Bells of remembrance

The centrepiece of the National War Memorial is the elegant 51-metre-high Carillon Tower, which soars above Pukeahu (Mount Cook). Its music has contributed to the remembrance of war, conflict, and peacekeeping since 1932.

The National War Memorial building is currently closed, except for commemorations and ceremonies, while we strengthen the Carillon Tower. The rest of the park is open and safe to visit. 

Carillon Tower strengthening

Watch Carillonist Timothy Hurd QSM playing in this short video, 'The Carillon - Granada' on Vimeo. This video features sound.
Wellington City Council commissioned Storybox to produce this video as part of the Wellington's Bell Stories project.

What is a carillon?

A carillon is a musical instrument; the largest musical instrument in the world. They consist of at least 23 bells, typically housed in a campanile (bell tower), which are tuned so they produce a melody when played.

The idea for a memorial carillon

In 1919, after the end of the First World War, the government approved 100,000 pounds for the construction of a highly visible national war memorial that would embody the objects and sacrifices of war. They also wanted the memorial to educate and inspire future generations. Consequently there was some debate about what form it would take, and where it should be located. In 1922 Wellington jeweller P. N. Denton suggested building a carillon, with bells of remembrance.

The government discouraged the idea, but prominent Wellington citizens formed the Wellington War Memorial Carillon Society in 1926. Two years later they had raised 9,600 pounds by public subscription to pay for a memorial carillon of 49 bells. The prices ranged from 1440 pounds for Reo Wairua, to 30 pounds each for the 25 smallest bells. These were offered to the government for inclusion in the National War Memorial.

Design competition

The government came to accept the idea, and announced that Mount Cook would be the site for not only the National War Memorial Carillon and Hall of Memories, but also a for the National Art Gallery and Dominion Museum.

In 1929 a national architectural competition was held to find a suitably impressive design for these important public buildings. The competition was won by the noted Auckland architectural firm of Gummer and Ford.


Christchurch builders P. Graham and Sons began work on the carillon in 1931, and had built the base of the campanile by the time Prime Minister G. W. Forbes laid the foundation stone on 15 May 1931. The Great Depression of the 1930s meant that construction of the Hall of Memories was put on hold.

The carillon is art deco in style, and was constructed in reinforced steel faced with Putaruru stone. It features wrought-iron grilles and delicate copper louvres, which allow the music of the bells to flow freely from the tower.

Opening and after

The dedication ceremony took place on Anzac Day, 25 April 1932. The National War Memorial was consecrated by the Bishop of Wellington, the Right Reverend Dr T. H. Sprott, and was opened by Governor-General Lord Bledisloe. More than 10,000 spectators attended the ceremony. Thousands more crowded nearby vantage points to hear the carillon bells ring out for the first time and watch as the Lamp of Remembrance on top of the tower was lit.

The National Art Gallery and Dominion Museum building, behind the carillon, was opened in August 1936. The Hall of Memories, below the carillon tower, was finally completed in 1964.

The bells

Original bells

The original 49 bells were private donations in memory of First World War casualties. A 1926 invitation by the Wellington War Memorial Carillon Society to purchase bells met with immediate success from the public.

Each bell has a name and dedication inscription. One is dedicated to Leslie Beauchamp, brother of writer Katherine Mansfield. Other bells bear the names of military units and specific battles.

The bells were cast by British firm Gillett & Johnston in Croydon, London. While still at the factory they were tested by a former Westminster Abbey organist. The bells received public airings at a 1929 exhibition at Newcastle-on-Tyne, and at London’s Hyde Park in 1931. Cyril Johnston, head of the bell foundry, said it was the most perfectly toned carillon they had made.

Read the inscriptions found on the original bells.

New bells

After being appointed as national carillonist in 1984, Timothy Hurd drove the refurbishment of the mechanism and some bells. He also had a new clavier (the keyboard with which the instrument is played) and a practice clavier installed.

The original design for the carillon had 72 bells, though only 49 were initially installed. Hurd encouraged the government to complete the bells to allow a wider range of music to be played. 20 treble bells were replaced in 1986 and 16 smaller trebles were added at the same time.

In 1995, to mark the 50th anniversary of the ending of the Second World War, the government donated four large bells: Grace (Aroha), Hope (Tūmanako), Remembrance (Whakamaharatanga) and Peace (Rangimārie). Hurd donated five smaller bells, extending the range of the instrument to six octaves and making the carillon the third largest in the world, both by number of bells (74) and their combined weight.

The Saint Lazarus Memorial Organ

In 2007 the Military and Hospitaller Order of St Lazarus of Jerusalem gifted a Henry Erben-designed pipe organ to the National War Memorial to mark the 75th anniversary of the dedication of the Memorial in memory of all New Zealand defence forces medical personnel. It was unveiled by the Governor-General at a special ceremony on18 October 2007 and sits on the mezzanine floor above the main entrance of the carillon.

The organ was built by Henry Erben of New York in l850. It came to the National War Memorial from St Dunstans Episcopal Church in Ellsworth, Maine, United States of America. The organ has 312 pipes in total and seven stops and is equipped with a new silent blower by Aug. Laukhuff of Germany. The original hand pumping system is still operational, with all reservoir feeders intact. The handsome casework is faux oak painted and textured surface over Georgia pine. The gold facade pipes are nonspeaking. It is regularly used in ceremonial programmes and concerts.

saint lazarus memorial organ

The Saint Lazarus Memorial Organ. Credit: Photograph by Andy Palmer, Manatū Taonga

Further specifications about the Saint Lazarus Memorial Organ include:

  • Manuals: 1, 56-note compass
  • Pedals: 17-note pull-down [permanently coupled] pedal only
  • Ranks: 6
  • Current Tuning: Bach-Lehman [1722] unequal temperament.



Updated on 7th March 2023