Wednesday, 2 November 2016

75 The Bells of Santiago

75 The Bells of Santiago

Swansea’s initial links with Chile in South America came about through the copper industry.  In the Lower Swansea Valley coal seams ran down to the River Tawe, so it made economic sense to bring copper ore to Swansea for smelting.  When ore from Parys Mountain in Anglesey and from Cornwall was worked out, vessels from the Swansea area would travel across the Atlantic with cargoes of coal, and negotiate the hazardous route around Cape Horn to obtain supplies of copper ore from Chile to bring back to South Wales for smelting.

However, a terrible disaster in Santiago has enabled firm bonds to be formed between Chile and Swansea that transcend mere commercial links.

The Jesuit Cathedral in Santiago, Chile, hosted a month-long festival in 1863 in honour of the Virgin Mary.  During the final night of the festival on 8th December, the Church de la Campaňía de Jesus was packed with people, with much incense, oil lights, liquid gas lights and wax candles.  This combustible material ignited and the cathedral burned down, with an estimated 2,500 persons - mainly women and children - losing their lives.  The church bells crashed to the ground, just as the ring of eight bells at St Mary’s Swansea did when that church was burned during the Three Nights’ Blitz of February 1941.  Subsequently there was no desire to rebuild the Chilean church, which was the fourth on that site, so what remained of the building was taken down, and the site was transformed into a garden with a statue in memory of all those who perished. 

From 1860 All Saints Church, Oystermouth, was being restored and enlarged.  Graham Vivian, of Clyne Castle and of Vivian & Sons of the Hafod copper works, had purchased a number of bells from Santiago as scrap, arranged for them to be taken overland to the port of Valparaiso, and then shipped by copper barque to Swansea.  He offered three of the bells, cast in north-eastern Spain and dating from 1753, to Oystermouth Church – not as a gift but in exchange for their three original cracked bells, which were then melted down.  Those were probably cast in the early eighteenth century by the bell-founder David Davies of Oystermouth, who cast bells that hang in Gower churches in Bishopston, Ilston and Llangennith.  The Chilean bells were hung in Oystermouth Church tower until 1964, when for reasons of safety they were taken down and displayed in the porch for many decades.

In 1973 a musical re-telling of the story, entitled “The Bells of Santiago”, was part of the Ostreme Festival, and this was performed to large audiences at subsequent festivals.

After the Chilean filmmaker Pedro Pablo Cabrera heard about the origin of the bells at Oystermouth, the Parochial Church Council received a letter from the Chilean ambassador requesting their return.  Though various formalities had to be followed, the PCC and local people were in full agreement that this should happen.  With the aid of the Royal Navy ship HMS Portland, which was due to take part in exercises off Valparaiso, the three bells left Mumbles in April 2010, and were transported to Chile in time for the celebrations of 18th September.  Each year Chile’s independence from Spain is celebrated on that date, with 2010 being the 200th anniversary.  Fittingly Mumbles was represented at the returning ceremony, since an engineer from Newton, Mr Andrew Jones, who was working in Santiago at the time, was able to be a guest of honour.

Incidentally two years later another bell from Santiago was returned to Chile, having been given by Graham Vivian to St Thomas Church in Neath, which already had six bells, hung for ringing and not merely chiming. 

As Canon Keith Evans, Vicar of Oystermouth, says, “the story ends with one community’s generosity to another and the renewing of historic links between Swansea and Chile.”     


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