Brian Price — The First 80 Years

These days most people are comfortable with singles in peals of Surprise, but this hasn’t always been the case. When Charles Kippin called a single at the end of a peal of Cambridge Surprise Major at St Michael’s Southampton on January 18th 1947, the treble ringer was so shocked that she nearly set her bell. The composer of this radical break with tradition was a young man called Brian Price, a name now familiar to generations of ringers as the author of the eponymous 240’s of Grandsire Doubles, and to ringers everywhere who appreciate ingenious compositions.

Early Years

Born in Tenby, South Wales, on May 9th 1924, Brian went up to Emmanuel College Cambridge in 1942 to read for the Mathematical Tripos (“it was all above my head — I should have been an engineer”). His interest in ringing had already been sparked (as for so many others) by reading The Nine Taylors and it wasn’t long before he spotted a notice about reviving the moribund Cambridge University Guild. Together with and Stan Darmon and Ben Crowdy (both still ringing), they met in the rooms of A. C. Blythe, to ring handbells. Following the victory at El Alamein in 1943, the war-time ban on tower-bell ringing was lifted and Brian learned to handle a tower-bell at Ebbw Vale, where he was taught by Bill Thompsett (also still ringing).

Natural mathematician or no, Brian discovered a copy of Burnside’s Theory of Groups in the University library, initiating a lifetime interest in the theory of composition. During 1944 he published several articles on the subject in The Ringing World, including a novel odd-bob peal of Stedman Triples (p. 128). His notes from this period make fascinating reading, being written in two colours as a bizarre wartime economy measure. Paper was hard to come by, but by using red and green ink and suitably coloured spectacles, each sheet could be used twice!

Brian’s first peal was Plain Bob Major in June 1945, arranged by Lucile Hubbert (later Corby) who rang with the Cambridge University Guild and lived in Edmonton. It was rung at the home of John and Amy Thomas in Edmonton and called by Eric Dench, who was to die tragically young in a flying accident in the 1950’s. Brian’s first tower-bell peal, which he conducted, was Plain Bob Minor a month later at Chatteris, where he was working during the summer vacation. While others were hunting the Hun on behalf of the King, Brian was collaring the Colorado Beetle on behalf of the Ministry of Food!

Bristol and Beyond

Following University, Brian trained as a school teacher in Bristol and many of the compositions for which he is well known date from this period. One early production was a 1,250 of Cambridge Surprise Major brought round with a single at the treble’s snap. At that time Southampton had one of the few bands capable of ringing Surprise Major, so the quarter was sent for their consideration. Charles Kippin’s reply was of blunt — a quarter was of no interest at all, but could a peal be had on the plan? The result was the well-known 5,090 (RW 1947 p. 87). An 8-part peal of Grandsire Triples and the familiar 240’s of Grandsire Doubles with every row at handstroke and backstroke also followed quickly (RW 1947 pp. 467 & 542). Brian’s compositional technique at this time consisted of winding coloured wool round pins stuck into a graphical representation of the courses; this was a source of great bafflement to his landlady, who would offer whispered explanations to visitors, accompanied by much sympathetic head-shaking!

As a self-confessed frustrated engineer, another of Brian’s preoccupations at this time was the construction of ringing machines, and he wrote a series of articles in The Ringing World during 1950 describing well-known examples, such as those of John Carter and G. F. Woodhouse, whom he met while teaching at Appleby Grammar School. He was rather more modest about his own production, a novel electro-mechanical design based on telephone uniselectors. Sadly this was soon dismantled and there remains only a single military-surplus toggle switch and and article (RW 1951 p. 40) to attest to its existence.

For the next 30 years, Brian taught at a variety of schools in England and Wales, but his practical ringing was increasingly curtailed by tinnitus, and this eventually forced him to give up teaching too. An early interest in computers (including the design of the world’s very first bellringing program running on the world’s very first computer in 1952) had led to involvement in a schools’ computing project run by Imperial College, and now it led to a post in the Department of Management Science there, which he held until retirement. In 1987 he was “rediscovered” by ringers (see RW 1998 p. 182 for the full shaggy dog story) and persuaded to take up ringing and composing again.

A Productive Retirement

How fortunate for the Exercise that he did. Brian has been increasingly productive in retirement; beginning in 1988 with a ground-breaking Cambridge Surprise Major series, the first new peals in the method since Middleton’s (the 5,090 notwithstanding), he has produced an impressive body of recent work. This includes peals of Erin and Stedman Triples, where he independently discovered the trick of linking an even number of courses essential to a bobs-only peal (alas, too late!), and a remarkable variety of all-the-work peals of Spliced Surprise Major. He has also continued his more theoretical work, with monographs on peals in parts, groups and palindromic peals, and investigated method construction, producing many new principles. Much of this material can be found on the world-wide web at www.ringing.info.

All this work continues alongside a vast range of other interests and activities: as an enthusiastic walker and caver, Brian was instrumental in opening up the Agen Allwedd cave system in 1949; as a traveller he has visited much of Europe (he’ll be spending his 80th in Bucharest) and the Middle and Far East; as an art connoisseur he has built up a definitive collection of the work by the English post-impressionist Henry Scott Tuke; and as a musician he has sung in many notable choirs including the Huddersfield Choral Society. He even played the typewriter once with Imperial College Symphony Orchestra, but he asked me not to mention that.

Five years ago Brian had a serious accident: he was knocked over by a car, suffering a skull fracture, concussion and two broken ankles for good measure. After an anxious few days (during which, according to his nurses, he sang Welsh hymns all night) and a lengthy convalescence he’s back on his feet and as mentally active as ever. At present he’s busy researching and writing papers on the history of Tenby, but he hasn’t entirely forgotten his ringing obligations, and only ago he submitted a new 3-part all-the-work composition of the “Standard 4” Surprise Royal methods for publication.

So, happy 80th birthday Brian, and long may you continue to amaze us with your ingenuity.

ROGER BAILEY – May 2004

This article first appeared The Ringing World of 7th May 2004 and is reproduced without permission.