Colin Johnson obituary

Colin Johnson 1934 - 2013

Colin Ambrose Johnson was born on 5th March 1934, in Barnsley, Yorkshire. His father worked down the mines but an explosion meant he was unable to continue working underground, so the family moved to Market Harborough in Leicestershire just before the start of WWII. A teacher at the local school objected to Colin's Yorkshire accent and tried to beat it out of him. When he left school he was an apprentice cabinet maker and also worked on antique furniture, restoring pieces and also "transforming" unwanted four poster bed pillars into tables as "practice pieces," though some of these later found their way on to the market!

Around the age of 15 he learnt to ring on the the eight bells at Market Harborough. He was living in nearby Great Bowden, and was introduced to ringing by John March when his voice broke and he had to leave the choir. One of his teachers was Harold Poole of Leicester Cathedral, who made sure that learners rang with all fingers round the sally by rapping them with a stick if they did not! Before being allowed to ring on Sunday he had to set the tenor bell hand and back as the call bell. He would cycle to nearby practices with a friend, Terry Measures, who had learnt to ring at the same time, and they both rang their first peal (Grandsire Doubles) at Weston by Welland in 1951, which was conducted by George Hollick. Another friend from early days was Eddie Martin. Colin rang in Eddie's first peal and his first as conductor. They did not meet for many years after Eddie's move to the USA, but they met up in Peterborough a few years ago and enjoyed talking about old times. Sadly Eddie died only a week or so after Colin.

His support for Leicester City Football Club dated from this time, and he continued to follow them, more in hope than expectation for much of the time, and would be delighted to see them at the top of the Championship table - although his 2nd team, Barnsley, are currently bottom!

National service in the RAF meant a break from ringing until he moved to Cambridge when his time in the RAF was over. He was employed by Marshall Aerospace, working on various aircraft, building on the skills he had learnt in the RAF. He was especially proud to have worked on Concorde and always had a great affection for this plane. He rang at Great St Mary's and other towers round Cambridge, ringing a number of peals with Alan Barber, George Thoday, Don Murfet and co. In the late 1960s and early 70s, the pressures of work and family led to a break from ringing, but in the late 1970s he started to teach a band at Fulbourn. The two trebles had been added to the existing Edward Arnold six in 1920 as a memorial for those killed during WWI. The trebles were hung above the back six and by the 1970s the wooden frame moved alarmingly when they were rung, so ringing was (apart from one occasion) restricted to the back six bells. When it was decided to have the bells rehung in a new frame Colin was the driving force behind raising the money needed, and also worked on the bells, including a near-fatal accident involving Johnny Gipson and a ladder....The anticlockwise eight were rehung- clockwise - even though Colin had wanted them put back as they were. This was refused by the bellhangers though; one of the rare occasions when he lost a battle. He installed some very effective sound control, which meant that peals could be rung frequently. Before the restoration only 30 peals had been rung; since 1980 there have been 200.

Following a move to Chatteris in 1986, he returned to his first trade of cabinet making and set up his own antique furniture restoration business, repairing other peoples' furniture and buying pieces at auction and from junk shops to do up and sell at fairs or auction. The two-storey barn at the bottom of the garden was crammed full of furniture waiting for his skilful restoration. He was also a skilled woodturner and made numerous pieces from old bellframes which were sold in aid of the bell fund. For many years he was involved in the work of the Huntingdonshire Church Bell Restoration Society. His woodworking skills were put to good use at Ramsey, Elsworth, St Edward, Cambridge (where he installed the soundproofing) and many other towers in the Ely Diocese. He was also involved in teaching bellringing at several towers- Ramsey and Somersham as well as Chatteris, and was always willing to make replacement stays when asked.

He enjoyed ringing peals and quarters, although he did not keep any records after his ringing books were thrown away by his mother when he was in the RAF. He had no idea how many towers he had rung at, but just enjoyed ringing at new churches. He was especially pleased to have rung at Westminster Abbey on the Ringing World Centenary Day in 2011, and was always quick to mention this when the Abbey was shown on television. He joined the RAF Guild of Bellringers in the early 1990s and was pleased to have been able to attend the 40th anniversary dinner in London in March 2013.

Steam trains were his other passion; from an early age he was a dedicated train spotter. His knowledge of engines and lines was vast and he enjoyed going on railway trips around the country. The LMS was his favourite line and he was very fond of the Black Five class of locomotives. When he retired he volunteered his services at the Nene Valley Railway, and for some years worked on restoring a travelling Post Office coach, and also was "Santa" on the Christmas Specials. He also joined a model-railway club and as the top storey of the barn was no longer required to store furniture, he turned it into a huge model railway - a vast undertaking which he was sadly unable to finish. He was also involved with the Friends of Chatteris Library, the local British Legion and the Probus Group. He also took on two allotments in recent years, providing an unending supply of fresh vegetables and fruit and was busy and active right to the end.

Grantham, September 2013

His ringing had been curtailed somewhat in the mid-2000s due to a whiplash injury, but he battled back from this and was still enjoying ringing peals, usually on the treble. Highlights recently included his 100th peal at Fulbourn (a long-held ambition) and Grandsire Caters at St Clement Danes as part of the RAF Guild's 40th anniversary celebrations and his final total was 723. His last peal was on 12th October 2013 for the SRCY, in memory of another Ely DA ringer, Rosemary Palmer..He was taken ill that night and was diagnosed with acute pancreatitis the following day. His condition deteriorated and he died on 30th October in the Intensive Care Unit of Hinchingbrooke Hospital.

He had rung at Chatteris for 27 years, patiently guiding learners through Plain Hunt and Bob Doubles, and the local band rang a half-muffled quarter-peal in his memory on Sunday, 3rd November. A peal attempt on 4th January at Chatteris was sadly unsuccessful, though a quarter-peal was rung and a re-attempt is planned. Around 30 other peals and quarters have been rung at various towers, including one by Ely DA northern "exiles" in Darlington, all of which have been greatly appreciated by his family, as was the turn-out at the Memorial Service on November 19th, attended by a large number of ringers from various parts of the country and friends from the various groups he was involved with locally. He enjoyed meeting people - and talking! - and seemed to have the knack of making friends wherever he went. Colin remained patient and helpful with all less competent ringers, wherever he went and whatever group he was ringing with, always cheerful and pleasant and good fun to spend time with. His many friends will agree that the Exercise has lost another character. Rest in peace, Colin.

This obituary also appeared in The Ringing World (to subscribe see: and is reproduced here with permission of the Editor.