Obituaries

Dennis Leslie

1930 - 2013

There is so much to say about Den. The hardest part of preparing this has been what to leave out.

Den’s life began on 27th May 1930 when identical twins arrived 15 minutes apart in London’s East Ham. Norm says he knows that Den was the older of the two because he was already there when he arrived! There were already four children in the family – George, Ivy, Gladys and just a year before the twins – Den remembered those early years with affection. Apparently they were always scrapping. Norm told us "sometimes I’d make him cry and sometimes he would make me cry – but very quickly we were pals again!"

They were of course inseparable and did everything together. Den was the ‘masterful one’ and it stayed that way throughout their lives. However Den would never make an important decision without first consulting Norm.

And there were many escapades! When they were seven years old they would cadge a halfpenny each from their sister and buy two platform tickets at Upton Park Station. Although they had no tickets to travel, they would get on a tube train and spend the rest of the day travelling round and round the District and Metropolitan Lines. Without proper tickets they could not attempt to leave any of the stations they visited. At the end of the day they would time their return to Upton Park in the rush hour and hide among the crowds of commuters to get back through the barriers at Upton Park and run home – sometimes pursued by a cursing ticket barrier inspector.

By the time they were 9 years old war was approaching. Everyone had been given gas masks. These were with them all the time in a little cardboard box, kept in a small knapsack which also contained their pyjamas, a change of clothes and a barley sugar. This was their evacuation ‘going away kit’.

They had regular gas drills at school which were not taken very seriously, especially when they discovered that by blowing out hard through the rubber they could make very rude noises!! The children had all been warned about evacuation and were told that they could go at any time. One morning in September 1939 they went to school to be told "you won’t be going home today". So began a journey that was to change their lives forever. Den and Norm were marched to Upton Park Station. They never had the chance to say goodbye to their parents or the rest of the family.

They thought it was great fun – like going on a holiday – and were singing. But it is difficult to imagine how two 9-year-olds could easily cope with the trauma of suddenly leaving their home, family and friends for unknown parts; but of course they had each other and that special relationship that we all witnessed as we got to know and love them both over the years.

From Upton Park they went by train to Reading and then Uffington where they were de-trained and told to wait for the charabang that would take them to their final destinations.

This then was their first real experience of the countryside after 9 years living in ‘the smoke’ as Den used to call it. On the grass outside the station, they had managed to sit themselves on top of a red ants nest. The ants took exception to the invasion of their homes by 9-year-old bottoms and went to work on them. Soon they were hopping about in considerable discomfort with a serious attack of ‘ants in the pants’ Eventually the charabang arrived and they began the final part of their journey. Kids were dropped off along the way and they eventually arrived at the Village Hall in Hinton Waldrist to be greeted by very welcome sandwiches and lemonade. A farmer arrived in a Buick truck, which he normally used to transport chickens. The boys clambered into the back and soon they were thoroughly infested with chicken fleas to add to the ants in their pants.

Welcome to the countryside you ol’ boys.!

So it was that the twins arrived in ‘The Row’ at Hinton Waldrist. Den and Norm were assigned to number 10.

Butch Neil who lived at number 10 with his wife Fanny (who was always to be referred to as ‘the landlady’) opened the door. First impressions are everything! Butch was a little man with a large droopy moustache, braces and a neckerchief tied round his neck and round the braces. However most of all the twins noticed his very large leather belt with brass knobs on. Den said quietly: "Crike Norm, I wonder if he ever uses it?"

They quickly settled in, met the local kids and were soon playing in the woods.

It was not until three weeks later that they again saw their Mum and Dad who travelled down to Hinton to visit them. For as long as their parents lived, they saw them at Christmas, Easter and in the summer holidays.

Teachers had come from London with them and they first attended a schoolroom set up in Hinton for them. After about a year they went to school in Longworth with the other evacuees and local boys.

Most of us when we first met the twins found it impossible to tell them apart. That was certainly the case at school and as a result if teachers were unsure which of them had committed a misdemeanor, they caned them both – just to be sure they got the right one! – They were true brothers in arms!

Den and Norm both left school for good in April 1945 when they were nearly 15.

Den went to work at Duxford farm working at first with horses and then becoming a tractor driver. Norm had gone to work at the local market garden.

Den loved working on the farm, knew a lot about cattle and horses and loved beating and shooting – even owning his own shotgun. This was a life a long way from the smoke and steam of East Ham.

Den and Norm loved the countryside. They fished at Duxford a lot. Den once told us that there was a pike there so big that it had to go up to Tower Bridge in London to turn round and so old that it had false teeth and glasses. They loved rabbiting with ferrets with Butch and on the more cultural side of life went to dancing lessons in the village hall – though as Norm said ‘when you had been following a horse behind a plough all day in hob-nailed boots not many girls wanted to get very close to you!

In the early years they travelled on pushbikes and used them to visit local hostelries. It was in the Blue Boar at Longworth that they learned their now famous repertoire of ‘Farmer’s Boy’ and ‘The Volunteer Organist’.

To help people tell who was who, the ‘landlady’ knitted them each V-neck sweaters with an ‘N’ on one and a ‘D’ on the other. It was no surprise that they would occasionally swap sweaters just to confuse people.

When we first met them 49 years ago that there was no way we could tell them apart. It was a battle of wits trying to work out who was who! On one occasion one of them arrived at ringing with a buttonhole in his jacket. we heard his brother call him Norm so at last we had a means of identification so kept calling the buttonholed twin "Norm". They twigged and when we weren’t looking swapped jackets. Next time we called the one with the buttonhole Norm he looked at us and said "I’m not Norm I’m Den aren’t I Norm?"

How many times did we hear those words "Aren’t I Norm or ‘Didn’t he Norm" or ‘Wasn’t it Norm?’

Bell ringing has been at the centre of the Twin’s lives as has been the church.

When they were 22 they were on their allotment when the Church Warden arrived and asked a chap on an adjoining plot if he was free to ring at a wedding. That sounded interesting to the twins so they volunteered to ring– never having touched a bell rope before. They were encouraged to turn up at Hinton church the following Sunday to ‘have a go’. There was no coaching or advice on how to handle a bell. So they just pulled away. Norm didn’t know the bell he chose was up and at once pulled off and broke the stay. From that moment they were self-taught.

In 1953 they joined the Oxford Diocesan Guild of Church Bell Ringers at a branch meeting in Buckland for two shillings and sixpence.

In 1954 they met Frank White at Magdalen College tower in Oxford during a Guild Festival. So began a wonderful relationship that lasted for nearly 58 years. Frank watched them ring and said to them: "you old boys should come to Appleton and learn to ring proper." And that is what they did.

They also formed a close friendship with Mick Edney who was 12 years younger than them but whom they had known since he was very small. Den taught him to ring and the three of them travelled around in Mick’s motorbike and sidecar. To Den’s annoyance Norm always sat in the enclosed sidecar so that he could smoke his rollups.

Den rang a total of 150 peals. His first was on 9th March 1959 at his beloved Hinton, which both Norm and Mick Edney rang in. He rang peals of Doubles to Cinques including 95 peals of Caters (a reflection of his ringing at Appleton). He rang 85 peals with Frank White, 84 with Brian White and 74 with Norm. Two highlights worth mentioning are the 16,559 of Grandsire Caters on 10th February 1968 and the 10,241 of Grandsire Caters on 11th December 1971; both at Appleton.

Den rang his last peal at Faringdon on 6th February 2002.

He also called 10 peals, all of Doubles, and was a member of The Ancient Society of College Youths for 52 years.

Den’s favourite towers were Hinton, Faringdon and Appleton.

In more recent years he taught several people to ring to ensure that his beloved Hinton bells kept ringing.

Occasionally over the years the twins would go ‘bell hanging’ with Frank and Brian. Inevitably there were ‘incidents’ like the time at Lewknor when at lunch time Den and Norm decided to go to the pub for a couple of drinks and a game of darts (No ‘Health & Safety’ in those days). Frank was not keen to go so they removed the ladder up to the ringing chamber to keep strangers away from the potentially dangerous working area. The lunch break at the pub lasted rather longer than planned and Frank, stuck at the top of the tower with no ladder was forced to wait until they returned so he could have his lunchtime sandwiches.

After nine years at Duxford Den left to join the MOD at Steventon where he became a fireman on the trains travelling between Steventon and Didcot carrying military equipment. When the Steventon depot closed, Den moved to Didcot where he started to learn to drive on a mate’s car in the compound.

Eventually Den passed his driving test and bought a car. He then moved to the MOD depot Bicester and became a wood machinist helping to make wooden platforms used to carry military equipment that was dropped from aircraft into operational zones. Norm joined him at Bicester in 1965.

Den left MOD Bicester aged 60 and then worked with Brian White as a wood machinist and bell hanger until he retired aged 65.

Thirty-seven years ago, when Norm married Doreen we wondered how Den would react. Den loved being a brother-in-law, loved Doreen dearly and was genuinely pleased that Norm had found such a wonderful girl. There were other perks too – especially the Sunday lunches!

Den hated selfishness and would soon tell you if he thought something was ‘out of order’ as he put it. He didn’t mince his words!

He was also a talented watercolour artist and left some beautiful pieces of work.

We’ve remembered ringing at Hinton then to the New Inn at Longworth to be thrashed at darts! And the Plough on Saturday nights after ringing practice at Appleton.

What made him special?

That gentle, warm nature. The twinkle in his eye when he saw you. You felt that he really was pleased to see you. He sometimes laughed so much when telling one of his many jokes that you had to wait patiently for the punch line!

He would do anything for anybody. He was kind and thoughtful and a very loyal and loving brother, brother-in-law and friend. He did so much for Frank White. It is difficult to put into words the kindness and support he showed to Frank – especially when Frank became more dependent. Den was always there for him and was a constant and generous friend when Frank began to fail. When Frank died we all noticed the beginning of Den’s own decline.

We shall never forget his sayings – In that Cockney/Berkshire accent – with hands clasped together and leaning forward slightly he would sometimes respond to lively debates with the words: "It all brings night".

We shall never forget the dramatic renditions of ‘The Volunteer Organist’ and ‘Farmer’s Boy’ at the March 4th celebrations and the use of his hands to accentuate the poignant moments in each song – always turning to Norm at critical points of the performance to ensure he was also giving it everything.

We shall never forget those Bank holiday weekends when we "went "Cathedralling" with the Twinnos, John and Bill Hibbert and Frank.

We shall never forget Sunday evening after church drinks and darts at the Dunn Cow, The Red Lion and The Thatched Tavern where he introduced us to Light and Bitter.

Then there was the invitation to Den to speak at Appleton’s March 4th dinner and the wonderful joke he told which meant he was never asked again! (not repeatable here!)

Den had a very strong faith. It was uncomplicated but very real and very deep. For many years his life revolved around Hinton Waldrist Church at which he regularly worshipped. He always seemed to be cutting the grass there in the summer. He was Tower Captain, a churchwarden for many years, and a member of the PCC and was ringing the bells until not long before he died.

He loved his Chrysanthemums almost as much as Doreen’s Sunday lunches.

In his last days he spent his time with Norm and Doreen. They were happy days. At the end of each of those days he said to Norm and Doreen: "thank you for a lovely day."

This life’s sun has set on one of the best farmer’s boys ever but we celebrate the happy, happy day he came our way to enrich all our lives. Frank White is smiling because he has his old friend back.

God bless you Den and ’til we meet again, may God hold you in the palm of his hand.

ROGER MITTY, BRIAN WHITE and VALIA BATATT

 

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CC
Central Council of Church Bell Ringers