For Whom The Bells Toll

Image of the first ringing of the Labourers Bell (1849)

Their peal now summons the faithful to mass, but years ago the bells at Stella Maris Church on Bayside Drive and St. Jude’s Church on Lancaster Street served a much different but equally divine purpose.

The bell at Stella Maris first tolled from Market Slip in 1849. It was erected by Canada’s first labour union, the Laborer’s Benevolent Association (now ILA local 273) that was formed when Saint John’s longshoremen banded together to lobby for regular pay and a shorter workday. One of their first resolutions was to apply to the city council for permission to erect the bell, which would announce the beginning and end of the labourer’s 10-hour workday. Prior to the union’s formation, the longshoremen often toiled from daylight to dark, frequently by candlelight. Permission to erect the bell, which would be operated under the direction of the presiding mayor, was granted on June 25, 1849. The bell shears were barely completed, however, when merchants of the North and South wharves successfully petitioned the city council for an order forbidding the ringing of the bell, claiming it would disturb their clerks and prevent them from “discharge of their duties.”

This did not deter the determined longshoremen, who gathered on July 16th to witness John E. Turnbull, a public-spirited neighbourhood merchant and Freeman of the City of Saint John, defy the order and ring out Canada’s first 10-hour workday. Perhaps cowed by the jubilant crowd, or unwilling to trespass on this monumental moment in history, a police officer at the scene turned a blind eye. Opposition to the “Labourer’s Bell” was withdrawn and the bell continued to chime until it was replaced by a new, larger bell at North Market Slip in May 1870.

This bell was removed and the shears torn down on November 23, 1923, when improved conditions made its purpose obsolete. The “Labourer’s Bell” was dedicated as a memorial to deceased longshoremen and placed in the belfry of Stella Maris Church on December 7, 1923.

The bell at St Jude’s boasts a similar history. Inspired by Saint John’s Longshoremen, labourers of the West side, then a separate town called Carleton, applied to their town council to erect their own Labourer’s Bell. Permission was granted on May 23, 1851, and the bell was erected at what is now the square at the foot of Rodney Street at Market Place in West Saint John. Like their Saint John counterparts, Carleton’s longshoremen now began to enjoy a 10-hour workday and cash payments on Saturdays. Once the bell was no longer needed it served as a fire alarm until modern technology took over with automated alarm systems. Through the efforts of the late Samuel I. Britain, the bell was presented to St. Jude’s Church, where it continues to ring out its message of freedom and hope.

(Contributed by ILA Local 273)