Obituaries

Ralph B. Mitchell

1936 - 2013

Ralph was a Yorkshireman, proud of his origins and still very attached to his native county fifty years after leaving it (and with the accent to prove it). He grew up in Kirkheaton near Huddersfield and learned to ring there as a teenager. He served an apprenticeship with Brook Motors in Huddersfield and qualified as an electrical engineer before moving on to work for Yorkshire Electricity Board as an electrical supply engineer. This career then took him in 1960 to a post with East Midlands Electricity, living in Bedford. In the late 1960s, he was promoted to an electrical engineer post with the Midlands Electricity Board, for whom he worked for the rest of his career until he retired in 1996. As a result of this promotion, the family moved house to live in Newcastle- under-Lyme in Staffordshire.

Ralph’s early ringing was in the closed handstroke six-bell tradition of West Yorkshire, and he never lost his affection for this technique and for the Minor methods rung by his local band. His first two peals were rung at Kirkheaton in November 1958 and March 1959 and the second of these peals is also notable since one of the other ringers in the band was one Christine Dearnley. This was Chris’s first peal and she’s rung very few peals since that day. However, she must have enjoyed the company of at least one person in the band since Chris and Ralph were married soon afterwards!

Ralph rang a couple of peals in the early 1960s whilst living in Bedford – Cambridge Major and Grandsire Caters, both at St Paul’s Bedford where he was a Sunday service ringer, but most of his non-working time during that decade was spent raising a young family and studying at night school to gain further qualifications. After his move to north Staffordshire, ringing occupied an increasing part of his life as is evidenced by the fact that from then on, he rang a further 612 peals to give him a total of 616.

When the family settled in Newcastle-under-Lyme in the late 1960s, Ralph joined the local band at St Giles’. Ralph taught his daughter and son to ring but they both fell by the wayside, due to other commitments. However, he also introduced Christine’s nephew, David Dearnley, to the world of ringing and took great pride in following David’s progress. Ralph was particularly pleased when David’s prowess led to him being chosen to ring for State occasions, both at St Paul’s Cathedral and Westminster Abbey.

In the early 1970s, Ralph changed towers and joined the band of the then, new ring of ten, at Stoke-upon-Trent. He retained good links with many members of the Newcastle band and was a member of the group that ensured the augmentation of Newcastle to a ring of 12 in 1980. In time, a vacancy for a willing leader at Silverdale (Staffs) tower was filled by Ralph and he went on to twice teach a band on this increasingly difficult ring of eight. The fact that he had to do this twice was entirely due to the fact that the church was condemned as dangerous and closed for a number of years until the National Coal Board carried out the work necessary to ensure the stability of the building. The church then reopened and Ralph trained another band and he retained the tower captaincy at Silverdale for the rest of his life. This was often not as glamorous a title as it seemed, especially when he was clambering around the tightly-fitted bell frame on a wintry day to ensure all the plain bearings were oiled, prior to a peal attempt. He maintained this commitment to ringing at Silverdale and also to the ringing undertaken by the associated band at Keele, and he has made a major contribution to the development of ringers and ringing in this part of the county.

He rang with a number of regular peal bands. When he first arrived in north Staffordshire, peal ringing was at a low ebb and he travelled mostly to Cheshire for his peals. He also journeyed further afield with Denis Mottershead’s band, giving him the opportunity for some 10 and 12 bell ringing. As peal ringing picked up in the north Staffordshire area, he was a regular with Norman Sherratt’s and Michael Wilshaw’s peal bands and the monthly Broughton peal band organised by Margaret Jones. Following his retirement he was a regular member of the ‘Woodlands Wednesday’ band and he rang 185 peals on these bells. He was a good striker and reliable method ringer. He was an effective ringer of heavy bells and many of his peals were rung on the tenor. He conducted 17 peals, all of them surprise major. He rang 486 peals for the North Staffordshire Association, a total that makes him the second most prolific peal ringer for the association. He rang ‘just shy’ of 300 peals with Phil Gay (298) and with Harold Dowler (297) and although he was not an avid record keeper or list-ticker, ‘Pealbase’ tells us that he was only one letter short for his Surprise Major alphabet (T – although he did ring Tavistock as part of twice having rung Norman Smith’s 23-spliced atw). He enjoyed travelling to ring on good sets of bells and we have many fond memories of journeys to ring such fine sets of bells as Chewton Mendip, Ditcheat, Heptonstall, Skipton et c. and to ring good peals, often of London which was one of Ralph’s favourite methods. Ralph was also usually one of the ‘chauffeurs’ for these expeditions (he was the one with a company car!).

Ringing was not Ralph’s only leisure interest. He was a prize-winning allotment holder, a regular attender at classical music concerts with a particular liking for opera, and a keen model engineer. He was also a discriminating consumer of real ale, always served in a jug – according to Ralph, beer served in straight glasses didn’t taste as good!

Ralph enjoyed ringing and the company of ringers but most important to him was his family. Married to Chris for over fifty years, and a devoted father and grandfather, he took great pride in all of their achievements and was always there for them and the other members of his extended family when help and support was needed.

Ralph’s death was an enormous shock to everyone who knew him. He was a robust man who had little contact with doctors or hospitals during his life and was apparently in very good health. He was due to ring with us in a Wednesday peal attempt at Woodlands but on that day, we were shocked to find out that he had been taken ill at home during the previous evening, December 10th, and had passed away suddenly. There was standing room only at the funeral at Stafford crematorium on December 20th. Family and friends were supported by strong contingents of ringers and former working colleagues, with musical tributes from two of his grandchildren and a moving eulogy from his son Rob. Afterwards there was ringing at Eccleshall and a gathering in ‘The Royal Oak’, a nearby pub serving real ale – in jugs, of course – and within earshot of the bells for the benefit of the non-ringers.

Prominent in the discussions of the many ringers present at ‘The Royal Oak’ was the universal view that we are sad at his passing but we’re all privileged to have known him. We are grateful for the contribution he made to our bell-ringing activities. He was a true friend, ever ready to help each of us out in activities, whether ringing related or not. We enjoyed his company, we respected his abilities and we admired his commitment. We will miss him.

M.W./P.W.G.

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Central Council of Church Bell Ringers