28th June 1926 – 5th January 2012

How do you begin to write an essay to celebrate the life of a friend who has always been there? Both octogenarians, we started ringing in our teens, so we had a long, long time to get to know one another. But let me start at the beginning.

Harry Wells was born in the village of Nettlebed, Oxfordshire near Henley-on-Thames at the end of June 1926.  His father was Henry Wells, the village boot maker, who had come to the area from Dorset some time before and married Ethel Steptoe, a nanny from one of the large houses in the area. Harry attended the village school, although school was not really his thing, and he often used to hide in the bushes to have a day off! He left at fourteen to take up an apprenticeship with Stuart Turner, a company in Henley specialising in pumps and boat engines.

When Harry finished his time at Stuart Turner’s he had to do his National Service. He had always been keen on the Royal Navy so he joined the submarine service as an Engine Room Artificer, and started his training at HMS Dolphin at Southsea. Like the other recruits, he was put through the initiation ceremony of being thrown into the tall diving tower. Unlike the other recruits, he didn’t bob to the surface again, but just continued to sink and sink and had to be rescued and pulled out. He never did learn to swim!

He enjoyed his time in the Senior Service and would have liked to stay on, but it was not to be and he took jobs with Thorneycrofts and Hunter Penrose before joining AERE as an instrument maker. In 1956 he moved to the AERE Apprentice School as an instructor and he spent the next thirty years teaching and developing young engineers. Harry was a perfectionist who had very high standards and expected his apprentices – and others – to live up to them. He was very proud of his lads, followed their careers and kept in touch with many in later years. Apart from their actual training, he saw to it that they always behaved themselves and were properly attired, down to their highly polished shoes. Over his career he was responsible for the training of over a thousand apprentices, most of whom he knew by name.

He took up ringing in the mid 1940s, learning with five other boys from the village. They joined the Oxford Diocesan Guild, and in the first post-war list of members in 1948, Harry is shown as their tower captain. William Birmingham, who was Tower Captain at Slough at the time, was a native of Nettlebed and learnt to ring there, and I’m sure it was through Bill that Harry and the new ringers at Nettlebed were introduced to George Gilbert from Burnham, Bucks, some nineteen miles away. George was always willing to help young bands, and he certainly helped in this case by calling Harry’s first peal.

The bald statement of this in The Ringing World does not tell the whole story. The footnote states it was rung half-muffled in memory of Canon G. F. Coleridge, who had died a short while before. Four of the band including Harry rang their first peal, Bill Birmingham was ringing his first of Grandsire Doubles and George Gilbert was ringing his first of Grandsire Doubles as conductor. They wanted to get this peal, but George needed a reliable method of counting up to forty-two extents. He hit upon the idea of assuming he had called ten extents every time the clock struck the hour, so after the clock had struck the hour four times he would have called forty extents. Unfortunately, he still miscounted and called it five times, or 6,240 changes! This took three hours and 58 minutes, rather a long time, especially for the four first pealers!

Bill Birmingham had also told the boys about George’s fixation with always teaching girl learners. This encouraged Harry and the others to start cycling to Burnham on Tuesday nights to join the Burnham practice – much to George’s disapproval – and before long the inevitable happened, and the men started courting the women! Harry met Mary Pemberton, and on October 4th, 1952 they were married at Burnham church. They had hoped to have the bells rung for the wedding, but George was so aggrieved that Mary would be leaving his band that he locked himself in the ringing chamber so no-one could get in to ring!

Harry and Mary had two children, John and Jane. Both learned to ring when young but John moved to other hobbies. Jane married John Hibbert, and their children have followed in Harry’s footsteps and are also ringers. Harry enjoyed his ringing and made many friends and had many happy memories. In his younger days he was a good organiser and arranged trips to Yorkshire, Scotland, Devon and Cornwall. In 1969 in conjunction with the ringers from the Atomic Weapons Establishment at Aldermaston and the Atomic Energy Research Establishment at Harwell he helped form “The Cockcroft Society”, a society for ringers connected with these establishments. This ran practices and meetings at local towers for nearly two decades, including a very successful ringing holiday to Scotland which included the Edinburgh Tattoo.

Harry’s peal book shows he rang 113 peals in 37 different towers in his local area. He liked Stedman, and his records show that nearly a quarter of his peals were in this method. Double Norwich was his favourite major method, closely followed by Yorkshire Surprise Major. Perhaps two of his most unusual peals occurred on consecutive days when two different friends each decided to ring a double-handed tower bell peal, (a once in a lifetime event) and Harry got invited into both! Peal ringing was not an important part of his life, but he enjoyed what he did, and, like everything else he did, he wanted it to be good quality. If it wasn’t, he wanted to know why!

At the service to celebrate his life in St Matthew’s, Harwell on Friday, 20th January 2012 the service was taken by Revd Dr Jonathan Mobey. The church was full almost to overflowing, with many of the congregation being ex-apprentices from Harwell, and many more being fellow ringers from towers far and near. Many were the tributes from those with whom he had worked and those who had worked for him. They all emphasised how Harry was a people person, a generous spirited man and a gentleman. His last few years were not his easiest: Mary was taken seriously ill some years before, and he nursed her with devoted love until she had to be taken into full-time care.

Perhaps the last word should go to the Revd Brooke Kingsmill-Lunn, an old friend who gave the address. He described Harry as a third millennium man who always took the best from the past and combined it with the present.

Rest in peace, Harry.


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