1922 - 2013

John English was born in Ledbury in Herefordshire on 13th January 1922. His family farmed at Evesbatch in that County although his father had a farm near Bulawayo in Rhodesia. His father had been wounded at Ypres during the 1914-18 War and was recuperating in Herefordshire when John was born.

After attending school at Stowe, John left at the age of fifteen to join his father as a learner- farmer in Rhodesia. In 1941 he joined the Royal Air Force in Rhodesia under the Empire Training Scheme and became a pilot. From that year until 1945 he served in Transport Command, flying Dakotas as far east as India, north to the Shetland Islands, and south to South Africa.

After John was demobbed he went to Cape Town to complete his degree in Architecture, at the University of Cape Town (UCT). Subsequently he practised in Northern and Southern Rhodesia. After the break-up of the Federation there was little confidence in the future in that region, and very little work for architects. John consequently joined the Department of Agriculture and became involved with the engineering side of mealie (maize) control. In 1949 John married Joan Watson, whom he had met when she was a fellow student at UCT. Joan was a great support for him, but died in 2004.

John was a gifted artist and in 1953 won a competition for the design of four Rhodesian stamps. He was also a talented writer, and published a number of books for children, based on African themes, which he illustrated with graphic pen and ink sketches. The two most notable were: The Warthog Story and How the Kudu got its horns. John also wrote four booklets about his life, his family, and what he and his brothers did in World War II.

In 1962 John moved south to Johannesburg, but that bustling city held few attractions for him and he moved further south, to the cathedral city of Grahamstown. Grahamstown, with its nineteenth century Gothic cathedral, elegant Georgian buildings, and distinctive grandeur of Rhodes University, St Andrew’s College and other buildings designed by Herbert Baker and his colleagues, suited John. He particularly enjoyed the academic, social, artistic and dramatic life of the community, where many older members of society were distinguished old-Africa hands.

John thoroughly enjoyed Grahamstown where, in the partnership of Hoskins and English, he made his mark in the restoration and extension of many significant buildings. His addition to the Anglican chapel at Hog’s Back is a masterpiece, as is his incorporation of the old façade into the rebuilding and extension of the Magistrates’ Court. John was also involved in much domestic architecture and has left his mark indelibly on the small city.

John and Joan joined Grahamstown Amateur Dramatic Society, where they acted and where John was a set and stage designer for many years. They became members of the Cathedral community and John learnt to ring, rising to the heights of Plain Bob Doubles! When the tower and spire of the cathedral were restored under the guidance of John Rennie, an architect then based in Cape Town, John acted as architect in residence. John Rennie had been a choir boy at the cathedral, and his father was Vice Principal of Rhodes University: Grahamstown was, as it remains, a close-knit community.

I first met John English on 11th December 1983, when my family and I joined the Cathedral band to ring for Evensong. John produced a jug of cold water and placed it on a table in the middle of the ringing chamber. He then vanished up a ladder and I heard clock hammers being disengaged. Finally he returned and disengaged the chiming apparatus. We then rang bells that were almost unringable: the frame creaked and groaned above us and was obviously giving the tower walls a terrible battering. We drank cooling water from John’s jug with gratitude!

In 1990 the restoration of Grahamstown bells became the first project of The South African Guild of Church Bell Ringers. The Dean wrote and informed me that I was upsetting some of his parishioners by arguing that restoration was necessary! John was unabashed: “Getting anything done in Grahamstown is like wading through porridge”, he told me! The PCC finally approved the project, as long as no money was raised by the cathedral parish or by the PCC. John was appointed as architect for the restoration.

John was sad when the old oak frame was removed from the tower, and wrote a poem about it that was published in The Ringing World in October 1991. Two years later, on 23 December 1993, the rehung bells were rung for the first time. The first service ringing was on 25 January 1994 and John English was one of the band.

John had supervised the cutting of the holes for the basal girders of the frame, and climbed the scaffolding to watch the frame installed, day after day, in spite of being over seventy at that time. He did everything possible to ensure that the restoration was a success and even made the rope bosses for the ringing chamber ceiling. John delighted in ringing the restored bells.

Sadly, a few years after the bells were restored John and Joan moved to a retirement complex in Fish Hoek, near the shores of False Bay, Cape Town. John continued his active life and, at the age of 83, had his first trip in a glider! John died on 18th February 2013, leaving a son and grandson, both of whom he adored.

I remember John with gratitude: he was a true pioneer, a gentleman, and one of my best friends. A quarter peal in his memory was rung at Bredwardine, in his native county of Herefordshire, in April. John always wanted bells rung half-muffled in his memory: we did not manage that but, instead, rang them open in gratitude for a life well-lived.



Bredwardine, Herefords. 22 Apr, Doubles (5m): Colin A Lewis 1, David Katz 2, Malcolm T Johns (C) 3, Alison C Alcock 4, Anne L Kleiser 5, John W Hope 6. In memory of John English, architect for the restoration of the bells and installation of the bell frame at Grahamstown Cathedral in the early 1990s. John died in Cape Town this Easter tide.

BB BellBoard
Central Council of Church Bell Ringers