Obituaries

Betty Robbins

1925 - 2013

I first met Betty in 1946. I played bridge with a friend in Magdalen College, Oxford, John Dickenson, who had a bridge-playing fellow Berhamstedian in Hertford called Bill (or Maurice) Grey. The latter was struck down with appendicitis, and visiting him in the Acland Home I used to encounter lots of vivacious fellow visitors, whom I discovered were bellringers, members of the OUSCR! Both these friends were in fact bellringers as well as bridge players. I was so taken by their good natured enthusiasm that I decided in October I would take up ringing too. I was part of a large number of potential recruits who assembled in the belfry at New College to start to learn on tied bells. I had my first pulls under the instruction of Mr George Spice, Secretary of the Kent County Association, who was in Oxford at the time. His daughter Betty was Master of the OUSCR, having succeeded her brother John. I was one of the recruits who stuck, but I remained a fairly callow beginner throughout this, my final year. However I was hooked on ringing and continued my progress at the St John-on-the-Wall ringing school in Bristol during the vacations. I also kept in touch with the OUS which used to go in August to an Agricultural Farming Camp at Honeybourne near Evesham weeding or picking fruit in the day, and ringing in the evenings. There it was that my relationship with Betty blossomed.

1946 came as part of a great post-war resurgence of university ringing at Oxford. John Spice was an outstanding ringer and the OUS had made immense strides in handbell ringing and then when the ban was lifted on tower bells. John in his history of the OUS quotes Peter Wright: "In Michaelmas Term 1946 … Wilfrid Moreton came back. If Betty and the young ladies had been formidable, the combination of Betty and Wilf was irresistible."

Betty had been born into the Spice family of Tunstall near Sittingbourne in Kent. Her grandfather William Spice had several ringing sons, but they never quite achieved an 8-bell peal together. Betty did ring a handbell peal of Grandsire Triples with her father, mother and brother John. Just as she grew up the War intervened and with it the ban on tower bell ringing. Her first peal in 1941 was Grandsire Triples in hand with an all-spice band. Her first tower bell peal was Bob Major at Tunstall on Sept. 18th 1943 – her 18th peal! Her third tower bell peal was Grandsire Cinques at Christ Church Cathedral in Oxford six weeks later. These were her glory years – those four years at Oxford, followed by two when she taught chemistry in Bedford and was based at St Paul’s Church there. When she left Bedford she had rung 273 peals including the first ever peal of Glasgow, and spliced surprise in up to 13 methods. In hand she had rung Stedman Cinques.

Betty was in fact one the outstanding ringers in this post-war era, and perhaps the leading female ringer. Her bell-handling technique was superb. If you could view the ropes in a long-draught ground-floor ring you would note that Betty’s rope was always taut and never flapped, and her striking was impeccable. She rang heavy bells with assurance, and was much mortified when because she was a lady she was not allowed to ring the tenor at Southwark Cathedral. She maintained she was not a conductor, and had the benefit if ringing with such conductors as her brother John, Wilf Moreton, Walter Judge and many others. However she was very capable conducting on standard methods (up to Cambridge and Yorkshire Major); she fully grasped the composition and always followed closely the coursing order. 49 of her 329 peals were conducted by herself, and additionally she rang in a silent peal of Plain Bob Major. I can recall one famous row at Tunstall when she was conducting a peal of Cambridge Major, and Wilf Moreton intervened. She held her ground and eventually silenced him; she had been right! There was another celebrated occasion on a Clerical Guild tour when she had been conducting Ashtead. She had to correct Peter Bond, and he argued about it. Afterwards he went on about it, calling her "My dear" (like the Prime Minister) and she rounded off the discussion with "And I’m not your dear".

In 1949 life became more complicated, because we became engaged. We had to wait until I was priested and married in October 1951 (and rang a peal together on our honeymoon – 6-spliced Surprise Major). Soon the demands of home-making and bringing up four children – coupled with the fact that we only had bells in our parishes from 1963/73 and 1983/90 – meant that Betty’s main energies were directed elsewhere, including being a superb "Vicar’s Wife" in the best traditional sense. Her peal total reached 329 with a handbell peal in 1992 after we had retired to Staffordshire – although we had achieved 8-spliced together in the previous decade. The 56 steep steps to the belfry at Tamworth didn’t help as Betty suffered with arthritis, and eventually about ten years ago she had to give up entirely after we had moved to Lichfield. She was diagnosed with leukaemia last December, and died on 14th March 2013, aged 88 after we had enjoyed 61 years of married life together.

PETER ROBBINS
aka "Betty Spice’s Husband" for many years

 


 

As a young girl, eager to learn to ring but much too young, my father would talk instead about the ringing greats of the time, such as the Pye brothers. But only two ladies were mentioned; one was Betty Spice and he had a great respect for her. My father never had the privilege of meeting Betty, but heard much about her growing reputation and high standards from Wilf Moreton when he was at Oxford and through The Ringing World.

I was told that Betty was prominent in encouraging more ladies to take up ringing, an activity at that time dominated by men. Betty’s name stayed with me as eventually I pursued a ringing career.

Roll forward numerous decades when Revd Peter Robbins and his wife, Betty, retired to Tamworth. This was around Christmas time and we were enjoying refreshments after the service when Peter mentioned Betty’s maiden name. It was the most surreal moment I have experienced. To have the opportunity to ring week by week with Betty was real enjoyment as well as an enormous privilege.

Eventually, Betty and Peter moved to Lichfield, but Betty and I would come across each other from time to time and exchange our ringing stories. Unfortunately, she began to find ringing difficult and retired, but remained active through her significant contributions to the life of St John’s Hospital.

St John’s Hospital Chapel in Lichfield was standing room only for Betty’s funeral, despite the heavy snow. Betty had said she did not want a eulogy, but it was very difficult to avoid. The words that had described Betty all those years ago were being used again by her family, St John’s residents and the Master of St John’s – strong, caring, compassionate, nothing was too much for her. She will be sadly missed by all those who knew her and I feel I had known her for most of my life.

BERYL ATTAWAY

BB BellBoard
CC
Central Council of Church Bell Ringers