Stephen J Ivin
The following extensive obituary was written by Steve Stanford and published in the Ringing World over two weeks in April and May 2010.
Stephen Ivin, who died on January 7th 2010, aged 72, was without doubt one of the greatest ringers of his generation. Not only did he possess very considerable abilities in performance – as a composer, conductor and heavy-bell ringer – but he was equally a master of his instrument, with very extensive theoretical, technical, and practical knowledge of the tuning, dynamics, and hanging, of bells; subjects in which he was widely recognised as an authority, and on which he was often consulted.
Beyond this, Steve (as he was affectionately known to most of us) was a very effective, if sometimes controversial leader. His tremendous achievements during the 60s and 70s at St Paul’s Bedford in developing and leading one of the finest Sunday Service bands of the day, followed by equally impressive developments of the bells and ringing in Oxford, from the mid 80s until the time of his death, will be a lasting and fitting tribute to him. In these places in particular, he inspired and positively influenced the lives of many ringers whose fond memories of him, and the good times that they have shared with him, are often enhanced by legendary stories of his sometimes outrageous behaviour!
Alan Ainsworth, who conducted the record length (16,368) of Cambridge Surprise Maximus at Birmingham Cathedral in 1965 in which Steve rang the 9th, refers to, “his ability to lift a piece of ringing from mediocrity to the sublime but also to give offence by a harsh comment”, and Anthony Smith describes how at Bedford he “moulded a disparate group of ringers into a first class band – he knew how to get the best out of each of us, a stern rebuke here and gentle encouragement there.” John Loveless recalls him ringing the 35cwt tenor at St Mary-le-Tower, Ipswich to a peal of Cambridge S Maximus. “This stands out as probably the finest display of heavy bell ringing I’ve ever witnessed, produced by a true artist and craftsman at work. No one could have bettered his performance that day.”
And Paul Mounsey adds, “He was a superb heavy bell ringer, though he could ring with equal precision anywhere in the circle, and he was a most accomplished handbell ringer. I think he suffered like many people of great brain power from a sort of “butterfly” mind – he could not concentrate long enough to avoid silly method mistakes, but he could equally keep the rest of the band on the line even if he was lost himself.”
Both Anthony Smith and Chris Pickford describe Steve as one of their ringing heroes – as such, they share him with many others.
Indeed, Steve inspired and had a profound influence on later generations of ringers, although few of them will succeed in emulating his all-round abilities in artistic performance, engineering, and leadership. It is perhaps because of this very rare, if not unique, combination of talents that Paul Mounsey described him as, “the greatest ringer of his generation” in an appreciation delivered to a meeting of the ASCY shortly after his death.
The early years – woken by bells, castigated by Miss Steel!
Steve was born on 21st December 1937 in Northampton hospital and spent his childhood years in Houghton Conquest, Bedfordshire, where he was brought up by his mother, his father having left home. He was taught to ring in about 1946 at the age of eight by Willie Watts, the local tower captain. (As a child he was unable to sleep while the bells were ringing on practice night, and this led to his attendance in the tower!) He soon came under the influence of Eddie Jeffries (undoubtedly the most capable of the pre-war generation of Bedfordshire ringers), whose green-grocer’s shop in The Broadway was conveniently close to Bedford School where, having won a scholarship, Steve was a pupil. In Steve’s own words, “Eddie and Kath’s flat above the shop became a kind of second home to some of us”
Steve rang his first peal, aged 11, on 26th August 1949 at Stagsden, the treble to Plain Bob Minor, conducted by J Michael Stephens (Michael’s first as conductor) along with Cliff Izzard, John Long, Chris Woodhead, and Eddie Jeffries, no doubt keeping an eye on things from the tenor. It was to be the start of a very distinguished ringing career, as yet unequalled by any other Bedfordshire ringer.
Steve’s qualities as a ringer, conductor, and composer were clearly evident from an early age. A hand written notebook dating from 1951, when he was just 13, contains 88 compositions, many of Plain Bob Major, but also Little Bob, Yorkshire, Ashtead, Cornwall, Rutland, Double Norwich, and the jewel in the crown, number 48 dated 19/10/54, a 5184 of London S Major with, “the extent of 4, 5, 6, in 5ths and 6ths”, and paradoxically perhaps, every course called In and Fifths (or 2:4)! This was to be the foundation for future work.
Although not included in the notebook, Steve’s simple three part composition of Bristol S Major, composed when he was just 18, was first rung at Felmersham on September 29th 1956 conducted by Mark Lancefield. It remains one of the most frequently rung compositions of Bristol and of Surprise Major and is a fine example of the logical clear thinking and structure associated with much of his work, not only in composition, but also evident in other aspects of his life.
Notwithstanding such early promise, there were signs of a mischievous side to Steve’s nature; something that remained throughout. Bob Piron often quoted Evelyn Steel – a member of the band that rang the first all Ladies peal at Cubitt Town in 1912 and by the 1950s the rather fearsome president of the Bedfordshire Association – who used to say of Stephen “It’s such a pity – he could do so much good.”
Oxford University; Classical studies in London S Major!
In spite of Miss Steel’s reservations, and in retrospect she may well have thought better of him, Steve won a public scholarship from Bedford School, going up to Merton College Oxford in October 1956 to read Classics. Avril recalls that the scholarship came with a very generous grant that occasionally enabled them to dine at an exclusive French restaurant! His time at Oxford was however to have a rather unconventional finish, when after three years, a respectable academic record, and having just been elected Master of the Oxford University Society, he decided to leave. As Steve recounts in John Spice’s book, The Oxford University Society of Change Ringers, 1872-1997:
“My lack of motivation in the classics together with my obsession with ringing made it rather unlikely that I should find anything of interest in the College/University context … In retrospect, I should have got out of Lit Hum and into something more tangible … I was now in college under false pretences and I decided to bail out … From the ringing point of view it was a stimulating three years. I had ample time to spend on the study of compositions and a search for new ideas. In those pre-computer days a vast amount of information had to be absorbed, and new lines of investigation could carry me away for hours.”
It was indeed during his time at Oxford that Steve developed his passion for London Surprise Major. Quoting again from the above source:
“In such company (referring to Bill Jackson and Donald Niblett) I was able to ring my first peal of London Surprise Major when the residents were augmented by Shirley Rymer and Peter Border, who conducted. This was my first encounter with Peter who was to become a great friend and was later to be Best Man at my wedding. How kindly and gentle a nature lay behind the forbidding – even intimidating – façade of the conductor soon became apparent. His trenchant and fairly monosyllabic comments on London compositions – then dominated by the In and Fifths productions of Gabriel Lindoff – led to my own intensive research. Practically anything I produced, Peter would get rung fairly rapidly in Birmingham. As a result London rose quite dramatically in the annual peal analysis.”
Steve’s pioneering work led him to discover the truth of bobbed courses with 5 and 6 in 5ths and 6ths, and this paved the way for a series of compositions by him and others that increasingly exploited the method’s hitherto under-rated musical qualities. His work has recently been recorded and published, with the generous support of Richard Jones and others, in a most interesting book containing 48 of his compositions of London S Major, incisively reviewed by Rod Pipe in these pages just a few weeks after Steve’s death.
Remembering Steve’s early days as a composer Roger Baldwin writes:
“He was one of the foremost composers of his day, producing compositions in a variety of Surprise Major Methods. He was an early pioneer of the combination roll up, if not the inventor, and he brought new insights to both new and more familiar methods. All of this was before the days of computers, and Singles were frowned upon, so tackling methods with tricky falseness was a challenge. However, he did open up new possibilities in London with his pioneering peal using s3, s5, leaving it to others to develop this area, and he was quick to recognise the wider potential of the use of Singles when he was the first to call Michael Bruce’s revolutionary composition of Yorkshire Surprise Major using singles to incorporate the 6-5 courses. Stephen also composed many peals of London Royal and Bristol Royal. Most of these remain unpublished, because he thought them too trivial I think”.
Christine Darby, who went up to Oxford University shortly after Steve, remembers his time there:
“Joining the OUS, the Oxford University Society of Change Ringers, he very quickly became instrumental in enlarging the range of methods rung by the Society to include a varied repertoire of Surprise Major, and on 13th May 1958 a band of residents rang a peal of 12-Spliced Surprise Major, conducted by Stephen. Fifty years ago this was a quite remarkable achievement. The band was Jim Pailing, Roy Stoddard, Dermot Roaf, Donald Niblett, Robin Hodgson, Colin Taylor, Robin Pittman and Stephen Ivin. On 6th May Stephen conducted Cambridge Surprise Royal at Appleton, recorded as the first such by a resident band at any university.
The stories of his conducting prowess in peals are legion. Colin Taylor tells of his miscalling of a peal at St Ebbe’s about halfway and (no doubt after the usual expletives!) saying “Keep ringing, I’ll splice in something else.” At the end it was “Hold on – I’ll just have to check it wasn’t false”. A few minutes on the back of an envelope, and, “Yes, it’s fine.”
Donald Niblett, another of the Spliced Major band who was doing post-graduate research when Stephen came up, remembers a less well-known side of him. One of his hobbies was sewing ecclesiastical vestments; when Donald obtained his doctorate (thereby automatically becoming an M.A. as well) it was Stephen who turned his B.A. gown into an M.A. one.
Steve was hard to classify, definitely his own man, very entertaining and a master of the one-liner, delivered with that grin we can all picture. Some found him brusque; he certainly didn’t suffer fools gladly, and those who weren’t meeting his standards in the tower were never left long in doubt about it!”
Steve and Avril first met at a Bedford District December meeting at St Peter’s Bedford, in the early 50s, introduced by Bryan Pattison. They continued their courtship between Oxford and Leicester where Avril was studying Domestic Science, and they were engaged in June 1958. Married on August 13th 1960 at Houghton Conquest, their wedding was commemorated by a peal of Four-Spliced S Major at Woburn later in the day, conducted by Peter Border (This was also Jim Taylor’s 50th peal). They began their married life in Houghton Conquest, later (in 1968) moving to Aspley Guise. They were married for almost fifty years and were a wonderful couple, very supportive and devoted to one another. This was clearly evident on the frequent occasions that I had the privilege to stay with them, and perhaps even more so during the final years when Avril nursed Steve through his final and very difficult period of illness.
The Bedford Years; strong leadership, broken clocks, and augmentation!
Steve was first listed as a ringer at St Paul’s, Bedford while still an undergraduate at Oxford, in 1957, and on his return in 1960, he took over (not entirely amicably according to some accounts) from Sid Foskett, with Avril as tower secretary. At that time there was a young and capable band that included Jim Taylor, Jenny Davies (Taylor), Jean Addicott, Bob Piron, Ralph Mitchell, John Long, Bryan Pattison, and George Amor, and several local band peals were rung; mostly Grandsire Caters, and with occasional outside help, the basic Surprise Major methods.
Frank Rivett, along with his sister Katie (Marriott), were up-and-coming youngsters who came under Steve’s influence at that time. Frank says:
“Stephen fired my ambitions in ringing from the first time I met him – a Sunday morning circa 1957/8, dressed in the uniform of the day (white shirt, grey flannels, black shoes), a visiting group of young ringers with perfectly struck London Major on the super bells at Bromham – this is what ringing is all about. After conducting the first peal for me and my sister Katie in 1959 he continued to inspire us through his leadership at Bedford, the ease of his tenor ringing on the back eight, his conducting skills, his organisational ability, his skill at composition, his friendliness – the list is endless. He inspired many, including me and my sister Katie, creating ringing opportunities for us that would otherwise not have been there. It is a privilege to have been associated with him and to have learnt most of my early change ringing through his efforts.”
By 1964 however, with job moves and national service postings, only five members remained, and it was at this time that Steve set about re building the band virtually from the ground up. He often recalled that it was a tough struggle, with the usual church and tower politics to address.
He instigated the re-hanging of the bells in 1966 and also the subsequent installation of sound control, creating the opportunity for more and easier ringing. Eddie Jeffries used to say that prior to this, “They were so loud you could ’ear ’em in Luton”.
Steve was greatly assisted, and always acknowledged the loyal support he received during this early period, from his wife Avril, and people such as Bob Piron (and later Jeremy), Martyn and Kate Marriott, George Amor, Arthur Gibbs, and Jim Edwards amongst others, who by 1967 formed the nucleus of the Sunday band, later to be joined by Michael and Jill Orme (and later Phillip), Keith and Linda Fleming, Malcolm and Shelagh Melville, Robert Wood, Stephen Stanford and Chris Hughes.
Later incarnations of the band included, Angela and Crawford Allen, David and Lynda Lazzerini, David Stanford, Martin Major, Ian Harris and Chris Pickford. In addition to the Sunday ringing there were the legendary practice nights supported by many others from surrounding towers; Anthony and Charlotte Smith, Bob Churchill, Cliff Izzard, Ron Sharp, Alf Rushton, Mark Regan, David Hope to remember some of them.
By today’s measures Steve’s approach in the belfry (the same people ringing the same bells to the same methods with a relentless attention to striking, rather than method complexity and repertoire) might be considered rather conservative, and modern day management theorists would doubtless be disparaging of his leadership style; yet at Bedford he succeeded in identifying and making opportunities for a generation of very capable young (and some not so young) ringers, creating one of the top Sunday Service bands of the day. Few were licensed to ring anywhere in the circle, and the 7th, 8th and 9th are still somewhat affectionately referred to as Malcolm’s bell, George’s bell, and Bob’s bell.
Sunday service ringing, more than peal ringing, was always the primary objective. There were not many, if any, Sundays without an hour of quality ringing for both services. Three straight courses of Surprise Royal was often the standard Sunday morning fare; Cambridge, London (when Jim Edwards arrived from Goldington in his dilapidated Morris Minor) and Bristol, interspersed with Grandsire and Stedman Caters. Beyond this, there were forays into less widely rung methods such as York, Bushmead, London No.1, Clyde, and Wimborne Surprise Royal, all rung by the local band to peals during this period.
Peals were rung for services or replaced the practice, with ringers mostly drawn from the Sunday service band and Monday night regulars, and primarily aimed at improving the quality of the ringing. Steve was highly effective in identifying people with potential and sufficient ambition, and in encouraging the best from them. All were very capable, yet few were well known or prolific beyond the Bedford area; and only one or two of them have subsequently become so. Occasionally, if the practices became rather too popular with the “wrong people”, a peal was quietly organised without informing them. Turning up on a Monday night to find the bells ringing and the door locked was usually, except in one or two notable cases, sufficient to dampen any enthusiasm for further visits!
Mark Regan remembers:
“Stephen Ivin was terrifying and inspiring. Ringing at St Paul’s Bedford in the early 1970s was special. As an enthusiastic youngster I was fortunate to ring there and come under Stephen’s tutelage … The reputation, the expectations, the stories and the standards made it ‘the place’ to ring. I went there barely able to ring the treble to Bob Doubles, however, Stephen took an interest in me and within a few months I rang a peal of Cambridge Royal. Stephen was enormously generous and kind to a group of youngsters whom he encouraged and cajoled into semi decent ringers. What fun we had, especially the evening beers at the White Horse with grown up members of the band.”
Steve’s approach is also nicely summarised by David Stanford who says:
“I particularly recall from this period a quarter peal of Grandsire Triples, possibly my first on an inside bell. I struggled to get to grips with being in the hunt but Stephen soon fixed that. The first three or four occasions I failed to stay in the hunt he gave a gentle reminder, increasing in volume each time. Inevitably a limit was reached and Stephen deemed a more assertive instruction to be necessary. At volume he bellowed “David get in the ****** hunt!” I made no further mistakes thereafter and at the end of the quarter peal a grin and a “well done“ from Stephen was enough to put me at ease and a reminder to do my homework in future! I still sometimes forget that I am in the hunt when ringing Grandsire and on realising, I vividly recall Stephen on that occasion. It reminds me to always do my best. Steve’s frustration would have come from the fact that he knew I could do better. That was Stephen’s approach, getting the best from people and improving it”.
Chris Pickford adds:
“The success Steve enjoyed at Bedford owed a great deal to his patient encouragement, careful coaching and personal support for individuals – and by no means just from the shouting and castigation for which he became rather far famed. He had a natural talent for spotting ability and bringing people on. He fostered a generation of youngsters – the likes of Steve Stanford, Jeremy Piron, Ian Harris and Mark Regan – but also provided opportunities for his seniors – people like Alf Rushton, Ron Sharp, Arthur Gibbs, Bob Piron and Bryan Sims – to perform beyond the limits of their own horizons. Woe betide those whose ringing fell short of the required standards of concentration, effort, or striking.
During one Monday night peal a bit of a fire-up started. Just as Steve was starting to sort it out, one ringer misguidedly caught the sally with one hand – only the once – but it was noticed. Never mind the fire-up, Steve let him have it with both barrels: “You can’t ring properly with two hands, let alone one …”, “no time to muck about when others are going wrong” – before calmly putting us all right.
This was pretty fearful for those on the receiving end – although amusing (if cautionary too) for the rest of the band. But although the fuse was short – the explosion often strong – the recovery time was quick too. Laughter often followed, even after the now famous “clock smashing” incident after the loss during the final course of an early local band attempt for Bristol Royal when – according to the primary culprit who liked to tell the story against himself – Steve returned to the ringing room after cooling down a little, and joked: “I suppose I’ll have to buy a new one”. The pendulum, incidentally, still hangs on a nail in the ringing room.” A lasting testament and memorial!”
Fearful perhaps, but it attracted good ringers with the right attitude. When Chris Hughes moved to a village in the south of the county he tried various places for ringing without finding much to his liking. At Luton he enquired about what happened at Bedford. “I wouldn’t go there – they’ll shout at you” was the response. However, Chris thought this sounded promising and he subsequently became a valuable member of the Bedford band, making a 40-mile round trip to Bedford twice each Sunday to ring. As Steve once said, “Luton lost out there by pressing the wrong buttons!”
Steve’s approach to peal ringing mirrored his approach to Sunday Service ringing and was unvaried; quality in preference to quantity, practice through repetition of a limited, although still fairly ambitious repertoire, and careful band selection and placing. Inevitably there was a relatively high risk of failure if these objectives were not achieved; this being reflected in his fairly modest (by today’s measures) peal total of 1,523, an average of just 26 a year with 104 in 1972 being his most active year.
Frank Rivett captures the essence of Steve’s approach:
“His standards were sometimes higher than we could attain, but standards that many of us would often welcome today, how many peals have we rung in and said to ourselves “why are we still ringing”. It is a privilege to have been associated with Stephen and to have learnt most of my early change ringing through his efforts.”
Standing amongst the more notable of Steve’s peal ringing achievements must be the ‘London peal weeks’ that he organised. Martin Major recalls:
“I was privileged to arrange a peal week in Leicestershire in September 1973 during which we rang ten peals of London Major, two a day from Monday to Friday and Stephen conducted all of them with different compositions.”
Steve often participated in and greatly enjoyed George Fearn’s peal week, and so just a few weeks later the feat was superseded in Cheshire and N. Wales, with a further thirteen consecutive successful peals of London S Major, twelve of them conducted by Steve. Another peal tour in 1975 included nine peals of London S Major interspersed with a peal each of London and Bristol S Royal. Those who participated often say that it was some of the best and most enjoyable ringing that they have ever done.
Quite recently, and by then very ill, reflecting on the times and the people at Bedford, Steve said to me: “We were very lucky you know.” But of course it was a good deal more than just luck. Members of that band remember those times with huge affection, and owe so much to Steve’s dedication and leadership, without which it would not have been possible.
It was at around this time in the early 70s that the idea of augmenting Bedford to twelve was first mooted, but it was not until 1978 that the dream was to be realised, a project that was master minded and to a large extent funded by Steve and other members of the band through the Stephen Ivin bell fund, that he established as a charity to finance this and other projects with which he was associated. These included the recasting of 5th and 7th bells at Husborne Crawley, the re-hanging and augmentation at Kempston, and the augmentations at Henlow and Ampthill, amongst others. There are of course numerous Bedfordshire towers that benefited from advice and general improvements that Steve carried out.
Philip Jewell attributes completion of the augmentation project at Henlow to Steve’s support, without which it would not have come to fruition. He says:
“Steve was very kind to me, calling many of my formative peals, and spending hours helping with the augmentation at Henlow.”
And Cliff Izzard is equally appreciative of Steve’s advice and help with the re-hanging and augmentation work at Kempston.
Indeed, Steve’s influence in the augmentations at Kempston and at St Paul’s, Bedford is clearly evident in the matching of the sound and dynamics of the old and new bells – far more convincing than with several other augmentations in the area completed at a similar time.
Steve was not averse to ignoring advice and taking a few risks in these projects, and at Bedford, with the new treble hanging above the tenth on the opposite side of the tower to where its rope comes down, success was by no means guaranteed, as Chris Pickford recalls;
“The two trebles of the ten were hung in a girder framework above the rest. Steve eventually managed to get professional assurances that structurally it would be okay to hang two more bells up among the girders – but then the problem of getting the ropes to fall in the right places still posed a challenge. The new bells arrived in Bedford just after I did in January 1978 and Whites installed them, leaving Steve to sort out the roping. Even after the bells were hung, “will they work?” was a question that remained in people’s minds, even if they weren’t rash enough to voice it. Few realise that the direct fall of the ropes is awkward. Both are heavily drawn, – yet the Ivin solution works well.”
“It was during this time that Steve reached the personal milestone of his 1,000th peal in August 1978. It was to have been at Bedford, of course – but there was a mishap which gave rise to an example of Steve’s readiness to laugh at himself. The treble clapper fell out – and there was only one person to blame! The replay took place at Meldreth the following week.”
Following the augmentation at Bedford, Steve soon had the band ringing on twelve; the first peal being Grandsire Cinques (12th March 1978) by a Sunday Service band, followed by Stedman Cinques (10th April 1978), Cambridge S Maximus (15th April 1978), and Bristol S Maximus (28th December 1978), all firsts in the county, by predominantly service bands.
Martin Major’s recollections of Steve’s contributions to Bedfordshire ringing are shared by many:
“I would say Stephen was a legend, verging on the genius. A man who could compose anything at will, from the most complex to the ordinary in any given method. His expertise in campanology is found in ringing, conducting, composing, rope splicing, sound control, re-hanging, tuning He was a man who could turn his hand to anything; he was a perfectionist, spending hours and hours of his time to get the sound of the bells just right to the ear in any given tower. His contribution to Bedfordshire ringing is immense”.
Martyn Marriott firmly endorses Martin’s tribute, saying:
“Steve stood way above the average ringer; he nurtured those with promise, and his ability to get them performing far beyond their (own) perceived abilities was the essence of the man. He used to refer to “our gang”, never “his” gang. He didn’t indulge in selfish leadership – everything was done for the benefit of the band and the tower.”
And at Steve’s memorial service Chris Pickford said:
“Perhaps the best tribute to Steve from his Bedford days is the affection and respect with which he is still held by members of the old band. Now dispersed to other parts of the country, there is still a strong sense of belonging to Steve’s band – and good ringing, laughter, and camaraderie whenever we get together. Thirty years on, and that’s some legacy!”
Yet despite all this, Steve had become a little disillusioned – also with a daily commute to work for Blackwells in Oxford – and early in 1980 he and Avril moved to Leafield just outside Witney in Oxfordshire. He agonised about how to leave matters in Bedford – I remember that we had several discussions about it – and it was a difficult time for him personally. More than anything he wanted the ringing and availability of the bells that he had worked so hard for, to continue for those he was leaving behind. It was, of course, the result of almost two decades of very considerable effort and personal sacrifice. Here he succeeded too, at least for a time.
Chris Pickford completes the story:
“It was when Steve and Avril left Bedford for Leafield that the extent of his contribution to Bedford and Bedfordshire ringing became clear. Their departure created a huge hole. Indeed the local band at Bedford decided – very wisely in hindsight – that instead of having a single successor, the work that Steve had done should be shared by three people. (Martyn Marriott, Martin Major, and Chris). For all of us it was a daunting challenge all the same. The result, was that for well over a decade Steve’s legacy lived on, and Bedford ringing continued to flourish – not only with local peals of Bristol Maximus and methods like Cantuar and Newgate, but also in terms of striking with Bedford fielding a largely Sunday service band and reaching 3rd place in the twelve-bell competition.”
The Oxford Years; two new tens, a vastly improved eight, and a return to London!
Following the move to Oxfordshire, Steve became a little reclusive, and apart from two periods when he rang on Sunday mornings at Oxford Cathedral following the completion of work to the tower there, and St Paul’s Cathedral, mostly during the time when John Chilcott was Ringing Master, he did not do much ringing, and generally lost interest.
My own move from Bedford to Oxfordshire pre dated his by about a year, and so it was that we remained in regular contact, and I frequently visited Steve and Avril at Leafield. This was a difficult time for Steve, when he first began to suffer from periods of indifferent health that, sadly, he never really overcame. Despite this he soon became involved in other activities.
He acquired one of the earliest micro-processors, and taught himself an incredible amount about electronics, programming in machine code / assembler, and the construction of electronic circuits. One application was as a programmable ringing machine, pre dating Abel by some twenty years. I remember Holt’s Original coming to a rather abrupt end one morning when the cat walked over the circuit board and rather disturbed things – so much for the reliability of machines – and they didn’t respond to being shouted at either!
Steve also had an extensive knowledge and appreciation of music and musical composition. He was always keenly interested in Avril’s work in the Oxfordshire peripatetic music service, and as an orchestral cellist, and there are a number of ringers, who attribute their initial interests in classical music to Steve’s influence. With such an ingenious and rigorous mind, Handel and Bach were amongst his favourite composers. He was also an avid reader of both fiction and non-fiction books, and as a result, incredibly well informed on a broad range of issues and subjects.
Other interests included computer proof of compositions, and the tuning and dynamics of bells, subjects in which Steve became very knowledgeable. Indeed, he co-sponsored Bill Hibbert’s Open University PhD thesis on the quantification of strike pitch and pitch shift in church bells and his contributions are acknowledged there.
As an engineer I always greatly appreciated Steve’s very considerable understanding of mathematics and physics, not only because he had such an excellent grasp of basic theory and first principles, but also because he invariably knew about, and was very adept in the practical application of those theories and principles. All the more remarkable because, being a Classicist, most if not all of his knowledge was self acquired. He was not however a particularly good teacher – far too fast and impatient for that. As Avril would no doubt confirm – he tended to assume that you already knew what he was talking about. On occasions it was like being on a roller coaster – just about possible to hang on and follow if you exercised maximum effort, although equally enthralling!
A move from Leafield to Blandford Avenue in Oxford in 1982 was to be the beginning of Steve’s renaissance period as far as bells and ringing was concerned. Clive Holloway recalls:
“At that time, ringing at Christchurch mainly consisted of Grandsire and Stedman Cinques. With Steve’s encouragement and persistence we were able to ring Cambridge Maximus without it falling apart when trips occurred. We were spurred on by such words as “Don’t overshoot the runway” and “Cut out the broken glass on the front”. He went on to assist many of us through our first peals of Maximus. He then got many of us through our first peals of London and Bristol Major and Royal. We had a number of attempts at Bristol Royal with a local band, sometimes having to go to towers outside Oxford. Fortunately there were no clocks at any of these towers!”
In 1986 Steve started work to re-hang and eventually replace and augment the bells at St Mary Magdalen in Oxford, a project that reached a final conclusion in 2001. Much of the work was supported and funded by members of the Oxford University Society. Later in 2001, generous donations from Peter Border’s family and friends enabled the addition of two trebles to his memory, resulting in a brand new and very agreeable 7cwt ring of ten. Fittingly, although not intentionally, this was Steve’s final project; his work possibly brought to a premature end following a fall from the vestry roof at St Thomas’ that resulted in the need for fairly extensive surgery and metal pinning in his shoulder.
The initial work at St Mary Magdalen was followed in 1990 by the re-hanging of the bells at Lincoln College, Oxford. Here the unexpected discovery of rot in the frame (a consequence of it being built into an old chimney which had effectively become a down-pipe), resulted in a far more extensive project than initially planned involving Steve in designing and constructing a new foundation grillage and frame.
At about this time, Steve spent several years working for Whites of Appleton, where he soon acquired sufficient practical and technical knowledge from Frank and Brian to be considered a potential competitor! Whites had been responsible for a project at Oxford Cathedral on which Steve worked as an employee and later, to varying degrees, they provided much appreciated professional advice and the use of their workshop facilities for the projects at St Mary Magdalen and Lincoln College.
Shortly afterwards, in 1991, Steve initiated another project that over a five-year period provided another new ring of ten, at St Thomas the Martyr, Oxford. This was precipitated by the architect’s condemnation of the old bell frame and Steve’s contrary assessment that the problem was more with its foundation. Further consideration during dismantling, coupled with the unexpected availability of additional funds, led to a more extensive project to install a concrete ring beam and new grillage and rebuild and extend the frame using the original Webb and Bennett design. This was no mean task – the frame being entirely constructed from steel bar that Steve cut with an angle grinder and drilled by hand with a pistol drill; and this (over 200 sections and one thousand holes) only a relatively minor part of the project! It was a typical example of Steve’s ingenuity, and tenacity. But for this, the project (to install a new frame) would never have been viable on a commercial basis, even with the many generous donations received.
Initially, the cannons were removed and the original bells tuned, with the third recast to provide scope for future augmentation. They were re-hung as a six and first rung in June 1992. It was Roger Abbot who precipitated the next phase with the generous donation of a treble of ten, intentionally leaving a rather obvious gap to be filled! With Steve at the helm, this was soon done, the combined attentions of the Church, Oxford University Society and Oxford Society resulting a year later in a very easy going ten.
But this was not to be the end of the story. Steve’s musical ear remained somewhat critical and intolerant of the older five bells – even after tuning they were something of a compromise by comparison to their modern Taylor counterparts. With his desire for perfection further encouraged by the enthusiasm of Roger Abbott and Clive Holloway, he set about replacing them in two stages. Having recast the worst offenders (6, 8, and 9), Steve commented in John Spice’s book as follows:
“As an act of faith the (final) two bells were cast on Good Friday 1996 (these irreligious Midlands working habits!), even before the necessary Faculty (or funds) was obtained. They were hung during June 1996 and rung for the first time on 30th June, thus completing an entirely new ring of ten. A few days later I took a sledge hammer to the two old bells – the last of the original six. The result exceeds our best expectations: the dream has indeed come true.”
Paul Mounsey also referred to Steve’s desire for perfection when he said:
“I think what I will remember most about him is the attention to detail he applied to all the many things he got involved in. I bought a set of handbells from him in the late 80s. Not only did I get the handbells but also a set of cards on which he had meticulously recorded their tuning characteristics.”
And referring to the Oxford projects he says:
“Here again, he was not content just to put the bells in, he was obsessive about the acoustics and spent many hours getting them perfect. He discovered he could actually make the two trebles at Mary Mag louder by getting smaller clappers (a longer throw with more momentum) for example.”
Peter Giles has contributed a number of amusing anecdotes that bring back many fond memories of Steve, unfortunately not all of them entirely suitable for a family journal, but in relation to St Thomas’ he recalls:
“Steve said that the best bit of the job was at the end, when he was breaking up the last two buckets (bells) in the churchyard. A member of the public was passing and said: “What a shame! It says 1706 on them.” “That’s all right,” said Steve; “it does on the new ones too!” ”
Also, referring to the new ten, and by then approaching the age of 60:
“We shall have no more of this 35cwt nonsense. These are a rest home for geriatrics.”
The bells at St Thomas’ are without doubt one of (if not the) best ten of their weight, and with regards light rings of ten, something of a pioneering development.
As if the Oxford projects were not enough, during 1994 Steve became heavily involved with a project at Edwalton near Nottingham, assisting Martyn Marriott to augment the three bells there, producing a lively and very pleasant little six – all on one level in an extremely compact tower. The bells were cast and the work done in memory of Martyn’s wife Kate, a close and almost life-long friend who sadly passed away in December 1992, and two other former parishioners.
Steve also provided assistance and advice to a number of other projects, perhaps most notably at Amersham, Milton, and Campton. Alan Ainsworth, Colin Turner, and John Loveless are all greatly appreciative of his advice and support to their respective projects.
The Oxford restoration work soon led to a resurgence of peal ringing in Oxford; peals of London S Major and Royal flowing weekly on Monday and Tuesday evenings when the University was down. New compositions were produced, and Steve surpassed Bill Pye’s record for the numbers of peals of London S Major rung and conducted. He appropriately conducted his 226th at St Stephen in Brannel, where Bill Pye rang his last and 226th peal of London S Major. His final total was 309 peals of London S Major (21 of them in hand) of which he conducted 240; the most rung and conducted in that method by anyone.
Terminal illness – and renewed enthusiasm!
Very sadly, it was not to continue. In 2007, following a move to Steventon near Abingdon, a new and more diligent GP discovered first a stomach ulcer that was successfully treated, but then further investigation revealed myeloma. For Steve and Avril and their many friends this was devastating news. But encouraged by the relative success of early treatment, and in spite of his deteriorating condition and obvious discomfort, Steve made the best of things, remaining incredibly positive and productively engaged in a whole range of new and more manageable interests and activities until only two months before he died.
Amongst these was his work in identifying and manipulating specialist scanning software that enabled him to convert the disparate layout and typefaces used by The Ringing World into a database readable format. This nicely complemented Andrew Craddock’s herculean efforts on PealBase, enabling another ten or so years to be added. Even with the software, a considerable amount of manual manipulation was required; all the more remarkable that this was achieved, with Avril’s patient help, during his final illness.
Other projects included the Peter Border memorial plaque (cast from bell metal and now installed at St Mary Magdalen), new compositions (including one for Shelagh Melville’s 80th birthday), and the London Major compilation (which he would not have completed without generous support from Richard Jones).
I always greatly enjoyed our phone conversations, and this period was no exception. His continued enthusiasm to talk about work in hand was quite contagious, and his comments about ringers and ringing no less acute. It was of course as much attributable to the devoted love and unstinting care that he received from Avril as it was due to his own tenacity and pragmatism. They were a wonderful team. When I mentioned this following Steve’s death, Avril said to me: “What else could I have done?” The answer, that I am sure that Steve would have given is: “nothing”.
Mark Regan, surely the most prolific of Steve’s protégés from Bedford recalls his last meeting with Steve:
“… though very ill, Stephen was full of enthusiasm and wry observations. Avril was at his side and the strength of their marriage was as evident as it always had been. Stephen wasn’t quite so terrifying, though he was still very inspiring. And I’ll always remember that lingering smell of pipe tobacco.”
Referring to the record peal of London S Royal at St Thomas’, Frank Rivett recalls his final (and somewhat characteristic) meeting with Steve:
“I last saw Stephen after the long peal of London Royal at St Thomas in 2007 when his first comment was “you lot took your time” – four and a half peals at an average speed of about 2h50m! The bells were perfection to ring on, we were warned not to “piss on the floor”, and he recorded all 23,320 changes. And then he was embarrassed when we insisted on paying more than £1 a head peal fee!”
Working Life; Computers, Beer, Books, and “Non Employment”
Following his time at Oxford University, Steve began his working life as a trainee at the George Kent Company in Luton, then a leading manufacturer of process and medical instruments. He later moved to Texas Instruments who had recently established an operation in Bedford, and it was here that he gained his first experience with early commercial computing and programming technology. Somewhat unconvinced by the American style of (crisis) management, he followed his instincts (for beer), and in the early 70s joined Guinness at the Park Royal brewery, where he became programming manager.
I am not sure if the job came with any perks, but Steve greatly enjoyed good quality draught Guinness, or when it became increasingly difficult to find it, the bottled variety. On more than one occasion a search party was despatched during the course of a peal to trawl the area for pubs with the all important tap, this sometimes resulting in extensive travel to the opposite end of the county for both search party and peal band! As a loyal Whitbread employee, I seem to recall Chris Hughes being remarkably diligent and successful in identifying and testing suitable establishments!
In 1972 Steve and Avril moved to The Red House in Ampthill from where Steve went into self employment, establishing his own programming business as a limited company, and securing a contract with Blackwells who had recently purchased the scientific publishing business of Munksgaard in Copenhagen. This involved him in extensive travel, with most of the working week spent in Denmark, and no doubt resulted in the postponement of plans for the Bedford augmentation, although he remained firmly dedicated to leading and developing the band. Following a move to Bushmead Avenue in Bedford that eliminated the weekend commute for ringing, Steve continued to work principally for Blackwells on various contracts and projects. His work was increasingly based in Oxford however, and so it was that he and Avril moved again, firstly to Leafield and then to Blandford Avenue on the outskirts of Oxford.
Steve ended his contracts with Blackwells in 1984. After this his work was less regular with several small contracts, perhaps the most fascinating of which concerned the custom design and development of hardware and software for the programmable control of a tracking telescope at Cambridge University Astronomy department. Subsequent employ-ment with Whites of Appleton and his increasing involvement and enthusiasm for the various Oxford restoration projects inevitably led to what he described as his ‘years of non employment’ when, supported by Avril, he dedicated most of his time and financial resources to those projects. They became a full time job!
It would be impossible to do justice to Steve’s ringing achievements in a few paragraphs, but standing amongst them were:
Many pioneering and popular compositions most notably of Bristol and London Surprise Major, but also of Grandsire Triples (including a one part), Surprise Royal, Grandsire and Stedman Caters and Cinques. Referring to Pealbase, Andrew Craddock informs me that at the time of writing, Steve’s compositions have been rung to 5,202 peals since 1961, almost 2.5% of all the peals recorded, and of the 4,701 peals of London Major rung, 1,490 (almost a third) have used his compositions.
A total of 1,523 peals (104 in hand) of which he conducted 795 (8 in hand). These included 309 peals of London S Major (21 in hand) of which he conducted 240, the most rung or conducted by anyone to date, and 163 of London No.3 S Royal.
Record peals: including 16,368 Cambridge S Maximus at Birmingham Cathedral in May 1965, then the 12 bell record and 16,559 Grandsire Caters at Appleton in 1968, then the Grandsire Caters record.
Conducting Holt’s Original peal of Grandsire Triples 34 times – probably more than anyone else – and often on request at short notice.
Two attempts to ring the extent of Bob Major. 20,500 (about half way) in February 1958 conducted by Denis Knox, and 28,850 in 13 hours and 18 minutes in November 1959, that Steve conducted. This he stopped after one of the band became temporarily entangled with his rope; an incident that in Steve’s view marred an otherwise excellent performance, and a decision that caused some controversy.
And he was an accomplished handbell ringer, ringing 104 peals, most of them at 15 Harford Drive Watford, with John Mayne and Dorothea, and Roger and Kath Baldwin. Roger Baldwin writes:
“Kath and I first met Stephen in 1956. We were staying in Bedfordshire and he invited us back to his home in Houghton Conquest to ring a handbell peal – his first. It was just before he went to Oxford as a Scholar, and he was busy making his own gown – no mean task and typical of how versatile he was. We scored the peal, of course, Plain Bob Minor. He said never again!
The next one with us was London Surprise Major at Bushey in 1965, followed by Bristol Surprise Major a few weeks later, and then two of London conducted by him. There were two further main periods with the Watford band from 1971 to 1973, and again from 1977 to 1979. During this time he rang many peals of London Major and Royal and Bristol Major and Royal; peals of Spliced Surprise Major (up to 12 methods) and Royal (up to 22 methods), Stedman Caters and Cinques, Bristol Maximus, Wimborne Surprise Royal, and a variety of Surprise Major methods. One of his last peals was Holts Original which he called in 1975, one of his specialities, and his last handbell peal was, of course, London Surprise Major (at Campton on 3rd June 2005).
Stephen enjoyed ringing one of the fixed pairs, and was very good at it; an accurate striker and method ringer, and a good person to have around in a crisis. He was also excellent company, and would entertain us with his views on a variety of topics which had captured his interest, especially the tuning and hanging of bells, and of course the merits of different bells and ringers.”
Andrew Craddock has kindly supplied the following analysis based on information contained in Pealbase and Steve’s early peal books.
Peals mostly rung (conducted) for
- Bedfordshire Association: 539 (418)
- Oxford Society: 265 (158)
- Hertford CA: 115 (9)
- ASCY: 97 (9)
- Oxford University Society: 74 (28)
Methods mostly rung (conducted)
- London Surprise Major: 309 (240)
- London No.3 Surprise Royal: 163 (91)
- Bristol Surprise Major: 96 (58)
- Stedman Cinques: 90 (12)
- Cambridge Surprise Royal: 64 (34)
- Stedman Caters: 63 (16)
- Cambridge Surprise Maximus: 54 (21)
- Grandsire Triples: 49 (40)
- Bristol Surprise Royal: 48 (27)
- Grandsire Caters: 44 (24)
Towers where peals were mostly rung (conducted)
- Bedford St Paul: 194 (156)
- Oxford St Thomas the Martyr: 192 (90)
- Oxford St Mary Magdalen: 98 (60)
- Maulden: 75 (53)
- Husborne Crawley: 36 (32)
Ringers he rang most peals with (since 1961 from Pealbase)
- Anthony H. Smith: 265
- Clive Holloway: 228
- Ronald J. Sharp: 211
- Robert L. Piron: 203
- C. Michael Orme: 177
- Martyn J. Marriott: 172
- Roger Baldwin: 168
- S. Kathleen M Baldwin: 163
- Avril Ivin: 156
Steve’s final peal was at St Thomas’ Oxford on 23rd April 2007, for the Oxford Society when he rang the treble to Bristol Surprise Royal, conducted by David C Brown.
Steve was an Honorary Life Member of the Bedfordshire Association at the time of his death. He also previously served as Association Secretary (1962-1963) and Peal Secretary (1956-1963 and 1976-1980). He represented the Oxford University Society on the Central Council between 1960 and 1968, and subsequently served as an Honorary Member from 1970 to 1980.He was alsoSecretary of the Oxford Society from 1988 until 1995. Steve was elected a member of the Ancient Society of College Youths on 24th September 1955 and rang 97 peals for the Society, conducting nine of them. He was also a member of the St Paul’s Cathedral Guild from 1978 until 1983, and subsequently as a supernumerary, he supported the Sunday Service ringing there at various times up until the early 90s.
However, his ambitions and greatest contributions to the ringing world were surely not in any official capacity, office, or high position, but much more at grass-roots level in the bells and the ringers that he created, and the many happy memories that remain.
Fond Memories and Farewell
So what of those memories? Well perhaps contrary to the façade and his apparently temperamental and sometimes abrupt manner, Steve was very genuine and extraordinarily generous, not only with his time and expertise but also with money and possessions. He was never possessive in a material sense and his support for the numerous projects instigated by him and others often took precedence over his personal situation and needs. He was also very considerate and concerned for the welfare of close friends, especially in times of trouble or difficulty. As a leader he had a clear vision of what he was trying to achieve and although his methods could be indirect and somewhat unconventional, they were usually very successful. He was driven by a desire and ability to create something better and of lasting benefit to others – he had a tremendous sense of purpose. Combined with this he was extraordinarily skilled and talented; quick to discover and learn new things. But he was also a perfectionist – aspiring to achieve the very best that was possible, and he encouraged and inspired others to do likewise. He had a disdainful regard for anything that might be regarded as lacking maximum effort or being sub standard. But finally, and more than any of these things, the tremendous courage and determination that Steve showed during his final years of illness was an inspiration to all who knew him.
The high esteem in which Steve is held was clearly evident from the very many tributes that have been written, and spoken, and the attendance at his memorial service held at St Thomas the Martyr Oxford on February 22nd, when despite the very severe weather and travel warnings, well over 200 of Steve and Avril’s friends, mostly ringers, came to ring his bells, pay their final tributes, and share his wish that with Avril, we hold a wake to celebrate his life and work. It was a very fitting and moving end for a man who was considered by many to be “the greatest ringer of his generation”.
I greatly appreciate the help, support, and contributions from Steve’s many friends, particularly those who I have quoted. I would especially like to thank Steve’s wife Avril for providing me with unlimited access to Steve’s personal records and for engaging in many enlightening conversations about his life and work; also Martyn Marriott, Chris Pickford, and Clive Holloway who provided contributions and invaluable advice and assistance in commenting on and preparing the final copy.