4/06/1947 - 13/01/2015

Bill Thow was born at Gateshead on 4th June, 1947, closely sharing this date with Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh. This was appropriate because he grew up to be a staunch supporter of the Royal family and most things British.

His early life was in Winlaton, close to the home of the famous Blaydon Races. He subsequently returned to Gateshead and took up bellringing at St Mary’s Church, Gateshead, next to the Tyne Bridge. He had also been elected an honorary member of the Newcastle Cathedral Guild of Ringers on 22nd November, 1966 for his attendance and assistance with service ringing.

His surname originates from the Aberdeen area of Scotland where he and his sister, Margaret, sometimes travelled in the sidecar of his father’s motorcycle. He loved Scotland and frequently used Scottish Association bellringers’ meetings as an excuse to travel North over the border on a Saturday.

He rang just seven peals for the Durham and Newcastle Association before following his sister away from the North East in 1970. On his way to Birmingham to find new fame and fortune he called at Loughborough for lunchtime refreshment. During the afternoon he saw a notice on the Brush Electrical Engineering Co. factory wall at Loughborough, asking for Coil Winders. So Bill called in to enquire about availability and started work there two weeks later. He purchased a house in Loughborough and lived there for ten years before moving to Cotgrave, near Nottingham.

Whilst in Loughborough he probably achieved the pinnacle of his life and ringing career, ringing innumerable peals at the Bellfoundry. On Tuesday nights he rang with the weekly “Tuesday night band” comprised mostly of ringers from the old Midland Counties Association, invariably conducted by Roland Beniston. He also rang with the “Friday night band”, comprised mostly of ringers from the Hinckley District of the Leicester Diocesan Guild. On most occasions he rang the treble, hence acquiring the nickname of “One William A. Thow”. The local “Nottingham Road Fish Bar” provided sustenance for many of these performances. There were also many other occasions when he rang peals at the Bellfoundry and elsewhere. On these other occasions he invariably rang inside. His peal total was 717, of which 541 were at the Bellfoundry (he never conducted one) and in 1980 he achieved his peak yearly total of 111. One peal he was particularly pleased about was of Grandsire Caters at Edinburgh Cathedral in 1975. But it very nearly went wrong for Bill. Around the halfway mark he completely lost hold of the tail end of his rope and as it went up it attempted to wrap itself around the rope guide. But by a remarkable stroke of good fortune the backstroke came back down into his hands and the peal was completed. So Bill only rang 5073 of the 5075 changes everyone else rang. In those days he was sometimes known as “Lucky Bill from Cotgrave”, but things sadly were to change. A solitary peal in January 1985 was his last contribution to ringing in the Midlands. From 1988 to 1998 he rang 14 peals, all at Willesden in London – the final one being on 18th February, 1998.

He was extremely proud of his two nieces by his sister Margaret, now Anthea Saddleton and Fiona Wheeler.

He went abroad to Paris but never flew – he said this was strictly for birds.

Bill wrote a book – The Rings of 12 which became the definitive work in its field. The meticulous writing in the proofs almost merited the book being printed in his own hand. In those days there were no domestic word processors. Regrettably the overheads acquired in publishing this book meant it was not a big earner for him.

He once walked with a friend (David Connolly) from Willesden to Heathrow to meet a friend returning on a flight from Beijing. Unfortunately, despite being aware it would arrive at Terminal 4 he inexplicably went to Terminal 3 and missed his friend.

He was an ardent supporter of Newcastle United and Gateshead football clubs.

Among his great passions was studying Politics and British Constitution and he was very patriotic. He was also very well clued up in legal matters. Dare I say it, he might have been a barrister.

He loved motorcycling, and could often been seen at ringing meetings on his machine – or at the side of the road contemplating where the nearest petrol station was, thanks to his habit of running the bike almost permanently on the reserve tank.

He bought his first house, in Loughborough, as an investment for his hard earned money, and it earned the occasional nickname “Grandsire Gardens”.

He was a first class after-dinner speaker – on one occasion he even stood up in the middle of a dinner and added his own speech! Three or four years ago he had an idea for a grand event in London. He would invite many well-known names. He said it would be easy – all you have to do is make them laugh. It’s only now, that some text files from his computer have become available, that the full extent of his intentions has become clear. The seating list contains 6,998 names, beginning with the Prince of Wales and including many distinguished and not so distinguished names, and quite a few ringers. There is no mention of where he intended holding this event but the seating plan was amongst the documents recovered. When he first mentioned it, it sounded a bit absurd but it does raise interesting questions. Did he really intend inviting Prince Charles?

Regretfully for Bill, a lot of things he did in life were perhaps taken less than seriously and he rarely received the encouragement from others which may have changed his life. Unfortunately Bill’s early life was afflicted by several adversities:

He lost both his parents at an early age to cancer – his father when he was only eight and his mother when he was eighteen.

When very young he had a dog which ran out into the street and was run over.

He suffered an accident near Chester-le-Street on a three-lane stretch of road in his recently acquired Jaguar. He is reputed to regularly have put just half a gallon of petrol into this vehicle. It has been claimed he regularly gave people a lift in this car so they could help him push it to the next petrol pump.

In ringing his name appeared on three major peal boards – Newburn, Granby (Nottinghamshire) and Gateshead. All three towers suffered fires and the peal boards were lost.

In 1983 he was made redundant from the Brush factory in Loughborough. This may have had a profound effect on his life which ultimately led to him ‘running away’ to London. Despite his strong Geordie dialect to the end, he lived in the North East for 23 years, yet lived in London for 30. He was mugged on at least five occasions. On one of the later incidents he was punched in the face and he subsequently lost the sight in his left eye.

He went to live near Wembley in anticipation of the great day when he would see Newcastle United take home the FA Cup – but it never happened.

Bill lost two close friends in London – Lazslo Molnar several years ago and Roger Bailey (his bellringing Tower Captain) just over a year ago.

He was a very honest and generous person, as articulate and intelligent as you will find, but could be stubborn and private.

This once proud Geordie died almost anonymously in Edgware where he was living. However, his choice of burial place is anything but anonymous. Kensal Green Cemetery is located in the heart of London, traversing the borders of Kensington & Chelsea and Hammersmith & Fulham and is one of London’s oldest and most distinguished public burial grounds. It is home to many rich and famous personalities, though, because of the age of the cemetery, some of these are less well known because they belong to an age long before we were born. But they are all there – Princes, Princesses, Playwrights, Actors, Architects, Artists, Scientists, Musicians, The Law, Medical Persons, the Miltary, Politicians, Police Chiefs, VC holders, Engineers. Some examples follow:

  • Princess Sophia – 12th child of George III
  • Prince Augustus
  • Frederick Prince George
  • Charles Babbage – father of the computer
  • Jean-François Émile Gravelet – better known as The Great Blondin – walked and cycled across Niagara Falls on a tightrope
  • Farrokh Bulsara – otherwise known as Freddie Mercury, was cremated here – and it is believed his girlfriend spread his ashes in this cemetery
  • Isambard Kingdom Brunel – arguably Britain’s finest engineer

Bill would certainly know all this when he chose his burial place – like the Unknown Warrior, he will lie amongst Britain’s finest. A fitting end perhaps for a man who was a legend in his own lifetime. Many of those who knew him would have a tale to tell, decades after their meeting.

Bill was laid to rest on Thursday, 12th February 2015 following a service conducted by the Revd Steven Young of Mill Hill. The ceremony was attended by local friends and some from a considerable distance away, whom he wouldn’t have seen for many years, which is a testament to how well he was regarded.


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Central Council of Church Bell Ringers