Imagine being born in 1918, shot in the stomach during WWII, held as a Prisoner Of War, accused of being a spy, suffering malnutrition and nearly losing the use of your legs, being in Dresden when the Allies bombed it, escaping across the border, returning to the town you’ve lived your whole life, ringing church bells since you were 11 years old, receiving the Order Of St Mellitus from the Bishop Of London, receiving the British Empire Medal in the Queen’s Birthday Honours list, being mentioned in the House Of Commons by the Prime Minister, and finally packing up driving…at the age of 100!
One of the best things about my job is that I get to meet some really fascinating people, and meeting Dennis in the ringing chamber at St Mary’s Church in Sunbury was well worth the effort of carrying all my photography kit up the narrow spiral staircase that leads to it. It was a tight space as they all are but I was keen to photograph him in front of these two peal boards; one commemorating his first peal and the other the 50th anniversary of his first peal.
When I dropped round to give him a couple of prints of his photographs (he loved the black and white one) he told me that he had had to pack up driving as he was involved in a car accident at the weekend; that’s his first accident in over 80 years of driving (and that includes trucks and tanks in the army)! Although he was a bit disappointed about not finishing with an accident free record, he did tell me that a friend of his from school (yes, she’s 100 years old this year too) had decided to give him a mobility scooter that she could no longer use, so that he could continue to get around and carry on bell ringing.
Dennis began ringing in 1929 at the age of 11, and only had to temporarily stop when he was drafted into the forces during World War II. Even that didn’t stop him thinking about bell ringing and during his time as a POW he would write ringing methods on to toilet paper, which the guards thought was some kind of secret code when they found it next to his bed, and accused him of being a spy!
Despite having a chairlift at home to help him get up the stairs he still manages to climb the spiral staircase to the ringing chamber – which I can tell you is not an easy climb…