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By the wall, under the cedar tree, in one of the shadier parts of the churchyard, is the grave of the Rev. F E Robinson who died on 16th February 1910. He had retired only a couple of years earlier at the age of 75, having been thirty years Vicar of Drayton. He was also a ringer, one of those proliflic Victorian ringers whose names have passed into history. Robinson was the first person ever to ring more than a thousand peals. (A peal is roughly a three hour continuous performance). Perhaps Robinson’s most lasting achievement was founding the Oxford Diocesan Guild of Church Bell Ringers, to which we all belong. Paradoxically, the Sonning Deanery Branch is a year older, having been formed as the Sonning Deanery Society and then subsumed by the formation of a Guild for the whole of the Diocese a year later. The Oxford Guild is the largest in the country with over two thousand members.
Many of our territorial ringing societies were formed late in the last century as a means to ‘belfry reform’. By all accounts, the ringers of Victorian times had been an unruly lot, not on the best of terms with the clergy. Despite that, they were normally paid to ring!
This may explain why many of the officers of the early societies were clerics. Robinson became the first master in 1881 and remained in that post until his death when Rev CWO Jenkin succeeded him until the 1930s. Since then we have had lay masters, the current one being not only the youngest but also the first woman to hold the office.
To return to our story, though. Apart from being a prolific ringer, Robinson was a particular devotee of a ringing method called Stedman, (named after Fabian Stedman, the famous 17th century ringer, commonly considered to be the father of the art of change ringing). Stedman is different from most of the methods we ring, It is simple in its basic concept, but is pleasing to ring and is very musical. It has a particular fascination for many.
Of the modern Stedman enthusiasts, John Pladdys from Leicestershire must rank the highest. He is one of the now considerable number of ringers who have followed Robinson into the ranks of the thousand pealers, and over a thousand of his peals have been of Stedman. He is a prolific composer of Stedman and conducts most of the peals he rings in. It is no surprise that he holds Robinson in very high regard. He is a slightly eccentric ringer, as I suspect Robinson was.
On the afternoon of Sunday February 18th, almost eighty years to the day after Robinson’s funeral, John Pladdys conducted another peal here in his memory. The band came from as far afield as Hampshire and Lincolnshire to ring in it. I and another local ringer took part.
If you heard the peal, you may have noticed that it was somewhat faster than we normally ring. Tastes vary in these matters, and regular peal ringers often choose a faster pace. I well remember as a young man in Cambridge, we rang rather faster than our elders thought we should.
After the peal, some of the successful band gathered around F E Robinson’s grave and posed for the camera, in the gathering dusk, under the cedar tree. It remains to be seen if anything is on the negative.
If you are interested to know what Rev. F E Robinson looked like, come up to the ringing room and look at his picture. Many towers in the Diocese have an identical picture of him. He obviously thought his campanological flock needed reminding of his presence, since it was he who expressly instructed that his picture should be hung in every belfry in the Diocese.
John Harrison (Mar 1990)
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