Roger Bailey was the complete bell-ringer. He was a 3,000-pealer and a long-length ringer; he rang and conducted peals on tower-bells and handbells, in the UK and abroad; he taught countless people to ring both tower-bells and handbells; he composed for both tower-bells and handbells; he was a grass-roots ringer to whom Sunday-service ringing was important, and who ran training days for Bob Doubles novices as well as practices for Surprise Major ringers; he helped in belfries with many restorations and installations in Greater London; he served for 24 years on the Central Council of Church Bell Ringers; he held almost every office in his local Association, the MCA&LDG, and was a long-term supporter of the ULSCR; he was a pioneer of the use of computers in ringing; and he set up a ringing website that has benefited ringers round the world.
Roger was widely travelled, had many interests, was very good company, and his ringing acquaintance spread round the globe. He was clever, a master of plain speaking, interesting, grumpy, kind, anti-elitist, always generous. The gap left in the world of ringing by his death in January is immense.
He was born on 25 June 1946, in Holbeach in Lincolnshire, the third and youngest son of Frank Bailey, a farmer, and his wife Dorothy. Frank died when Roger was four, and, being much younger than his two brothers, Martin and Stephen, was brought up in the family’s modest cottage by his strong-minded, plain-speaking mother, rather as an only child. He learnt to ring at about the age of 11 at All Saints’, Holbeach, taught by George Johnson, a local stationmaster.
He went to primary school in Holbeach, and won a scholarship at the age of ten to Spalding Grammar. As a young ringer, he was taken under the wing of J. Martin Thorley, who was then living in Lincolnshire, and who called Roger’s first peal on 1 July 1961 at Deeping St Nicholas – the same year that he joined the Lincoln Diocesan Guild. It was an inside bell to 7 extents of Minor (Kent Treble Bob and Plain Bob). Almost exactly a year later, in July 1962, aged 16, Roger called his first peal, at Lutton: 7 extents of Minor in 6 methods, presaging a life-long interest in multi-method Minor. Martin Thorley introduced him to the famous Monday-night Spalding band, and by his mid-teens Roger was ringing peals of Surprise Major with them. He often went to ring at Frampton also, where Spliced Surprise Minor was on offer.
While he was still in Holbeach, Roger’s interest in handbell ringing began: he, Alan Payne and Keith Davey slowly (he said) taught themselves to ring Plain Bob Minor.
After school, there followed a gap year, since he was thought to be too young to go to university, during which he worked as a lab assistant at a local school. By then he was cycling miles to ring at different towers in the area. His extensive knowledge of the countryside was put to use during this time by crop sprayers, for whom, from the air, he would identify villages by their church towers.
He had known from boyhood that he did not want to be a farmer, and his eldest brother Martin encouraged him to think of university; so in 1964 he left the fields of Lincolnshire for London and UCL, embarking on a BSc in biochemistry, which he completed in 1967. He then began working for a Ph.D., and for some of his research he used UCL’s one and only computer: “an enormous and noisy machine that occupied most of a gutted pair of Bloomsbury Georgian houses”, as Robin Churchill puts it. Gradually he became fascinated by the possibilities of using computers to help solve the theoretical challenges of bell-ringing. He began working in the computer centre at UCL; the Ph.D. took a back seat; it was abandoned in 1970.
Roger stayed on in the UCL computer centre, working as a programmer, for ten years, during which time he completed a part-time M. Tech. in Computer Science at Brunel University (1973-78). In 1978 he took a job as a lecturer (later he was a Senior Lecturer) at Imperial College, in what was then the Department of Computing and Control, and became the Department of Computer Science. He stayed there until 2001, when he took early retirement, doing (he claimed) less actual lecturing than handbell-ringing and working on bell-ringing-related projects. In fact, as his wife Susie says: “He took enormous pleasure in encouraging his students in their end-of-year computing projects, and was always amazed by their enthusiasm and ingenuity, as though he had played no part in this himself.”
He also wrote a book on computer programming called Functional Computing with Hope, published by Ellis Horwood in 1990.
Roger arrived at UCL aged 18 with more than 100 peals already under his belt, more than half of which were multi-method Minor peals; and he went on to make a notable contribution to the composing and conducting of Spliced Surprise Minor. In November 1966, with UL ringers, he rang a peal of 51 methods, which introduced for the first time methods with places in 5-6 made at other than the half-lead. Traditionalists complained, but the CC Methods Committee accepted them. He went on to call peals involving an increasing number of methods in 1971 and 1972; and in July 1972 he called 210 methods in a normal-length peal: that is, one lead of each method. This was followed a few days later by 7,200 Spliced Surprise Minor in 290 methods.
Roger did not keep records of his peals, and was surprised, not long ago, to find, via Andrew Craddock’s Pealbase site, that he had rung 3,029. Of these, he conducted 1,253. His tower-bell peals numbered 1,668. He rang 68 peals of 23-Spliced Surprise Major (of which 14 were on handbells). He rang five long-length peals, including17,280 Cambridge Surprise Major in 2003 at Willesden, a record that still stands. His last tower-bell peals, on 16 and 17 June last year, were in Dordrecht: of 23- and 19-spliced Surprise Major respectively; and his last handbell peal, rung at his home in Burrows Road on 24 November, was Kent Treble Bob Major. He last picked up a pair of handbells to ring a quarter peal on 28 December 2012, sitting on the edge of his hospital bed and wearing an oxygen mask. He rang 1,104 peals for the MCA. The person with whom he rang far and away the most peals was Alison Regan (née Surry), to whom he was close for many years in the 1980s. He considered her the best woman ringer of all time.
Roger took up handbell ringing in earnest in late 1970, with Robin Churchill and Graham Firman. He eventually rang 1,362 handbell peals and called 824 of them. He probably lost as many again, such was his eagerness to push his limits and those of his handbell “improvers”. He rang more than 450 peals in his office at Imperial College, and 205 at his home in Kensal Green.
The portability of handbells offered great scope when combined with travel, always one of his interests, and he took bells and ringers to 27 countries, to ring peals where none had been rung before: in Paris, Prague, Portugal, Macau, China, and Cambodia, among many others. Robin Churchill recalls three peals with Roger in the Netherlands in 1972: one in a seedy hotel in the red-light district of Brussels; another behind the youth hostel in Dordrecht (predating the first tower-bell peal in that town by more than 30 years); and a third in a public park in Haarlem, “accompanied by small boys ringing bicycle bells”.
Yet another was in Moscow. Peter Holden recalls, ringing a peal in Rebecca Joyce’s apartment in a block reserved for foreign diplomatic staff. “Before we started, Rebecca told us there had recently been a problem with the light-fitting in the room we were in. A man had been to repair it, and he had found ‘something’ in the light. A bug? Halfway through the peal, Roger leant back, stared at the light, and said, ‘What do you make of this, then, Boris?’ I don't remember how we managed to keep ringing.”
Handbell peals also offered themselves to a wide variety of dedications, rung at appropriate locations, and these indicate the range of Roger’s interests. In 1994, a notice appeared in The Ringing World of a handbell peal rung on Horsell Common in Surrey, to mark the site “where the first Martian projectile fell to earth, signalling the start of the world’s first interplanetary invasion” (as chronicled by H. G. Wells in The War of the Worlds 100 years before). The peal was scored, despite “distractions from squirrels, dogs, horses, joggers, requests for the time, and low-flying aircraft”, and was credited to the Society of Interplanetary Youths. After a session in the pub on that occasion, the band (Roger, Chris Gould, Ruth Blackwell, and Lesley Belcher), went on to H. G. Wells’s former house in Maybury Road, Woking, and rang a quarter of Wells Surprise Minor on the pavement in front of it. A handbell peal marked the bicentenary of the birth of Isambard Kingdom Brunel; other peals marked the deaths of people as disparate as Barnes Wallis, Benjamin Disraeli, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and Edmund Halley. For the Pillbox Society he rang its first peal at the Frinton Golf Course North Pillbox; other societies for which he rang peals (usually only one) were the Santa Claus Co-operative, the Secular Society (rung at Poplar Rectory in London), the Friends of Percy, the Sorry Association, and the Sons & Daughters of Parents.
Roger was a composer from his early days of ringing. His first peal composition was Plain Bob Major, which he conducted himself at Billingborough on 21 Dec 1963. Many of his compositions are still rung, particularly his elegant and straightforward three-part 5040s of Surprise Minor. Stuart Hutchieson writes: “His compositions might be characterised as good, simple productions with an emphasis on the ‘elegance’ of the solution. His areas of interest were numerous and varied, and his breadth of knowledge and experience in composition encyclopaedic.” Mike Trimm notes that Roger’s compositions were pragmatic, designed to be capable of being called by conductors of all abilities.
He was also a witty and erudite reviewer (‘Old Bailey’) of peal compositions for The Ringing World.
On the Central Council, he represented the Middlesex CA & London DG from 1989, and in 1990 was elected to the Peal Compositions Committee and Methods Committee, serving on both until 2009. He was Chairman of the Peal Compositions Committee 1993-1999, and hence an ex officio member of the Administrative Committee; and was also an elected member of the Administrative Committee from 2008 to 2011. He played a full part in the work of these Committees, and made thoughtful and sometimes provocative contributions to the debates at Council meetings. He could rise from the floor and tear into some motion that he disapproved of, articulately, forcefully, and entertainingly. Known in some circles as “the para-military wing of the Methods Committee”, he was, as Philip Earis put it, “paradoxically both a traditionalist and an anarchist”.
He played a large part in many motions to Council, including those on Method Extension in 1992, Extension of Principles in 1995, Methods and Method Extension in 2004, Rolling Committee Elections in 2008, and Additional Members in 2010.
At the grass-roots level, he held many offices as well. He was a life member of the Middlesex County Association, which he joined in 1985, and he held virtually every post there, as well as in his own district of the MCA, the Western. At his death he was still an MCA Trustee and CC Representative. He was a member of the band at Willesden for 28 years, and its Tower Captain when he died. For the ULSCR, which he joined in 1964, he had been President, Trustee and Auditor. In both of these societies, he was an active and participatory member, organising training days, setting questions for fund-raising quiz nights, judging striking competitions, supporting outings. For the MCA for many years he led twice-yearly “sick squid” rambles that included a little ringing and a lot of walking, and which raised money (six quid a head) for the Bell Restoration Fund.
And, of course, in both societies and outside them, he was a teacher. He taught scores of people both tower-bell ringing and handbells – a few in the reverse order. Many more he helped to progress. Teaching was a vocation: he was encouraging, patient, and had a light touch. He probably taught more people to ring handbells than any other single teacher, and those of us he taught will be endlessly grateful for the intense fun and gratification we derived from learning with him. David Sparling recalls Roger teaching him and David Jones in his office at Imperial College, meeting every lunchtime to “practise, chat, and drink coffee”. Later the coffee became tea (“bell-ringing fluid”). Many of us remember the arcane rituals – the peal would surely fail if the rug were rucked up by a chair-leg, or if the chairs were not placed just so. He is widely considered to have been an outstanding teacher. Phil Gay, on whose summer courses at Keele Roger was a tutor for many years, writes: “When we heard back from former students, he was the tutor most often mentioned.”
He also enjoyed working in belfries, and helped with installations and restoration in many towers in and around London, including Hampstead, Limehouse, St Katharine Cree, St Saviour’s, Pimlico, and both St James’s and St Mary’s in Islington. To restoration work, he gave generously not only of time, but also money.
One of his most lasting contributions to the Exercise was his website Change Ringing Resources, predominantly a site with links to other sites with bell-ringing-related content on the web. It has been of use to countless ringers round the world; and in typical last-minute fashion he made arrangements for its continuation only when he was close to dying. He also helped The Ringing World, over many years, as a stand-in compositor, volunteering his time for several weeks a year; and from 2007 onwards he helped make up the improved methods pages in the Ringing World diary.
Despite the amount of time he spent on things campanological, Roger had many other interests. Classical music was one; a keen listener to Radio 3, he developed an extraordinary ability to identify a few bars of almost anything. Along with this went a passion for films – both watching them, and, in his student years, making them. He was president of the UCL film society, Filmsoc, in 1967, and Peter Shirley remembers that “Filmsoc made films, including two 40-minute newsreels every year, covering not only UCL events and personalities, but pretty much anything else that we felt like making. Roger and I were very keen on animated films, and he produced the few-minutes-long ‘Man on the Bog’ sequence for one of the newsreels.” This masterpiece of toilet humour is now, alas, lost.
Robin Churchill recalls a film about Regent’s Canal made at this time, which was “remarkably technically assured”. It included a classical-music sound-track, with “trade-mark Roger musical jokes” – a snippet of Schubert’s Trout Quintet as the camera panned past a pub called the Trout; shots of the canal entering the Thames accompanied by Smetana’s Ma Vlast, which depicts the Vlatava entering the Elbe. He was a film-goer all his life, an interest that his wife Susie shared with him to the full.
He travelled extensively, always using local transport, and eating and sleeping where local people did. Robin Churchill remembers that “travelling with Roger had an element of spontaneity that could be both exciting and disconcerting. He was not a believer in doing much planning before going on a trip.” Asia and the Far East were favourite destinations; and towards the end of his life he drove with two others from Nepal through Tibet, western China, to the Caspian Sea, and finally to Georgia and home.
In the 1970s he lived in a flat in Cornwall House, a block of flats in Marylebone behind Madame Tussaud’s, and venue for 142 of his handbell peals. Ringers from London and elsewhere remember convivial evenings in this flat: David Carnochan recalls a Christmas spent there with Roger listening to the complete set of Beethoven symphonies on gramophone records, and then walking across Regent’s Park to Camden in search of Marine Ices (which turned out to have closed five minutes earlier).
In March 1980 Roger bought No 52 Burrows Road, in Kensal Green, where he lived for the rest of his life. He was generous with his hospitality, and many ringers stayed with him there over the years. In 1989 he met Suzanne Daniels, who was then working for Roger’s boss at Imperial College. They started going out together in 1993, and, “to my very great surprise”, Susie says, they were married quietly at Wembley Town Hall in 2008, with David Rixon, a long-time Willesden ringer, and his wife Annette as the witnesses. For a long time only Roger’s closest friends knew of their marriage.
He was a life-long Guardian reader, a crossword-puzzler, a fan of Rupert Bear and The Beano; an able cartoonist; he was interested in art and architecture; passionate about Apple Macs; and utterly devoted to his iPhone. He enjoyed walking, and latterly he developed a taste for hill-walking in Scotland, though characteristically he kept no tally of his Munros. He was co-owner of the Charmborough Ring, a transportable ring of 6, and a founding trustee of the Charmborough Bell Trust, a registered charity for promoting change-ringing to the public.
In 2006, he was diagnosed as having prostate cancer, by which time it was already advanced. Taking part in successive trials of new medications gave him several extra years in reasonably good health, but the cancer spread to his lungs, and by the late summer of 2012 he had become markedly weaker. Spells in the Royal Marsden Hospital followed, and (less happily) at the Chelsea & Westminster. These ended with his admission to the Pembridge hospice in December, where he was very well looked after. By then he was too weak to be left alone. Susie cared for him devotedly, even heroically, and many good friends telephoned or came to see him there. He died on 22 January, aged 66.
He wasn’t, as has been said, a forward-planner; Robin Churchill recalls once arriving at the Cornwall House flat to pick up Roger to catch the 9 p.m. boat train to Victoria. At 8.20 p.m. Roger was sitting on his bedroom floor repairing his tent, surrounded by all that still needed to be packed into his rucksack. Similarly, handbell ringers will recall arriving for a peal attempt to find Roger just starting to learn the composition. So, characteristically, he left planning his funeral until the very last moment.
And it was done as he wished: on 1 February, he had a woodland burial in the Chilterns, movingly taken by the Revd Brooke Lunn who put aside his own faith to arrange and conduct the humanist service that Roger wanted. There was singing by the ringers’ choir from the Advent Carol Service in London, and, of course, there were handbells.
The funeral was restricted by the capacity of the venue; but it was followed by a large memorial gathering in the Conway Hall, central London, on 19 February, attended by some 300 people. Full of laughter, booze, old friends and memories of Roger, as well as with music, song, and four leads of Bristol Surprise Maximus on handbells, it was, for someone so widely known and loved, a fitting farewell.
I am indebted to the following for information that helped me with this obituary: Ruth Blackwell, Peter Blight, David Carnochan, Robin Churchill, Stuart Cox, Suzanne Daniels, Rick Dirksen, Philip Earis, Phil Gay, Alec Gray, Peter Holden, Stuart Hutchieson, Stephen Mitchell, Paul Norman, Phil Normington, Caroline Ogilvie, Alan Payne, Rosamund Rawlings, Peter Shirley, Tony P. Smith, David Sparling, Jackie Roberts, Mike Trimm, and James White.
This obituary was published on the front page of The Ringing World on 15th March 2013.