John Leary (d. 2007)

John Leary died on March 29th 2007.

From the Ringing World of June 22nd, 2007:

1 June 1950 – 29 March 2007

Born and bred a Yorkshireman (and proud of it), John learned to ring some time in 1965 at St Augustine’s, Hedon while at school at Hymers College in Hull. John was clearly exceptionally intelligent and whilst the best students in the school studied, in addition to other subjects, Greek, John also studied Hebrew, something not offered to many.  He brought the same quickness of study and intelligent understanding to bell ringing. Roddy Horton recalls arranging a peal of Plain Bob Major at Hedon in 1967 in which John was included.  Roddy was going to call the peal but “struggled with the composition” so John called it - his first peal!

In October 1967, when only just 17 years of age, John went up to Oxford University to study Chemistry.  He joined the OUS, but also took a keen interest in folk song and dance, becoming a member of the Cecil Sharpe Society.  At this time, John was very interested in all sorts of 6-bell methods, and five of the peals which he rang in his year at Oxford were of multi-minor, including one in 37 methods.  Perhaps it was his comparative youth, or perhaps because he is remembered as enjoying Oxford life to the full, but whatever the reason John did not do as well academically as might have been expected, and at the end of the first year he transferred to Reading University. He said that as a result of being at Oxford he was very good at punting, but that he felt Reading was more suited to him.


After graduation John obtained work in the pharmaceutical industry.  He joined Berk Pharmaceuticals near Guildford, initially as an analyst, but over the next twenty years, and a number of changes in ownership, he worked his way up to the position of Chief Analyst with additional responsibilities for manufacturing systems.  His arrival in Guildford certainly made an impact on the local ringers, many of whom remember in some detail their first meeting with him.  Richard Major remembers being in the ringing room of St Nicolas church when the fledgling University of Surrey Association was holding a practice.  John arrived with a smart, short haircut, neat clothes and a full length furled umbrella, looking quite out of place in a university group of the early 1970’s.  He announced that he had just arrived in the area and that he was called “Gnome”!  When surprise was expressed at the name he took off his coat and revealed a waistcoat with a gnome embroidered on it – no further explanation of the name was forthcoming.


John joined the band at Stoke-next-Guildford, recently augmented to 6, and within a short time he established one of the best practices in the area.  He also continued to support the University society.  Without fuss, and sometimes without the recipients even noticing, John organised ringing to help people progress.  He had a talent for managing practices which would stretch most members of the band, and although he could be a hard task master, if you were willing to take note and respond to his challenges the results were worth it.  A work colleague introduced John to caving, and he developed an interest in cave photography and taking beginner parties, typically made up of bell ringers, underground.  In return, John convinced a number of his caving friends to take up ringing.  In addition, he found time to undertake research for his PhD under the auspices of London University.


Eventually, work forced John to move to Sussex and, with his first wife Caroline, he set up home in Polegate and joined the band at Ringmer.  In 1984 John became a member of the Ancient Society of College Youths, ringing his first peal for them (4-spliced Surprise Maximus at Ipswich) in October of that year.  As a practical ringer John was exceptional. He very rarely made a mistake, and was an excellent striker and conductor on all numbers of bells no matter how complex the method.  He kept no peal records, so his actually total is unknown, although it was probably around 400.  Even at the peak of his peal ringing career in the 1980’s he rarely rang more than about 20 peals a year, and in many years he rang far fewer.  Yet such was his ability and reliability that he was automatically included in bands setting out to achieve something new and complex, and no matter how long it had been since his previous peal, he rang, and often conducted, the most difficult and complex peals with confidence.


John was probably least happy during his Sussex years.  Neither his home nor his work life were without difficulties, but in time his friendship with Sophie, whom he first met as one of a number of young female learners at the practice at Witley in Surrey, developed into a close relationship and eventually to marriage and a family.  For some time, work kept them apart.  John continued to live and work in Sussex and Sophie was working near Salisbury, but in 1993 John joined RP Scherer in Swindon and he and Sophie married in September of that year and set up home in All Cannings, Wiltshire.


Once again John chose to support his local band and was instrumental in augmenting the peal to six.  Before this happened, however, John rang and conducted his first peal of Doubles (in 21 methods) and, in so doing, achieved the probably unique feat of calling the first peal he had rung on each number of bells from 5 to 12.  Under John’s guidance a young band was beginning to make good progress, and he would surely have been proud of how well they rang prior to his funeral.


By the exercise at large, who did not know him personally, John will probably be best remembered as a great theoretician and composer. He had a deep understanding of ringing theory and pushed back the boundaries in a number of ways. In the early days he did a lot of excellent work on Spliced Minor and it is said that Harold Chant, a Yorkshireman of the old school, described some of John’s work as “the best thing since sliced bread”. John helped to produce the modern description of false course head groups and in 1993 wrote a book on composing for the Central Council, which is still in print.


Having worked his way through Norman Smith’s all-the-work series, for somebody else’s benefit, John decided he wanted something more challenging so he set to work and produced his own excellent, and very difficult, series of 12 to 23 methods - all methods wrong place, all works above and below different, all place bells different, and all 12 lead end groups included. The series was rung, with John conducting, in 1984/5 with a combined Guildford/Sussex band, and members of the band say it is one of the hardest things they have ever done. In fact the 23 has been rung only once since then.  The Spliced Surprise Major series is probably his very best work, but he produced many compositions in all sorts of methods – all of them good and many of them very innovative. His Spliced Surprise Royal series in up to 14 methods, rung with the College Youths, has the same characteristics as the Major and was a significant step forward. In his early years John was one of those people who had little time for odd bell methods but he fairly soon grew to appreciate Stedman, particularly Stedman Caters, and he produced some superb compositions in the method and, incidentally, quickly became an expert Stedman conductor. Finally, and largely behind the scenes, John was from time to time asked to undertake challenging commissions. For example the record 15,840 30 atw Spliced Surprise Maximus which exploits cyclic part ends was one of his compositions. And he was working on a record length of Spliced Surprise Royal for the College Youths at the time of his death.


While John’s achievements were outstanding, his modesty and the ease with which he carried his abilities matched his achievements.  No matter who you were, he could talk with you at a level that you could understand and without making you think that here was a very clever man.  When you talked to him you felt that he was giving you his total and undivided attention, and his pleasure, when he had assisted you to achieve something new and challenging, was at least as great as your own.  The index to The Ringing World contains only one mention of his name. This was a brief paragraph recording his achievement in finally calling his own first peal on all numbers of bells. Typically the greater part of the paragraph is taken up with a list of those ringers who had helped him to achieve his ambition by arranging the peals.


John had the knack of maintaining friendships over time and distance, and a number of those friends chose him to be best man at their wedding and/or godfather to their children.  The church at All Cannings was full for his funeral on 16th April, where we heard about John the ringer and about his professional life.  In his working life John was described as “respected by everyone he interacted with, whether that be staff, peers, customers, or suppliers because he was a straightforward man to do business with.  He was honest, had abundant common sense and a sense of humour.”


Indeed, it is his wicked sense of humour that we will miss, as well as his extraordinary taste in luminous odd socks, and his wonderful mnemonics for learning spliced – “Yum Yum Really Yellow Custard Bob”.  Speaking at the funeral John Couperthwaite recalled John’s highly developed sense of the ridiculous and his sometimes rather wicked, though never malicious, sense of humour.  How he delighted in throwing a rock into some pool and then standing well back to observe the ripples, and how he was not averse to lobbing in further pebbles if he thought there was more mileage to be had from the confusion he had created. He sometimes carried this into ringing, calling a touch of spliced, carefully tailored to the abilities of the band, only to warn the less experienced not to panic and to ring London, or something they knew, at the next change of method. Then at the lead end he would call some exotic method that most of the band hadn’t a clue about and delight in the looks of dismay and alarm just before the bells ran round at the backstroke snap.


It is impossible to measure the loss to his friends and fellow ringers, and their grief at John’s untimely death, and it is as nothing compared to that of his mother, Katie, and of Sophie and of Fred, who was his joy and his delight.  We miss him greatly.


 JACKIE ROBERTS. With grateful thanks for the assistance of Anne Anthony, John Couperthwaite, Keith Green, Roddy Horton, Richard Major, Jeremy Pratt, Graham Smith, D Paul Smith, Richard Yarwood.


And from the Devizes Branch, in the same issue:

 It is difficult to underestimate the loss we in the Devizes Branch of the Salisbury Diocesan Guild feel at John Leary’s death. This loss is of course small in comparison to that of Sophie, Fred and the rest of his family to whom we can only offer our deepest sympathy at this sad time, but it is a great loss nevertheless, and one that will be felt by us all for many years to come.

John and Sophie moved to All Cannings in about 1994 and they both soon became active members of our Branch, within a year Sophie was our Publicity Officer and John had been elected Ringing Master, a post he was to hold for many years. John’s expertise helped us enormously; especially with ringing more advanced methods. Over the years he ran many training sessions both in theory and practice and was always ready to call a quarter or peal for us, often in one of his own compositions. On higher numbers, mainly using Trowbridge bells, he took us to the dizzy heights of Bristol Royal and a never to be forgotten entry into a 12 bell striking competition. He also arranged some interesting outings, including a weekend visit to Lundy Island soon after the bells there were restored. It was not just in more advanced methods that John was interested but in all things to do with ringing. Not long after moving, he joined the band at All Cannings and almost immediately started an appeal to get the bells augmented to six; something that was very soon achieved thanks to his enthusiasm. He was also instrumental in the rehanging of the bells at St John’s Devizes and in the formation of a new band there for the Millennium. More recently John was elected Tower Captain at All Cannings and immediately started to train a band of local youngsters. Under his guidance they made rapid progress and at least one member has rung a quarter on eight bells at the nearby church at Bishops Cannings.

Others will tell better than I can of how John was a superb ringer, a great conductor and a brilliant composer; here, he willingly shared these talents with us and was happy to help us out whenever required. In the fullness of time other ringers will surely come along who are as good, perhaps even better than he was, but it is unlikely that we will have the privilege of their skill and friendship in the Devizes Branch as we have had with John. Here in Wiltshire John Leary will be remembered for a very long time.

Bob Purnell.