John Couperthwaite – Vice President

I was taught to ring as part of a new band at Burwell in Cambridgeshire in the mid 1950s. The bells had just been augmented to 8 and, apart from the tower captain, the new band consisted of a few old boys, mostly smallholders of some sort, who had rung in the past but were still very much learners, and one or two local kids like me. Progress was therefore very slow and we rang nothing but Plain Bob, mostly Doubles and Minor for a couple of years. However, it was a great grounding because we were taught to listen as well as look and I was encouraged to call touches and to properly understand what was going on. At the same time I was learning the basics of handbell ringing, again only Plain Bob Minor. I rang my first peal, Plain Bob Doubles, at Burwell in 1956, conducted (or rather put the bobs in) my first peal, again Plain Bob Doubles, in early 1958, and rang my first handbell peal, Plain Bob Minor, later on 1958.

In June 1959 the family moved to Preston in Lancashire. This was a huge culture shock for me in terms of education (moving halfway through the sixth form course wasn’t easy), in terms of surroundings (moving from an agricultural Fenland village to a northern industrial town full of engineering works, cotton mills and unfamiliar accents), and in terms of ringing. But I very soon came to think it was all great. I rang at Penwortham for a few months but then joined the band at Preston St John’s, a good 10 with a good band in those days. The tower captain was Cyril Crossthwaite, a really top class ringer and conductor and an excellent teacher. He was kind enough to include me in local peal attempts and I soon had chances to ring things other than Plain Bob. I was introduced to Treble Bob, Stedman, Surprise and, in particular, to Double Norwich, which is, even now still my favourite method of all. I was also introduced to ringing at Leyland, another good 10, where I met a young lady called Judy Moir to whom I fairly soon became engaged and who I later married in 1965.

I went to Leeds University in 1960 to read Physics and was immediately made to feel at home by the University Ringing Society, of which I was President in 1963. We had our own tower at Burley and access to handbells. We had a very good time, and rang a few Society peals on both tower bells and handbells. I particularly remember a peal of Double Norwich at St Michael’s Headingley, a 20cwt 8, which was the first in the method for everybody except me and my first in the method as conductor. I had a great time in Leeds and fortunately was able to strike a good balance between work and play. I graduated in June 1963 and in that October moved south to begin work at the Royal Aircraft Establishment (RAE) in Farnborough. I lived at various addresses in Farnborough for a while before getting married in 1965 and moving to Fleet where we still live, although not in the same house. I joined the Farnborough band and the Guildford Diocesan Guild as soon as I arrived in 1963, and Farnborough has been our home tower ever since.

After 14 years at the RAE working on aircraft navigation systems I was seconded to London for 3 years to lead a section procuring navigation equipment, mainly for the RAF. After I got used to commuting and long hours I thoroughly enjoyed working in London and was rather sorry to return to RAE. When I did so I spend a short time helping to manage the MOD research programme and then moved internally to work on GPS, then a very new and exciting technology. After several more years another promotion took me back to London permanently, as an Assistant Director responsible for 5 sections of people engaged in working on a wide spectrum of aircraft related systems procurements, covering various advanced night vision systems, batteries, modular avionics, and aircrew equipment including ejector seats. After 3 years of this I moved to Whitehall to work directly for the RAF on the formulation of policy and on operational analysis to justify, or not, all procurements of new aircraft and airborne guided weapons. In those days the Civil Service retirement age was 60 without the option and by the time I got there I had done very nearly all the types of job open to civilian scientists and engineers in MOD. Rather than retire completely, which I didn’t want to do, I was fortunate to obtain a part time job at DSTL in Farnborough (which was what the rump of the RAE had become by then) on very advantageous terms, and about 10 minutes’ drive from home. I now had no management or staff responsibilities and only a very broad job description along the lines of “get involved in whatever you think will be useful, keep a close eye on a number of major projects and help teach younger staff which way is up”. I was free to do quite a lot of technical work, was closely involved with the same cutting edge projects I had worked on in London, and generally had a very enjoyable time. I must have done reasonably well because my contract was renewed every year until I decided to retire finally in 2011 at the age of 68. With some of the “extra” earnings whilst at DSTL I qualified as a private pilot, something I’d always wanted to do.

On both occasions on which I went to work in London my offices were located across the road from St Giles-in–the-Fields and I regularly attended the excellent lunchtime practices there (which are still going strong) and the post-practice “analysis” in The Angel next door. When I moved to Whitehall there just wasn’t time to visit St Giles but I’m still in occasional contact with the band. However, I then began to ring quite regularly at St Margaret’s Westminster when required.

I was very pleased to be elected a member of the ASCY in 1964 and have rung a number of peals for the Society over the years, but I have rarely attended their meetings, preferring to spend my time and energy on local ringing in the Guildford Guild.

One of the highlights of my ringing career was to be invited to join the Westminster Abbey Company of Ringers in 1993 and I rang there regularly as a “supernumerary” member until early 2017. I had to retire as an active member at that point because of the Abbey’s very sensible age retirement policy for all volunteers. However, I was delighted and very honoured to be elected an Honorary Life Member of the Company at the 2017 AGM. This allows me to attend all social events, and to still ring if required, although there’s no longer an obligation on me to do so – at my age perhaps the best of all worlds! The Abbey is a wonderful institution which treats all its many volunteers, including the ringers, in a truly exemplary manner. I have many fond recollections of ringing for some of the great state occasions over the years, although even after all this time I always feel very nervous before we pull off, and I’m not alone in that. I have been privileged to ring 8 peals at the Abbey, the last one being a really first class peal of Cambridge Royal in October 2016, during which the only words spoken were bobs and singles by the conductor.

Which I guess should take me on to my career in the Guild and to what I might have done to justify a Vice-Presidency, which as I understand it is intended to be the main purpose of this biography. For most of the time I’ve rung there I’ve held some office or other at Farnborough – Tower Captain, Assistant Tower Captain and Steeple Keeper. I was Farnham District Master from 1972 to 1981 and again from 1985 to 1987; Guild Master from 1981 to 1987 and again from 1998 to 2000. I was elected as one of the Guilds CC Reps in 1984 and have been one since then. I was elected to the CC Publications Committee in 1987 and became Chairman of that Committee soon afterwards, a post which I still hold. So far as ringing is concerned I have always tried to put the Guild first and to be active in its affairs. Amongst the many tasks I’ve undertaken on behalf of the Executive Committee have been acting as part of the organising teams for both CC meetings which have been held in Guildford, leading the long process involved in the production of a completely new set of Guild Rules from 2007 to 2010, and managing the production of the Guild Report for quite a number of years. I was surprised, delighted and very honoured to be elected a Vice-President of the Guild in 2001, another ringing career highlight. At the time of writing I’ve rung 1275 peals for the Guild (out of a total of 1695), 1143 of them on tower bells and 132 on handbells. I’ve conducted just over half of them – 641 – of which 555 have been on tower bells and 86 on handbells.