This year we celebrate the twenty-fifth anniversary of the foundation of the Hertford and Ware Local History Society. Twenty-five years is not such a long time as all that and there are many societies much older than our own, but a silver jubilee, like a silver wedding, is usually thought of as a time for both commemoration and celebration, a time both to look back and to look forward.
Given the remarkable expansion of interest in local history nationally over the past forty years or so, it is perhaps pertinent to wonder why the Society is not older than it is. It is certainly not due to any lack of material to work upon, nor visual stimuli for inspiration. When, twenty-eight years ago, I came to live and work in Hertford, I rapidly became aware of the scope both there and in Ware. I was also struck by the, to me, curious circumstance that, despite a healthy proliferation of groups and societies in other directions, neither town possessed a society or group solely devoted to the study and interpretation of their histories.
There was, it is true, the East Herts Archaeological Society, which I joined. I would not for one moment wish to denigrate the very real achievements of EHAS over its long existence, but I do not think it unfair to say that, by the mid-seventies its preoccupations were in the main centred on what has been called “dirt archaeology” and the investigation of historic buildings. Local History as I understood it – primarily the study of people in relation to their historical environment, best accomplished via documentary sources (which is not as fearsome as it might sound!) – was not really being covered, as it had been earlier, which was perhaps inevitable. Moreover, EHAS covered a much wider area than I was contemplating. Nevertheless, by some mysterious process I found myself for a while on the EHAS Council, I think largely through the good offices of Dr Peter Fogg, and I have to thank EHAS for introducing me to Peter and Heather, whose friendship, kindness and encouragement I cannot praise too highly.
An inveterate attender for many years at weekend courses, I attended one on Local History at Theobalds in late 1977. It was mainly concerned with Enfield Town, and was organised by Edmonton Hundred Historical Society (EHHS, by the bye, has been around for nearly seventy years). Although this wasn’t my “patch”, I found the weekend most interesting and enjoyable. It also introduced me to David Pam, then and for many years the society’s secretary. In a sense I regard David as our own society’s godfather (although not in the Mafia sense!), since when I bemoaned to him the absence of a local history society in what I by now regarded as my home territory and wondered what might be done to activate one, he suggested, “Why not start a WEA class?” In my native Swindon I had had more than a dozen years’ experience in helping run one of the largest WEA branches in the South-West. Moving away, I was preoccupied enough not to want to get involved with another, at least for the time being, and to my shame I have to admit that I had not even enquired into the existence of a similar branch in Hertford. But on yet another Theobalds weekend (I forget the topic) I found myself seated at dinner with an amiable Hertford couple who
were so involved – indeed, were on the Committee of the Hertford WEA. I confessed (it must have been the wine!) to previous involvement, and ere long found myself, to my amusement and not a little consternation, elected to the chairmanship of the branch; I started at the top, so to speak, and worked my way down. This is not the place to relate my WEA experiences, however interesting, but, remembering my conversation with David Pam, and still hoping something might come of it, I did press for a short course on the History of Hertford, which we presently got running with Gordon Davies as tutor. I could have wished for a longer run, and more students – I think the maximum was twelve people – but was thankful for small mercies. And at the end of it I canvassed the class members as to their likely interest in, and willingness to support, the formation of a local history group. I was sufficiently encouraged by the response – which included, inter alia, Heather Fogg and Brian and Brenda Maling – to press ahead. The upshot was the advertisement of a public meeting, held on 5 April 1979 at what was then known as the Priory Rooms. EHAS kindly subscribed £5 towards the cost of the meeting. Notwithstanding the ancient rivalry, I considered it essential that
our group should cater for both Hertford and Ware, intertwined as their histories were, and that it should be an independent self-governing entity.
In the interim I had joined what was then called the Hertfordshire Local History Council (now the Hertfordshire Association for Local History). This – and our common membership of the EHAS Council – introduced me to Dr Doris Jones-Baker, then Secretory of the HLHC. Doris’s two great enthusiasms were Folklore and Graffiti, and she kindly agreed to speak on “Folklore and Local History” at the inaugural meeting.
The practical outcome of that meeting was the formation of an ad hoc organising committee, comprised of yours truly, Grace Eve, Peter and Heather Fogg, David Perman and Gill Pollard to prepare a draft Constitution and a preliminary programme and report back to an initial General Meeting. Ivy Drayton, Edna Holden and Sue Horner also expressed willingness to help in the organisation of the Society.
Twenty-five people attended the first General Meeting, held on 7 June 1979. Sue Horner was elected Chairman and, perhaps inevitably, I was elected Hon. Secretory. There was the usual “deathly ‘ush” when the post of Hon. Treasurer was mentioned, and I found myself saddled with that as well, despite my objection that it was undesirable for both posts to be held by the some person. It took me two years to lose it! Here I may say, more in sorrow than in anger, that the person who was most insistent that a time limit should be imposed on one person holding any post neither volunteered himself nor, indeed, attended any subsequent meeting. To complete the Committee, Ivy Drayton, Heather Fogg, Edna Holden and David Perman were elected. Subscriptions were agreed at £2.50 for individual membership, under-l8s, full-time adult students and retired persons, £1.25, and family membership £6. Well, it was a long time ago! Meetings were to take place in the Priory Rooms, but at least two each year in Place House at Ware.
The Committee met for the first time just over a week later, when we found to our consternation that we didn’t have a quorum. I now unashamedly confess that I bent the rules: since I had two jobs, I counted myself as two people – otherwise we wouldn’t have been able to proceed with a programme.
The “Mercury” had reported our formation and I was encouraged by the response. It is true that one Bengeo lady – no names, no. pack-drill -while wishing me well, did tell me that she wouldn’t be joining because she “knew it all already”. It is also true that I received a letter from another lady, who again shall be nameless but who occupied a post in which she might have been expected to be at least mildly encouraging, informing me with lofty condescension that she “might think of joining if she thought that the Society was going to be run properly”. I don’t think I am hypersensitive or unduly irascible, but confess that this did not amuse. Stung, I rang her and asked, I hope politely, why she thought the Society might not be run properly. She was clearly taken aback, waffled a bit, then said she had known several societies which weren’t – she didn’t specify which. In that case, I said, why don’t you come along and teach us how? She didn’t know about that. I put the ‘phone down on her. She didn’t join, ‘of course, and I have to say that I don’t think we suffered any loss
thereby. As to whether we have been “run properly”, that’s for members to judge, but we have kept going for twenty-five years!
One Saturday morning in Amwell End I met dear old Evelyn Warner. Said she, “I never thought I’d live to see the day someone started a society joining Hertford and Ware together!” I said, “It takes a comer-in to do that, Miss Warner!”
We agreed to kick off our lecture programme in September but thought some summer activity was desirable. Gordon Davies kindly agreed to lead a town walk in Hertford on Sunday, 15 July, to trace the bounds of the former Manor of Hertford Priory in the town. Despite it being St Swithun’s Day, the weather was kind to us and the success of the walk led us to arrange another, led by Dr Violet Rowe, in Ware, which took place on 23 September. A visit was arranged for Sunday, 7 October, to
the “Living on the Land” exhibition at the Mill Green Museum in Hatfield.
I note from our first Newsletter that we commenced activities with forty-nine paid-up members, with two dozen others expressing interest. I believe I delivered our first programme to most of them personally. Nowadays I attend meetings and have difficulty in putting names to faces, so much has the Society grown – and I certainly wouldn’t wish to attempt a mass delivery!
Our first indoor meeting, on 13 September, was due to be addressed by the County Archivist on “The Work of the County Record Office”. Unfortunately a few days beforehand Peter Walne contracted shingles. Happily his colleague Tony Palmer was able to deputise for him and we had a most interesting evening. Other speakers in that first programme were Gordon Davies (The Churches of East Hertfordshire); Cyril Heath (The History of the Hertfordshire Mercury); Beryl Crawley (Family History); Rev. Colin Weale (The Priest’s Tale: An Everyday Story of Hertfordshire Clerics) and Juanita Burnby (The Navigation of the River Lea). If the two “Members’ Evenings” did
not conspicuously ignite, we were nevertheless “in business”, and growing. We are still in business, and I hope still growing. That is up to the membership, and if it is a participating membership, then there is no reason why the Society should not look forward to another twenty-five years of successful existence – and more.