Obituaries

Christopher T. Brown

28.10.1920 - 29.1.2013

Chris Brown was quite modest about his life achievements. In a biography that he wrote about 10 years ago he said "I have never met any famous people, I have not won any medals except the usual wartime service ones, and I have spent only one night in a police cell. But I have ridden a penny farthing, I have flown below sea level and I have been yanked 56 feet vertically by nine dogs".

Chris was born into a well-to-do English family living in Aldridge, Staffs. (now West Midlands) where he lived for the first 12 years of his life. There he learnt to ride a penny farthing bicycle that he found at his grandparents’ nearby house. He recalled that from the front of the house one could see the collieries and furnaces belching out smoke by day and the glowing at night. He well remembered the General Strike of 1926 when there was no smoke and no activity. These memories probably contributed to his determination along with many of his generation to build a fairer society after World War II.

In the early 1930s Chris’ parents were divorced and his mother bought Chew Court Farm, at Chew Magna, Somerset where she lived for the rest of her life. Chris went with her and enjoyed the farming life. He was educated as a boarder at Canford School in Dorset, where he recalled being keen on music, getting quite good at the piano and learning to play the organ. He became fascinated by bellringing and learnt to ring at Chew Magna (a fine old style 28cwt eight) though he never said whether he rang with the Canford band during term time; he was probably too busy. As a teenager, he was "a bit of a pacifist" being one of a handful of students who opted to join the Scouts rather than the Officer Training Corps. But on the 3rd September 1939 when he ran home after ringing for the 11am matins to hear the news that Britain was at war with Germany he felt he would have to "join up to do his bit" as soon as he finished his schooling.

In 1940 he was offered a place at Bristol University to read medicine, and despite medicine being a reserved occupation, he volunteered for the RAF. After passing the various exams he spent an impatient few months of deferred service working on his mother’s farm before he was called up in October 1940. He trained as a pilot in Somerset and Oxfordshire, recalling "it was more realistic training than training in Canada as we became very aware of enemy intruders attempting to shoot us down at night". He served first in Scotland where he did a lot of flying but saw no real enemy action, then after a period as an instructor he was posted to a photo-reconnaissance squadron near Oxford. Here he flew low level missions in Blenheim’s at night and high altitude missions in Spitfires by day. He claimed that the nearest he came to being killed by or killing the enemy was when he was on a low level mission in a Lockheed Ventura flying in the Lake District as a part of an experiment to see if fitting strong strobe lights to tanks would confuse the enemy. His plane experienced a loud bang and a huge jolt but continued flying normally. On landing he found large dents and scratches in the fuselage and it appeared that he had collided with a JU88 that was spying on the experiment, the JU88 had not been so lucky and crashed. Despite his modesty about his wartime service he had plenty of close shaves while towing gliders, transporting troops and other flying duties. After the victory in Europe he was based in the Middle East and it is here he flew below sea level over the Dead Sea. Chris was offered the chance to stay on in the RAF but decided to reapply to Bristol University to take up the medical course that he had abandoned in 1940. He was demobbed in autumn 1946 with the rank of Squadron Leader, after exactly six years service.

Chris said that after six years excitement he found the medical course at Bristol hard work and rather tedious. In Bristol he resumed his bellringing career and was one of the founder members of the Bristol University Society. He met June, a fellow medical student, and they were married in April 1948. Chris qualified in 1951, June in 1952, her studies having been set back by the birth of Patrick, their first child. There then followed a period of Chris completing his training as a junior hospital doctor and then working as a locum in various parts of the country before obtaining a GP assistantship in rural practice in Pontesbury, Shropshire. Here he was expected to deal with all sorts of medical emergencies. Chris recalled that one weekend he was left in sole charge of the practice and that when on Monday morning, one of the partners asked him "Have a quiet weekend Chris?", he replied "That apart from the usual sort of things, a man had fallen down an old mineshaft, the Curate had shot himself and June had gone into labour!".

June and their three children lived with her parents in Parkstone, Dorset while she finished her medical training in Poole Hospital. Chris did various locum jobs and was a casualty officer in Poole Hospital while he searched the country for a GP job. In 1955 he was offered a temporary job in the Wareham, Dorset medical practice run by Dr. Alan Cunningham, who he had met at the fortnightly practice at Lytchett Matravers run by Bill Shute, a diminutive but legendary Dorset ringer. Cunningham had been a member of the nearby Wareham band of ringers since the 1930s. After a year or so Chris became a Partner and a full time Wareham GP, living in a flat above the surgery where his fourth child was born. So I first met him as our family doctor. At that time Chris had a more than passing resemblance to the great British romantic film star, Stewart Granger and this combined with a wonderful bedside manner made him a very popular GP. He exuded an air of confident authority which is greatly reassuring to patients, furthermore he treated everyone alike.

Chris immediately joined the Wareham tower (then containing a 15cwt eight) which was in a parlous state, with an ageing band and difficult bells. He set about teaching a band of new young recruits, the most notable being Ross Robertson who is the current President of the Salisbury Guild. The bells were difficult to ring due to movement in the old wooden frame and when the 7th bell was found to be cracked Chris drove through a rehanging project. I, for one, will be forever grateful that he resisted calls to repair the old frame and went for a complete replacement in the modern steel and cast iron frame recommended by Taylor’s. The job was completed in 1959 and the bells go just as well 55 years later needing minimal maintenance. Chris then recruited a second wave of learners, of which I was one.

In 1961 just as I was mastering the basics of change ringing, Chris took on the second great adventure of his life, he did an 18 month tour as a medic in Antartica with the British Antartic Survey. He had many adventures but claims that the only serious injury he had to deal with was his own broken ankle. This occurred when on a routine sledging trip away from base he fell down a seemingly bottomless crevasse and became jammed 56 feet down on a broken ski and some snow. When he recovered consciousness his colleague sent down a rope which he managed to get around his chest. This was attached to the dog team which yanked him out. There followed a 12-hour journey in foul weather, dosed with morphine and strapped to the sledge while they returned to base.

When he returned home Ross Robertson was Tower Captain and Chris was happy to become an ordinary member of the then flourishing band, the Captaincy being rotated and Chris taking an occasional turn. During this time all four of his children learnt to ring. He became more and more busy with his medical practice and we were surprised in 1972 when he announced that he was retiring from being a GP due to the onset of angina. With a reduced work load he could cope well with his medical condition which gave him more time for bellringing and his other great passion, sailing. He bought a lovely 40-foot yawl called Toccata, which is still owned and sailed by members of his family. He and June made several long voyages often with ringers as crew, it was a great experience for me when I and Bill Perrins crewed for them on a voyage to Spain.

June took up ringing in about 1977 and she and Chris spent a lot of time supporting other local bands with Chris being Chairman of the local SDG Branch for some time. He later was made a Guild Vice president for this work. Chris was an able ringer and a good striker ringing with a neat handling style, and by the time he came to Wareham he could ring Cambridge, Grandsire and Stedman on numbers up to ten bells. He never felt a need to progress beyond this preferring to put his energies into teaching basic change ringing. He rang 22 peals, two for the ASCY and 2 for Bristol University Society and the remainder for the Salisbury Guild, most being at Wareham. He finally stopped ringing in 2003 when he could no longer climb the 64 steps in Wareham tower – he was fond of telling how Ross had reminded him that in 1959 he had said that "the best thing about Wareham was the steps which deterred the silly old **** when they got too old to ring". His last years were quite hard for him as his eyesight and hearing deteriorated and he became less and less mobile. However, when ringers visited him he was always interested in what had been going on and made light of his problems. He and June were grandparents and great grandparents and Chris always took a keen interest in his large family. While June and their four children, Patrick, Frances, Claire and Michael and their respective families, mourn his passing they can take comfort from Chris’ full and productive life.

Memorial quarter peals were rung at Kingston, Wimborne Minster, Wareham and Swanage plus an SDG peal at Wareham (9 Feb) and an ASCY peal at Bradford Peverel (19 Feb).

GRAHAM ELMES

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CC
Central Council of Church Bell Ringers