Obituaries

J. Michael Swift

1936 - 2012

Michael was born on 10th October 1936 at Liverpool, (he claimed that the Liverpudlian connection was responsible for his unique manner of speech). He came to Bexhill at the age of five, when his father became Vicar of St Augustine’s Church.

His period of National Service with the RAF brought him the opportunity to learn to ring, at Wendover, Bucks. – He always said that it was the ONLY useful thing he learnt during his time in the RAF.

Returning home to Bexhill in 1957, he joined the band at St Peter’s, Bexhill, becoming Tower Secretary in 1960. He held this post until 2001, with a short break in the late 1960s. His Secretary’s Reports and AGM Minutes were mammoth efforts much enjoyed, even cherished, by members of the band.

Michael rang his first peal at All Saints, Hastings in 1958 and his last in 1995 for the Patronal Festival at St Peter’s, Bexhill; in all, he rang in 28 peals for the Sussex County Association and 3 for the Cumberlands, being elected to membership of the Cumberlands on 18th April 1964.

In addition to regular attendance at Sussex County Association meetings, in the 1950s/60s he was a frequent visitor and supporter of the Ladies’ Guild and his holidays, travelling by train, took him far and wide, always resulting in more towers to add to his list. On 10th January 1998, a special outing, ‘Michael’s Millennium Outing’, organised by Richard Kennard, enabled Michael to reach his 1,000th tower. His final total was 1,017. This was achieved in spite of not being a car driver – he relied on public transport, supplemented by willingly offered lifts, as well as occasional coach outings.

Although Michael always claimed that he’d never passed an exam in his life, with the exception of the medical for the RAF, he had a phenomenal memory for facts and figures relating to the important things in life: ringing, railways, cricket and the clergy of the Church of England (is it possible that he could actually have memorised Crockford’s?).

On an outing, it would not be unusual for him to inform everyone in the coach that we were passing from one diocese into another, giving us the name and particulars of the current Bishop. His outing reports (often under the non-de-plume ‘Merseyside Express’) usually noted the pubs he had visited between towers, as well as interesting snippets of information about the churches in which we had rung.

Michael’s ringing anecdotes were much enjoyed by tower members and he could usually be encouraged to repeat them for us. A favourite one concerned some ringing he witnessed at Southwark Cathedral, probably on the day of a Cumberlands’ Annual Dinner. The Ringing Master not satisfied with some ringing, said “Get off that bell man’ to the unfortunate tenor ringer, then “Walter!”, and Walter Dobbie, knee-high to a grasshopper, got on to the box, as cool as a cucumber, and turned in the tenor perfectly to Yorkshire Maximus.” Unfortunately it’s not possible in print to convey Michael’s unique intonation, but many ringers will be able to hear it in their mind’s ear.

As well as the anecdotes, there are the one-liners – “ringing time is like drinking time, too valuable to waste”, and, when too much chatting was delaying the ringing, he would mutter disgustedly “like a lot of old women in the fish queue”. And then there was the warning, “the clergy have got the whip hand”’ etc., etc.

Special milestones in Michael’s life were reported in the Bexhill Observer (with photos), on at least two occasions – one, in 1987, commemorated 30 years of Tuesday evening visits to ‘The Bell’, after ringing practice, for restorative pints of mild. The other took place on his retirement as Tower Secretary at the Tower AGM in 2001, after more than 30 years in the post when he was unanimously elected an Honorary Life Member of St Peter’s Bellringers’ Guild and presented with a framed certificate recording this.

Sadly, his health was already deteriorating and he was forced to give up ringing. This was a great sadness to him, but he accepted all the limitations that his condition imposed on him without complaint. He was deeply touched when Jonathan Franklin, then the newly elected Master of the Sussex County Association, visited him at Hazelmere Nursing Home, Bexhill on 22nd May 2007 for the purpose of presenting him with a certificate marking his 50 years’ membership of the Association. It is believed that this was Jonathan’s first official duty and wearing the Master’s chain of office; he made it a very special occasion for Michael.

Early in December 2011, Michael suffered another stroke and he died peacefully at Hazelmere in the early hours of 9th January 2012.

His funeral took place on 20th January, at St Peter’s, Bexhill, where he had also officiated as a sidesman and altar server.

The bells were rung for him (with the tenor half-muffled) before and after the service (and included a plain course of Stedman Caters, which Michael would have enjoyed), there were 26 ringers from local towers present. Also present were, Laurie Cooksey, now of Ramsgate who had been taught to ring by Michael some 50 years ago, and David Kirkcaldy Master of the Association. The service concluded with a spirited rendering of the Ringers’ Hymn. Michael’s family had invited all present to refreshments at the Community Centre.

May it be for Michael as it was for Christian and Hopeful (in The Pilgrim’s Progress), when they had passed through the waters of death and arrived at the gates of the heavenly city, “all the bells of the city rang to welcome them”, and they were told “Enter ye into the joy of your Lord”.

MARGARET PINK

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CC
Central Council of Church Bell Ringers