Obituaries

Francis A. White (Frank)

1919 - 2011

To do justice to the memory of a wonderful man we can do no better than to reiterate the moving tribute to Frank given by one of his many relatives, Roger Mitty, on behalf of the family at Frank’s funeral service on 20th September, 2011.

Well Frank – it’s a great turnout! (150+) He would be surprised but quietly delighted!

Four years ago I was asked to offer the tribute at ‘Chutney’ White’s funeral in this church. As we sat together afterwards in the Plough Frank suddenly turned to me and said “I ’ope you makes a decent job of mine!” So no pressure then!

Frank. I promise I will do my very best and if you are listening, when we meet again I’m sure you will give me your very brief, forthright and honest opinion of my performance.

Frank always gave his forthright and honest opinion!

I’m sure that all of you will have been recalling special memories of Frank – we have laughed a lot between the tears as we have recalled some of his ‘famous sayings and pronouncements’.

A lot of what I am going to say will be familiar to many of you as we smile or even laugh together – but I believe that is an important part of what a celebration of this wonderful man and his life should be.

Just to chronicle his life here would not go near to doing justice to the man we all loved and cherished so deeply. I have been on a journey of reminiscences and stories for the last two weeks with others in the family – remembering the man we have known and loved for all of our lives – the like of whom we are unlikely to ever meet again in this world.

In the last couple of weeks at the mention of his name people have smiled and said things like:
“What you saw was what you got”
“He was as honest as the day is long”
“He was steady as a rock” – “100% reliable”
“There were no frills with Frank – he always said it as it was.”
And that was not because he intended to offend anyone but because of his simple and profound honesty.

My earliest memories of Frank are in the heat, sparks and noise of the blacksmith’s shop as he hammered white hot metal on the anvil. He was in his 30s then – strong as an ox, with bulging biceps and a shock of black hair.

Later there were nights in the Plough on Saturdays after ringing practice – where following the call “pitch ’im Harry” we sang everything from Cock Robin to Now the Day is over – but ALWAYS finishing, as we will today with the Nunc Dimitis.

There are still wonderful echoes of those Plough nights at the March 4th bell ringers’ dinner in the Village Hall each year which Frank so loved.

My recent memories are of Frank moving towards the end of his life with dignity and peace – and of course his usual forthright-ness including instructions on the flower arrangements for today.

It has occurred to me that we should put together a lexicon of Frankisms (perhaps with a version for adults only). One of the most wonderful things about Frank was his simple, uncomplicated directness. You were never left in doubt about what he felt or what his opinion was. He was certainly not inclined to put his view through any kind of diplomatic filter before expressing it. One of his often used comments when he quite clearly didn’t want to do something, (like ring Kent Major) – was – “I’d rather rub my backside with a brick.” – OK Frank – got the message.

Frank was born in June 1919 and quickly acquired the nickname ‘Dickie Frank’. This was to distinguish him from the many other ‘Franks’ around in the huge White family in Appleton at that time. He was born in the cottage next to Pond Farm in Netherton Road. From there the family moved to the Church Cottages on Eaton Road where he was brought up with brothers Billy, Ralph and Eric and sister Phyllis. The family moved to a new house in Eaton Road in the 1930s which was Frank’s home for the rest of his life.

Frank went to Appleton School and left aged 14. As a fourth generation son of bell hangers it was inevitable that he would join his father Richard in the business. He worked there for the whole of his working life except for a short time in his teens, when work was short and he had a spell at Hill’s Nurseries.

During the course of his bell hanging career Frank worked on bells in towers all over the country. He also looked after all the college and Cathedral bells in Oxford.

Frank had a tremendous affinity with the timber he worked with – making wheels and bell frames. He would handle it almost with tenderness and smell the wood, running his fingers over the grain.

One of the finest tributes to his abilities came last week when Brian received a message from Alan Hughes, who is M.D. of the world renowned Whitechapel Bell Foundry. I have Alan’s permission to read extracts from his message because it very clearly shows the high regard in which our Frank was held across his craft – Alan says:

“To me Frank was a very private person and although I have known him for several decades I do not claim ever to have known him well. One thing however was clear. He was a true craftsman and straightforward gentleman of the ‘Old School’. From my childhood years my father spoke of Frank with both affection and reverence. You will know better than all of us that for a number of years he kept the White’s flag flying almost single handed; combining an incredible range of skills right across the bell hanging spectrum – from blacksmithing through to the most exquisite carpentry, as well as the ingenuity and resourcefulness necessary for bell hanging work on site. The quality and finish of his work was always of the highest and indeed this tradition is maintained by the firm to this day. Frank was one of the great craftsmen and will be sadly missed”.
Thank you Alan.

Frank was called up to army service on 9th September 1940 when he was 21. After initial training he was assigned to the East Surrey regiment in Kingston on Thames in London where the London lads called him ‘swede basher’ because of his thick Berkshire accent (of course Appleton was part of Berkshire then).

In October 1942, Frank and his regiment left Scotland bound for North Africa and they landed in Algiers in November. Twenty five miles from Tunis they were strafed by German fighters. Frank was one of three men in a slit trench being mortared and bombed. His two comrades and friends were killed beside him and he was captured. His parents were told that he was presumed killed.

For the next two and a half years Frank was a prisoner of war and experienced great suffering and hardship at the hands of first the Italians and then the Germans. He was eventually liberated by the Americans in 1945 and demobbed in July 1946.

He arrived home for six weeks leave on the Sunday before V.E. Day. That evening he went to ring his beloved bells. Frank’s war was over.

Frank was never happier than when he was ringing bells. Once he was driving to Evesham to ring a peal with Bill Hibbert. Suddenly Bill said: “’Ere Frank, we’re on the wrong road; we’re heading for Birmingham.” Frank said: “don’t you trouble about that Bill; you can get anywhere from BIRMINGHAM!”

So bells were his life’s passion. He was a regular ringer at the Cathedral in Oxford. He would cycle there to ring on a Sunday morning with Brian, then to Cumnor to ring and finally to Appleton for ringing and church.

I could not speak of Frank’s life without mention of ‘The Leslie Twins’ from Hinton Waldrist. Those two jacket swapping rascals who often had us wondering which twin was which. Frank first met the ‘twinos’ as he called them at Magdalen during a ringing festival in the 1950s. That marked the beginning of a very special relationship that continued for the rest of his life and was especially precious to him.

Frank loved mediaeval buildings especially cathedrals and on bank holiday weekends he and Brian, the twins, John Hibbert and I would go ‘cathedraling’ as he called it. At the end of the day we would have a meal somewhere. Once in Bath we youngsters suggested to Frank that we go for a Chinese meal – “I aint eating that rubbish – pass wind and you’re hungry again!” We went for a steak!

He was a member of the White family hand bell band for many years and rang church bells from the age of 12 into his eighties, until severe arthritis in his hands and legs made ringing impossible. He was a member of The Ancient Society of College Youths, The Oxford Society and The Oxford Diocesan Guild of Church Bell ringers of which he was also a Vice President.

Frank loved the church and his faith was simple but very strong. As a servant of the church at Appleton he was a church warden for many years, mowed the churchyard and stoked the fires in the days before the modern heating system was installed.

I must tell you one of my favourite stories about Frank at work. Frank and Brian had to regularly oil the bells in Oxford in the days when bells were hung on plain bearings. On one particular occasion, because Frank had mislaid his oil can, he filled an empty quarter whisky bottle with veterinary castor oil – which was used to oil the bearings. He and Brian went their separate ways. Frank’s first oiling job was at St Ebbe’s church where he arrived carrying his whisky bottle of oil. An elderly lady in the church, seeing the whisky bottle, assumed that he was a vagrant and called the police. Frank was arrested!

Later, Brian could not understand why Frank had not turned up at their agreed meeting place. He eventually arrived, hot and flustered and told his tale. Brian asked him how he managed to get released from arrest. Frank said: “I made the copper taste the whisky!”

Work was sometimes nearly back breaking (literally). On one occasion he was asked to look at St Aldate’s bells and went there during a practice. He climbed up to the bells and asked the ringers to raise bells one by one in order that he could observe the movement of the frame. Unfortunately communications between him and the ringing chamber were not clear and one ringer pulled off a bell that Frank was leaning on. Superman could not have done better. He clung to the wheel as the bell swung then threw himself into a window in the tower to avoid the impending crushing! He was black and blue for weeks and eventually said: “I wouldn’t mind but they didn’t even give me the job!”

Frank retired in 1989 and the business was taken over by his business partner and nephew Brian. Although retired he continued to visit the workshop opposite his home as afternoon tea boy and cake taster for as long as he was able to make the journey. When there and with not much subtlety, he watched Brian’s chaps at work, clearly determined to ensure that standards were maintained.

He took to sitting on a stool next to the scrap wood box watching Neil’s every move as he made wheels. As it was always after lunch he was prone to nodding off and as he started to sway towards slumber Neil would bang his hammer on the bench to keep him from falling off the stool. Unfortunately Neil did not always notice him falling asleep in time to stop him falling off the stool and occasionally had to fish him out of the scrap wood box.

Frank was not famous for giving glowing compliments. But he was very, very proud of how Brian had developed the bell hanging business (but I bet he never told him!)

The highest accolade he might attribute to any individual would go something like: “she’s a good ’un” (which is how he referred to Lyn Sapwell, our Rector ) or “he’s not a bad ol’ boy.”

On the other hand he was reasonably up front with his observations on individuals who caused him displeasure – I call to mind statements like:
“That ol’ boy wants to get his backside in gear”
“She’s a queer cove ‘ent she”, etc.

As tower captain he was meticulous in running Saturday night ringing practice and didn’t really appreciate large groups of unexpected visitors. On one occasion in the 60s a large bunch of youngsters appeared without warning wanting to ring. Frank was not best pleased that his plans were being disrupted. One of the chaps had very long hair, fashionable at the time. At one point during the session Frank looked at him and said: “is there anything you would like to ring MISS?”

He was the centre of attraction at the annual Appleton Society March 4th dinner where his speeches and tales were legendary. Apparently, Son White once said a long time ago: “anyone would pay seven and a tanner to go to March 4th just to hear Frank make a speech”.

With the passing years Frank’s health declined. He was riddled with arthritis in all his limbs and it broke his heart when he had to give up ringing. We had been heaving him up the ladder to the ringing chamber on Sunday mornings then waited as he smeared his hands with a revolting concoction to help him grip the rope.

Eventually it was just too much for him. I don’t think any of us fully realised how difficult that separation from his beloved bells was. For a time he sat at the bottom of the tower and listened when we rang but then even that became too much for him.

For a time he terrorised the village on his electric scooter and was occasionally picked out of hedges and off the garage floor. Increasingly he was confined to home.

Carers were installed and Frank acquired a red button. This was to enable him to summon assistance in case of trouble. Being nearest I was top of the call list.

Over a few years Janice, David and I were summoned at dead of night to retrieve him from the floor. He was always grateful and apologetic but as I said to him once at 3am in the morning: “It’s a good way for us to keep in touch Frank!”

Once I was called at 3.30am and discovered him comfortably tucked up. “What’s the problem?” I said. “Nothing”, he said. “Why did you press your button” I said. “Don’t know” he said “I must ’ave pressed it in my sleep” – ‘but I wouldn’t mind a cup of tea!”

He was always a good user of available resources, even in old age. Having the workshop opposite his home was a boon in many ways, but especially because of the potential workforce it offered! As well as keeping an eye on him, ‘Brian’s blokes’, as he called them, were often persuaded to do the odd job for Frank, especially when Brian wasn’t around! How wonderful that their last job for Frank was to bring him into church today. That would have pleased him a lot!

Frank was blessed with a family and friends who showed him so much love and gave him huge support. Although he probably didn’t often say it to their faces he so appreciated all that they did for him.

He was determined to come to this year’s March 4th dinner. I watched him as he literally glowed amongst so many of his family and friends and joined in Farmer’s Boy and The Volunteer Organist with his beloved twins and of course Nunc Dimitis for what was to be the last time.

It was then he went into hospital for the six months before he died. Always when we went to visit him there were people clustered around his bed. He loved the company as he demolished boiled sweets at an alarming rate with loud crunching noises.

The family were told recently that he would have to move into a care home. After lots of careful planning we found him a place. It is a rule that social services have to interview the person who is entering a home as part of the assessment process. The man who spoke to Frank was startled when Frank announced to him that he would not be going to the home because he had received a letter and he was going to die in four days!

The following Tuesday (four days later) he went to Heaven.

Frank White was the most cherished man I have ever had the privilege to know. His passing marks the end of an era in my life and the lives of many others. How blessed we all have been to know and love him.

After six months in hospital Frank has come home again to his beloved Appleton. The peace is his – the wonderful memories are ours.

Well Frank, that’s it. I’ve got to get off now. I hope that was OK ’cos we all think that you were ‘a good un’ and the best ‘old boy’ that ever was.

So long Frank and God Bless.

ROGER MITTY and BRIAN WHITE

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CC
Central Council of Church Bell Ringers