“John Wilson, bell ringer. That’s how I want to be remembered.” 
John Wilson at Wootton Wawen, Warks in 1998

1917 - 2009

We all know one-handed ringers but John was a real one, having been born with no right arm below the elbow. He started life in a cottage near St Peter’s Church, Witherley, Leicestershire. John loved that church. His father had been the caretaker and his grandfather a verger. He married Nancy, his first wife, there in 1943 and his second wife, Norah, has a memorial in the churchyard.

John never allowed his disability to get him down and it is remarkable that he achieved so much, particularly in his younger days when disability was perceived to be a hindrance. At the age of 14 John started work as a gardener at Witherley Hall. Even to wheel a barrow meant making a sling with a clothes line and putting it around his half arm and the barrow handle. He later got a job with Hiscock & Sons, a local department store, where he remained for 29 years, going out on the delivery vans, cleaning windows and moving furniture.

Being disabled, John could not enter the Forces during the Second World War so he joined the Home Guard – he even played Tenor Horn in their band. He had passed his driving test in 1940 and remembered the big Coventry air raid that year. Two days later he was working in Coventry moving furniture from the remains of houses. He also moved furniture from Birmingham and London, dodging the flying bombs. He later described a similar 1941 experience in Atherstone, Warwickshire: “The roof had all gone from the house where the furniture was to be collected. There weren’t any windows and the bedding was soaking wet. It was a horrible sight which I’ve never forgotten, all the worse because new furniture and bedding weren’t available in wartime.”

When peacetime came, he moved to the Co-op and became an extremely proficient fitter of carpets, linoleum and curtain rails. This gave John the opportunity to indulge in two of his favourite pastimes – travel and pubs. It was not long before John became a familiar figure in many local pubs, both professionally and socially, when he was able to indulge in another of his favourites – discussing politics. It was not unusual to hear a familiar voice arguing loudly: “It was never like this under the Tories” or his good old favourite: “It’s all down to economics!”. He had his heroes too – Winston Churchill, Maggie Thatcher and the Queen could do no wrong in John’s eyes.

John was also keen on vegetable growing. For years he kept a large plot, digging the ground and tending the crops without any help. But without doubt John’s biggest single passion was bell ringing. He was a ringer for 70 years. When he was about ten he helped his father chime the bells at Witherley. His father told him he would never be able to raise a bell. Together however they proved the prediction wrong and by the time John was 15 he was ringing full-circle call changes.

John was a member of the Leicester Guild since its formation in 1946. In 1952, aged 35, he joined the practices at Higham-on-the-Hill, Leicestershire where Bill Martin, Harry Hill and Len Trevor taught him method ringing. John went on to successfully teach a new band of method ringers from scratch at Mancetter, Warwickshire – remarkable considering Mancetter is one of the heaviest fives. His first peal was at Higham-on-the-Hill. He became Tower Captain at Witherley and rang five further peals: two at Mancetter, two at Stoke Golding, Leicestershire and one at Witherley in 1983 to commemorate 55 years of service as a bell ringer at that church.

In his later ringing years John loved nothing better than his weekly visits to Stoke Golding where he could join the practice and socialise in the pub afterwards. After ringing there on one occasion he was rushing down the spiral staircase when he slipped and, as was discovered later, broke his ankle. John was helped to his feet and it was suggested that someone call for an ambulance. His response, and we trust he was forgiven for swearing in church, was: “B****r the ambulance, let’s get to the pub!” And that is indeed what happened. Eventually, after his normal two pints, he agreed to be taken to A&E – not perhaps best medical practice but typical of John’s love of people.

He used to say that he was a very lucky man. Well, John, you are not alone. We, his friends and family, are all very lucky too – lucky to have known such a wonderful man.

John passed away peacefully in The George Eliot Hospital, Nuneaton after an illness of only a few days. Many of John’s ringing friends were at his funeral in Witherley church on 23rd September. He had said: “I want the bells”. It would have been hard to stop us. There was some good quality general ringing before the service and then the tenor was tolled. Afterwards, following his burial in the churchyard beside his first wife Nancy, we rang a quarter peal of the two methods he enjoyed the most.

JOHN PATULLO

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Central Council of Church Bell Ringers