carillon, Austrian Duke Street, Auld Lang Syne and the National Anthem.
The solid maple console protects the bells and damage is impossible. This was designed and build by Mr. Noad, who needs no introduction to the organ enthusiasts of this country.
Simplicity of the console has made the installation problem a simple one.
No musical knowledge is essential in the playing of the carillon, and it has been played on several occasions by young people who could not play a piano or organ.
Any person who can pick out a tune with one finger can successfully play the A.W.A. carillon.
How very different this is to the old methods and hours of strenuous practice needed to take even a small part in bell-ringing by professional methods!
On sharply depressing a key, which takes little more effort than a piano, a simply-balanced hammer carries forward and strikes a tubular bell, and loudness is dependant entirely on the force expended in depressing the key. The hammer then recedes, leaving the bell free to ring in its true tone.
When the key is allowed to rise, a soft felt damper is automatically applied to a scientifically predetermined part on the bell to eliminate the sustained ringing that has so often been raised as an objection in this type or even with a fully rung carillon, or even a ring of bells.
Thus, clear, true ringing is produced through high-powered amplifiers, which can be controlled according to the topography of the surrounding district.
The supervisor of installation IS A SINGLETON NATIVE
The man who was in charge of the installation of the carillon is a native of Singleton, so that the advent of such a church innovation has more than ordinary significance.
That man is Mr. Lan Clark-Duff, of Roseyille, a member of the technical staff of A.W.A.
He was born at Singleton, where his father, the Rev. Victor Clark-Duff was Presbyterian Minister for a number of years.
Mr. Lan Clark-Duff left Singleton about 1920 or 1921 and he obtained a position with A.W.A. some 11 years ago, this leading to his present responsibilities.

A peek inside...

This rear-view image comes to us from the Powerhouse Museum site.  The instrument, now part of the MAAS collection, was formerly installed at St Matthews Anglican Church in Manly.

What can we see?  (This is largely conjecture; hopefully we will be able to find out more as time progresses.)
  • the inside of the timber cabinet, lined with a rough underfelt padding tacked in.  Keeping in mind that a microphone will be enclosed in the cabinet to pick up the sounds of the tubular bells, the padding is probably aimed at reducing the cabinet resonances.  Given the padding is pretty thin, only upper partials will be much reduced.  It's possible that this is intentional, perhaps offering some extra low sonority to the otherwise fairly short bells.
  • a simple frame to hold the bells, in the form of the metal tubes running up each side and across the top, with several wooden laths running horizontally.
  • the tubular bells themselves, of which there appear to be 18 in this instrument, giving the range C to F. The rods are suspended on short cords from their tops. (There appear to be holes for two more bells at each end, which would give a range of 22 notes, from Bb to G, fully chromatic.  Still short of the 23 bells now regarded as the minimum for a carillon!)
  • red damping felt, running horizontally about halfway up the box
  • a foot damping (or perhaps sustain?) pedal at left of box, for the right foot.  The pedal seems to communicate with the damping felt previously mentioned.
  • a black cable exiting the box from a small hole at the bottom rear, but with the spare end temporarily hooked over the pedal mechanism.  This is probably the microphone cable that would have communicated the sound of the bells with the big amplifier needed to drive the tower speakers.  The microphone connector is visible dangling at the bottom of the left tubular frame.  The other end of the cable appears to go to the white box on the wooden shelf three quarters of the way up the casework.
  • Note that there appears to be no electronics (i.e. valves, in that era) in the cabinet, perhaps a little surprising given that AWA was a wireless (and later TV) company.  But there does appear to be some electrics.  One of the images on the Powerhouse site gives us a glimpse of what appears to be contacts at the back of the keyboard area.  And colour-coded wire pairs (in the time-honoured multicore colour scheme based on blue-green-orange-brown-slate) leading from them.  What that is for is still to be determined.
  • A white-sheathed cable and two separate wires, red and black, near the top right, purpose not known, but possibly mains input and low voltage to drive electrics?

Questions arising

The Singleton Argus article (above) included this discussion on the instrument's action:

On sharply depressing a key, which takes little more effort than a piano, a simply-balanced hammer carries forward and strikes a tubular bell, and loudness is dependant entirely on the force expended in depressing the key. The hammer then recedes, leaving the bell free to ring in its true tone.
When the key is allowed to rise, a soft felt damper is automatically applied to a scientifically predetermined part on the bell to eliminate the sustained ringing that has so often been raised as an objection in this type or even with a fully rung carillon, or even a ring of bells.

This suggests a simple upright-piano style action has been put in place to strike and dampen the bells.  But then we see the electrical contacts and wiring in the Powerhouse image, suggesting some kind of electric action.  But if electric action, how do they achieve (in 1947!) any kind of touch sensitivity, as described in the first paragraph above?

We should of course consider the possibility that more than one version of this instrument existed in its relatively short life.

The front view

By now, I'm imagining you are thinking, typical instrument maker, only interested in what's under the bonnet.  OK, let's look out front.

This image, from an instrument still working at St Stephen’s Uniting Church in Macquarie Street, Sydney is, I suspect, from a later version.  It's more "sheer", and less "ecclesiastic" than the instrument depicted in the advertisement at top.


But immediately we notice:

  • How narrow the keyboard looks
  • How tall the stool, needed to get the player up to keyboard level
  • No sign of the damper/sustain pedal as previously mentioned.

This magazine image does seem to suggest a simple mechanical action....

The keyboard is classic piano, with the keys rocking on balance pins visible just behind the tails of the black notes.  Rods attached to the tails of the keys carry the motion out to the sides, and lift push rods that take the energy to the top of the tubular bells.  I imagine there are simple mechanical hammers and damping pads at the top of the push rods, similar in principle to upright piano hammers and dampers. But again it's all conjecture until we get to see inside one for ourselves.

Where this all started....

We are lucky to have this reminiscence of early electronics pioneer, Ernest Benson, from Neville Williams, long-term editor of the magazine Electronics Australia....

Christmas chimes

That Ern Benson did not have a one-track mind became evident in 1940, when worshippers heading for the Christmas Morning service at St Anne's Anglican Church at Ryde were amazed to be greeted by the sound of a carillon, emanating from the normally mute stone tower. It transpired that the Rector (Mr Stubbin) and Ernest Benson had 'got their heads together' and set up a public address system in the tower, fed from an amplifier, a phono pickup and a selection of records carrying chime music. To both rector and congregation, the sound brought just the right atmosphere to the occasion.

Then in 1943, the parishioners made a presentation to Mr Stubbins to commemorate the 21st anniversary of his induction as Rector of Ryde. He, in turn, handed the cheque back to the Church wardens to be used towards the purchase of a set of orchestral chimes. It fell to the lot of Ern Benson to translate the gesture into a reality, beginning with the purchase of a set of tubular bell chimes from the Premier Drum Co (UK), suitable for keyboard operation. Ernest himself devised the mechanism and constructed the keyboard in memory of his mother, Ethel Benson. A fellow parishioner, Mr L. Vincent constructed the console.

Electronic pickup from the tubular bells and an amplifier feeding loud-speakers in the tower completed the installation. The loudspeakers were AWA public address flared horns, fitted with multiple drivers. The installation was dedicated on February 27, 1944 by Archbishop Howard Mown. AWA subsequently commercialised the design and installed an electronic chime carillon in about 25 churches, including Lithgow, Singleton, Scone, Hurstville, St Matthew's at Manly, and the Roman Catholic church at Darlinghurst. One was even shipped to Bombay in India. An AWA model was also installed in St Anne's, and the Benson original was presented by the Church to the Cathedral of the Holy Spirit at Todoma in the Diocese of Tanganyika — half a world away.

Special occasions

At a professional level, the Chime Carillon was played at the Melbourne Town Hall by Professor Bernard Heinze. Also by Professor D.R. Peart, Professor of Music at Sydney University, from an installation in the AWA tower atop their Head Office building at 45 York St, Sydney; the occasion was the birth of Prince Charles. How time passes! Broadcast on short wave over Radio Australia, the Melbourne performance was heard by Garth Major of the Antarctic Research Expedition on Macquarie Island. Reception was verified by cable to the AWA Melbourne office.

Commercial production of the carillon has since been terminated by AWA by reason of reorganisation and rising labour cost. The installation at St Anne's in Ryde is still functional. It was silent for a while for lack of an experienced player, but the role has since been filled — again — by Mavis Benson on Sunday mornings, in memory of her husband.

A practical advantage of the electronic carillon, she says, is that, unlike their traditional counterpart, the loudness can be moderated — out of consideration for neighbours who may want to sleep in on Sunday mornings! The observation reminded me of an alleged conversation between two neighbours in an unspecified English village:

"Beautiful bells aren't they?"

"Sorry — I can't hear you!"

"I said: the bells are beautiful - so much a part of the English tradition."

"I'm afraid it's no use. I can't hear you for those (adjectival) bells!"

(from: "When I Think Back..." by Neville Williams, ELECTRONICS Australia, January 1996)

Other reports

And, rounding out the material above, we have several more reports of these instruments....

St Luke`s War Memorial Carillon


The Carillon was installed to commemorate those from the town and district who served in World War Two and as a thanks offering for victory. The honour roll located over the keyboard in the carillon lists the names of those who died in service or were killed in action during World War Two. The Carillon also contains a Book of Remembrance which contains the names of those from the Scone District who served in World War Two. 

The first playing of the carillon was in July 1948 but the dedication at that service was delayed owing to the fact that the Bishop of the Diocese (Right Reverend Dr. de Witt Batty) was in England.

It has been definitely decided by the Vestry and congregation of St. Luke's parish church, Scone, to install A.W.A. carillon equipment in the bell tower of St. Luke's Church, as a fitting war memorial to those of the town and district who served in the various branches of the forces in World War II., and as a thanks giving for victory. In doing this, St. Luke's is falling in line with several other churches, such as St. Anne's Church, Ryde, Sydney, the historic old Church of St. John, in Launceston, Tasmania, Hurstville Presbyterian Church, and St. Andrew's Church, Newcastle.

Nearer our own terrain is All Saints Church, Singleton. Recently, members of St. Luke's Parochial Council visited Singleton to hear the bells of All Saints, and were much impressed by their beauty as their melody floated out over the town, in brilliant runs of "changing music," interspersed with familiar old hymn tunes and sacred music, ending with the national anthem. The flexibility of the carillon will make it eminently suitable for regular recitals, which, it is felt, will make a very pleasant feature for the life of the community, and give Scone an atmosphere akin to that of many of the great cathedral towns of England. A subscription list is now open, and already several donations of a substantial nature to share promised. 

Scone Advocate (NSW), 24 October 1947, reported on the Monument Australia website.

Darlinghurst, Sacred Heart (R.C.)

We did have electronic bells in the tower before the University of Notre Dame renovated the church and surrounding buildings. The bells were disconnected and not reinstalled. There is an AWA Carillon keyboard (which is historical in itself) just off from the choir loft, but sadly this has also been disconnected and neglected for many years. (Ex.inf. Church Secretary to Ron Shepherd, November 2012).

An electronic carillon similar to that which heralded from the A.W.A. tower and the Melbourne Town Hall, the birth of the Royal Prince, has been installed in the Church of the Sacred Heart, Darlinghurst. The Carillon is operated by an orthodox piano key board, when played manually, by which means either the orthodox bell changes can be tolled or a recital of simple melodies played. It is unique in that the special attachment fitted will sound the Angelus at pre-set intervals, or by merely throwing a switch can be made to toll a peal of bells of its own accord.

(The Lockhart Review and Oaklands Advertiser, Tuesday 24 January 1950)


So, what have we learned?

Clearly, AWA manufactured and installed a number of "Amplified Chime Carillons" into churches back around the late 1940's and 1950's.  We wouldn't accept these as real carillons today, as:

  • they didn't make the required minimum number of bells (23)

  • the instrument featured a piano-style keyboard, not batons.

But on the plus side, the instrument does seem capable of dynamics, like a real carillon. 

And it raises the question, does a carillon have to be based on classical bells, or could it be based on tubular bells? 

But we have a number of unanswered questions:

  1. what is the playing mechanism?

  2. did it vary with time?

  3. how did the instrument sound? (a recording would be useful!)

  4. how did the instrument sound to the player? (Were the bells audible outside of the cabinet?)

Hopefully, someone in a position to answer some of these questions will happen by....


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Created 15 November 2021, published 17 Feb 2022