Obituary: George E. Feirn (1914-2009)
With the death of George Feirn, of Cleatham, Kirton-in-Lindsey, near Gainsborough, the Lincoln Diocesan Guild has lost one of its oldest members and one who was held in high esteem both locally and nationally for his ability as a ringer, conductor and composer.
George was born on 10 April 1914, at White Hall Farm, near Bigby in Lincolnshire. As a boy he lived at Searby Manor and it was whilst a chorister at Searby Church that he became interested in the activities of the ringers there, so much so that he taught himself to handle a bell. He was then taken under the wing of George Blanchard at Bigby who taught him method ringing. George had always excelled at mathematics at school and aspired to work in a bank. However, as the eldest son, he was expected to take over the farm, so his interest in mathematics was transferred to change ringing. He rang his first peal at Bigby on 10 December 1932, his first spliced peal on 20 June 1933 and his first peal as conductor on 24 June 1933.
Possibly to help ease the pain caused by the death of his parents, George immersed himself in the art of change ringing. In 1933 he conducted the first of a long series of peals of spliced minor, leading up to the first ever peal in 100 methods on 16 June 1939, and going on to 125 methods on 26 July 1939, when he was still only 25 years old. During this period there was a friendly rivalry with the Cheshire ringers and there was regular correspondence between George and C.K. Lewis of the Chester Diocesan Guild, as well as with A. Driver of Belvedere, Kent. The ringing of a record peal of 104 methods on 19 July was reported in The Times in September 1939.
On 29 May 1938 George conducted the first peal of Original Major using 4ths place bobs - 720 of them! The band included well-known Lincolnshire ringers, Jack and Norah Bray, Charles McGuiness, Jack Millhouse, George Dobbs, Richard Harvey and Ken Mayer.
George had rapidly become a proficient handbell ringer, calling his own first peal in hand in 1933 and, from 1934 with Jack and Norah Bray, he repeated the series of spliced minor peals "in hand", up to 105 methods on 30 June 1947 and 106 methods on 8 August 1955.
When the Second World War broke out, George was quick to volunteer to what became known as the Home Guard. It was not until the last ten years of his life that George told his family that he had actually been recruited into a secret guerrilla army established in 1940 by Winston Churchill in case the Germans invaded. He was a member of a specially trained, highly secret auxiliary unit under the control of GHQ Home Forces. He was chosen not only because of his intimate knowledge of the countryside, but also because of his fitness - his family always attributed that to his bell ringing! If the Germans had invaded, George and his team of five would have gone underground in a secret bunker and engaged in as many acts of sabotage as possible whilst trying to evade capture..
In 1944 George married Frances Blanchard; they settled near Kirton-in- Lindsey, where George farmed Cleatham House Farm and daughters Veronica and Gillian were born in 1946 and 1947. Life followed the annual farming season, but weekends, holidays and often evenings were devoted to bell ringing. George once said that when he was out all day ploughing the fields, he would go through all the different methods in his head, and not only his own bell, but everyone else's.
In 1948 Philip Barnes joined the handbell band and spliced minor changed to spliced plain major, with George conducting a series of his own compositions to peals culminating in one in 50 methods on 11 May 1951. All the peals after the one in 22 methods are recorded as containing the most major methods yet rung. The compositions extended to include all 84 methods published in the 1926 CC collection, but, having rung 50, the band decided to rest on its laurels.
George served as a Lincoln Guild representative on the Central Council from 1945 to 1987, and was, from time to time, a member of the Peals Collection committee. He had unbroken attendance at the Council from 1945 to 1979. He was Guild Peal Secretary from 1951 to 1966 and Branch Ringing Master from 1946 to 1971.
His activities were not confined to the Lincoln Guild; he was a life member of the Chester Diocesan Guild, the Durham and Newcastle Diocesan Association, the Guild of Devonshire Ringers, the Guildford Diocesan Guild, the Hertford County Association, the Irish Association, the Kent County Association, the Lancashire Association, the Llandaff and Monmouth Association, the Norwich Diocesan Association, the Peterborough Diocesan Guild, the Truro Guild, the Worcestershire and Districts Change Ringing Association and the Yorkshire Association.
As Branch Ringing Master he was always ready to help beginners, calling many first peals. A large number of the present generation of ringers in the northern part of the Lincoln Diocese owe their introduction to spliced ringing to his encouragement. A series of peals up to 105 methods was rung between 1974 and 1977 with (apart from George) a completely different band. So, too, with handbell ringing; his handbells were always in use at Branch meetings and it would not be long before anyone who showed an interest was invited to Cleatham for a peal. With Philip Barnes' impeccable rhythm on the tenors, George's calm control of the conducting and Jack Bray also keeping a watchful eye on things, the beginner could hardly fail to find his way through a variety of methods.
But it was not just the ringing at Cleatham that was so enjoyable; Frances made sure that the farmhouse table was always there after a peal, laden with supper, a wonderful base for reminiscences; tales of many of the founding fathers of the Lincoln Guild would be told well into the night. Just as with the spliced minor peals in the tower, so too, in 1959, a new band of John Freeman, Jack Millhouse and Robin Heppenstall started to ring the spliced plain major peals "in hand" again with George conducting and aiming, this time, to go up to the composition in 84 methods. Very sadly, it was whilst attempting a peal in 54 methods, that it was realised that some of the compositions were false. Although this meant that a number of peals had to be withdrawn, in no way did it detract from the ability of two different bands to ring them nor George's ability to conduct them. With the inclusion of many "little" methods there could be as many as 600 calls in a peal, - on average a call every 14 seconds but he never became flustered and always looked calm and relaxed.
Thwarted from their target, this band then turned in 1961 to Surprise major and George rang in the first handbell peals for the Lincoln Guild of London and 4-Spliced and the first of Bristol by a resident band. In between there were many other peals on all numbers in hand and in the tower. In addition there were arrangements and compositions. There were other rather esoteric firsts, such as the first band in which every ringer's first name was George, the first band consisting entirely of farmers and a band where the average age was 75 years and 132 days. Altogether George rang 447peals in the tower (conducting 180) and 284 in hand (conducting 168), a total of 731.
On 4 September 1997 he rang in a peal at Cleatham in memory of Norah Bray, who, with her husband Jack, had played a large part in George's ringing and family life. This proved to be his last peal, nearly 65 years after his first, but he continued to take an active interest in ringing right up to his death.
A.R.H & V.E.F. (Originally published in The Ringing World)
Lincoln D G
5088 Lincolnshire S Major
In memory of George E Feirn, with thanks for his contribution to the Exercise.