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Marie R Cross

Marie Rosine Cross, MBE, 1909-2001

Marie Rosine Cross
Marie R Cross

Marie Cross learned to ring at Twyford, Berkshire. Her mother, Rosine Marie, had learned to ring during the first World War when ladies were recruited. Marie and her brother, Gordon, were thus introduced to the art. She joined the Oxford Diocesan Guild of Church Bell Ringers in 1922 and continued to ring at Twyford during her time at Reading University. Her first post was at Whitchurch, Hants, as a secondary Maths teacher. When she realized that many of the children were entering secondary education illiterate, she transferred her allegiance to the primary sector and started a one-woman crusade to educate the nation. She transferred to a primary school in High Wycombe and must have had considerable success in this area, since she became headmistress of Radley C of E Primary School in 1939, a post which she held until 1974. So persuasive was she that she persuaded the authorities to rebuild the school, which at that time had the most primitive sanitation arrangements.

During the war there was an embargo on church bell ringing and she kept the art alive in the Oxford area with the help of others, by teaching handling on tied bells and ringing handbells. At this time she became secretary of Oxford City Branch of the ODG. Between 1936 and 1956 she gave significant help, Dr. John Spice recalls, to the Oxford University Society, which, on a good day, could ring Bob Minor. During this time many handbell peals were rung at The School House, Radley, many of them conducted by Marie.

She was the Guild’s first librarian and set up the library in 1954, continuing in this post, caring for and developing it until 1956, when she took on the more onerous post of Hon. Gen. Sec. to the Guild. The Master, Canon Elliot Wigg encouraged this appointment and would have known her as a “most able and energetic” person from his association with her in peal ringing. Also he would have had first-hand experience of her as “an expert ringer and an indefatigable teacher of young ringers” to say nothing of her “possessing just those gifts for organization and the efficient handling of business matters which fit her eminently well for this key office of the Guild”.

During her fourteen years as secretary of the Guild, Miss Cross instituted many changes and most of the events she introduced to the Guild’s calendar have become annual traditions: these included striking competitions and training programmes for the Guild. In 1958 she masterminded a revision of our Guild rules. This was also the year of the first weekend training course. Held at Big Wood, Radley, near her home, she organized this course for the benefit of new instructors, so that the number of ringers able to teach new learners would be increased. Though the formats and venues have changed since then, Marie has been involved, until recently, in most of these, with a great emphasis on firm foundations at the beginning: she always took the Plain Hunt group at the Easthampstead Course and was the organizer’s nightmare, since she insisted that she had to have all the best towers and helpers for the beginners. All these helpers were, in fact, capable of leading the group themselves, since each had sole responsibility for a student and woe betide them if they weren’t up to her exacting standards.

She once said, “Before our practice I have been having a remedial group – people who wish to improve their handling. This has proved most instructive and drives home the importance of not rushing the early stages in teaching the skills of handling and listening – particularly in the older ringer. Further there is a great need to ensure that the beginner understands what you really mean and not what he or she thinks you mean. Further there is a need for constant watch on a beginner’s handling during the early months of ringing for it is then, when a beginner is starting to ring changes etc., that many handling faults develop which are a handicap to further progress”; and much more of the same wisdom.

In this way she groomed the helpers as future trainers and tutors of her group. She adopted this particular modus operandi with all the posts she held and Bill Butler remembers visiting her in fear and trepidation when he was about to become her successor as Hon. Gen. Sec. She inspected him from the toes up and pronounced him to be wholesome enough for the job, since she “never trusted a man with dirty shoes”.

The teaching of youngsters was not accepted as the norm until the second half of the century and she was energetic in her encouragement of younger ringers, teaching countless young people from the local school at Radley and also boys and staff from Radley College on the light 6 there, which she had had rehung in 1952 and then taught a band from scratch. Daphne Pollard, a former pupil of Radley School and now Tower Captain at Radley, remembers that Miss Cross used to pick out all the likely youngsters at school who might be able enough and have the sticking qualities needed for ringing. She would then take them along to learn to ring. I can’t imagine that many dared to refuse! Her regime was very strict and she insisted on obedience at all times. The Rev. Matthew Stafford, a former pupil of hers, remembers her with considerable respect, though “her methods would probably be considered politically incorrect these days”; a broom handle down the back of the neck to assure correct posture and such like. However, she moved with the times and accepted that the pressures and demands on youth were increasing and in her later years arranged for a table to be available for learners to do their homework on practice nights when they weren’t ringing. Even from the earliest times she was aware of their needs and safety. A very young Bill Eastwell cycled over one night to Radley from Farnham Royal and she wouldn’t permit him to cycle back in the dark but put him up at the School House for the night.

Her care for people engendered mutual respect and she once boasted that if ever her car broke down, anywhere in the Guild late at night, there would be some ringer within walking distance who would give her a bed for the night! During the 50s and 60s she taught youngsters from several schools in the Abingdon area so that they could ring the bells for their school services and she supported the development of ringing societies at Reading University, Cuddesdon Theological College and Culham College of Education.

Until 1944 Oxford and Cambridge were the only Universities to have their own ringing societies and she was among the group of ringers who founded the Universities’ Association, the aim of which was to promote ringing among University students, helping some to establish their own societies and to encourage liaison between ringers at smaller universities. She was very supportive of the societies set up at Bristol in 1944 and at London University the following year. She always adhered to her belief that the future of ringing lay with the youth at University.

Before she officially retired as Head at Radley she was seconded to the University of Oxford to assist with Overseas Teaching, in which she taught prospective overseas Head Teachers, using Radley C.E. Primary as a model. When Patricia Newton, then the Guild Master, was researching information on behalf of the Guild for the M. B. E. which Marie was later awarded, it became apparent that she might well have achieved it for services to education as well as to ringing.

When she retired as Guild Secretary in 1970, the Guild recognized her achievement by making her a Vice President, an honour bestowed upon very few of our members. At the time there were sixteen Vice Presidents, nine of whom were bishops and senior clergy of the diocese. With her ‘retirement’ as general secretary, she could reasonably be permitted to take a back seat, but she continued to ‘plug’ key posts when there were not sufficient younger volunteers for the posts. Nor was she just a caretaker but continued to develop these posts. ‘Stewards’ had been introduced to the Guild when a former Master, the Revd. Canon Elliot Wigg was no longer well enough to fulfil all his duties to his satisfaction and he needed assistance to cover the multitude of branch meetings and activities. The Guild newsletter, Odd Bob, though not her idea, was made her own when she took over the job and gave the publication her own particular brand of magic. Though often out of the country for months at a time, mainly teaching ringing in America, she had a long arm and directions were left and deadlines met, all by snail-mail from across the pond! Odd Bob became widely read, not just by branch and guild officers who regarded it as a useful handbook, but by ordinary tower members, because Marie insisted that all their achievements were recorded and first quarter-pealers named.

From 1974 onwards, after her retirement, she spent regular spells in the States and for four or five years she spent six months a year at Houston, teaching ringing. Wilf Moreton was still teaching and unable to go and his wife, Jo, suggested that Marie, now retired, might like to do this. Since then she made shorter visits to Washington, Miami, Texarkana and Little Rock, teaching new ringers and advising on the installation of the bells at Texarkana and Little Rock and these visits often resulted in Americans coming over and joining our Guild courses. In the 60s Groton School sent ringers to the Guild Festivals and some joined the Guild! Marie often referred to them as the American branch of the O. D. G. Later she was given the American equivalent of the Keys of the City at Little Rock and invited by President Clinton to his Investiture.

From 1985 – 1995 she was chairman of the Guild Education committee and even when she was hospitalized with Myasthenia Gravis, which was to take her in the end, the committee refused to accept her resignation.

She always had good ideas and continued to work tirelessly for the Guild, writing an education pamphlet from her hospital bed. It was her idea of investing in people for the Millennium, with an attempt to man every tower with bells in the Guild to ring out at the Millennium, which was the project that we adopted.

Marie rang her first peal when she was 15, at Warfield, Berks, inside to Grandsire Triples. Other associates in the early peals included Vera Robinson, daughter of the Guild’s first Master, F. E. Robinson – the first person to ring 1000 peals; George Gilbert, famous for teaching young boys and later, when so many of them had been killed in the war, young girls.

One footnote in her peal book says ‘A Henry VIII peal’ referring to George Gilbert, the other members of the band being women!

Her brother, Gordon, rang in many of her early peals and conducted some of them. Other notable names included Gilbert Thurlow, Elliot Wigg, Albert Lock, George Hollifield Jun., Tony Price, Alan Pink, J. Armiger Trollope, Nolan Golden, Pat Cannon and of course, Walter Judge. Martin Turner, his grandson, kindly furnished me with a list of her peals ‘with granddad’ and these included silent peals of Cambridge Major and Stedman Triples, spliced Minor, in competition with a band in Leicester who were going for the record number of minor methods to a peal and of course, the legendary 25 Spliced Surprise Major at Dorchester in 1951, where she rang the treble, though in all previous attempts she had rung inside. She was the first lady to ring a peal in several named towers; she rang in the first peal at Inverary in 1938 and in the funeral peal for Sir Winston Churchill at Bladon.

Although she left records of her early peals, she had no particular wish for self-aggrandisement. She said that ringing a peal was like “playing a hockey match. You did it and then forgot it.” It was true that she was always more interested in other people than in what she did herself. In his tribute to her at the last Guild meeting, the Master, John Wells referred to her “impressive” peal-ringing career but said that it got “nowhere near describing the remarkable person that she was.”

For her funeral, the little church of St James in Radley was full and I don’t remember being at a non-family funeral where I must have known three-quarters of the congregation. Ringers from far and wide turned up to pay their respects. The Revd. Matthew Stafford gave the funeral oration, giving us great insight into the woman whom we had all come to love and respect. He said that her bark was worse than her bite. True. In her attempts to maintain the highest standards, she never forgot her humanity. Matthew, a former pupil of hers at Radley, must have been a source of inspiration to her when he decided to take Holy Orders and was able to offer her comfort in hospital when they prayed together. Everything that she did
was set against her unshakeable faith in God. This is not to say that the funeral was a sombre affair: “we would all have our particular memories of Marie” though he referred to her as “Miss Cross and would never dare to call her anything else.” General laughter. All his anecdotes struck a chord with someone in the congregation. She used to take him and all her students to other towers and “if you didn’t believe in God when you got into the car with Miss Cross, you certainly believed in Him when you got out.” We would all salute that one.

In his tribute to her John Wells said:
“She was certainly one of those special ‘larger than life’ characters we occasionally have the good fortune to meet. Those who had the privilege to know her will have their own special memories of someone with that rare ability to combine high intellectual ability and a passion for high standards with a manner which encouraged all and demonstrated a care for each individual she met”.

This was exemplified in her brother, Gordon’s, testimony to her when reflecting upon the days of austerity in Twyford after the first war, in which the family business had received a hammering and later during the days of the Depression when Marie was at Reading University. She had completed two years of her course in mathematics and, though “she was brilliant and could have done anything”, she chose to give up her university place so that he should have an opportunity. She insisted upon this and wouldn’t have it any other way. There were insufficient funds for both of them. Even now he wonders with some regret what she might have achieved had she gone on to complete an honours degree. However, it is difficult to imagine how much more she could have packed into her life!

Peals and quarter peals were rung in her memory, the last being on January 1st 2002, at Radley by six of her friends. May she rest in peace and rise in glory.

Bobbie May & Patricia Newton (with help from many others).
Reproduced with their permission from several articles printed in The Ringing World during 2001.