70 years of the Isle of Wight Branch

Published: 1st July 2020

Seventy Years On

In June 2020 the HA Isle of Wight branch celebrated its 70th birthday. Here, Honorary Secretary of the branch Terry Blunden looks back at the history and development of the branch since 1950.

Although the Historical Association was formed in 1906 sixteen years elapsed before a branch was established on the Isle of Wight. From the HA’s archives, stored at Nottingham University, the annual reports indicate the Branch was formed in June 1922 and by the end of the first year there was a membership of 33 and lectures included such topic as The Valley of the Kings, The American Constitution, Aspects of the French Revolution, Teaching of History (do things change?) and three lectures with local connections. It would seem enthusiasm waned the following year as membership dropped to seventeen. Sadly after 1925-26 no reports were submitted suggesting the Branch was no longer active. 

The IW Branch, second creation, was established at meeting held at the God’s Providence House, Newport on 23rd June 1950. The driving force behind this was Walter Roberts, the history teacher at Newport Secondary Grammar School, and he envisaged the aims of the proposed association as “the collection and distribution of historical information and provision of relevant literature. The programme might vary from a few meetings a year, addressed by experts to the holding of study groups monthly, to archaeological diggings, excursions etc”. The inaugural meeting was supported by the Island’s Chief Education Officer, A. L. Hutchinson and a number of local dignitaries including W.J. Sibbick JP (Editor of the IW County Press), Sir Robert Hobart Bt. (first Chairman 1950–56), S.E. Ayling, Rev. R.F. Martyn, Rev. H.R. Mason, J.B. Priestley. The first Secretary was Mrs D. Signaux (1950–52) assisted by Miss S. Young and Mr T.G. Boyland became the first Treasurer (1950–67). Presidents included A. L. Hutchinson (1959–56), J.B. Priestley (1956–60), A.J.P. Taylor (1960–76), Father Hockey of Quarr Abbey (1976–88), Dr Jack Jones (1988–05) and Dr Paul Hooper (2005–13), Johanna Jones 2013–16) and Col. Kenneth Hicks (2016–). 

Branch members visiting Florence Nightingale's special tree in Embley Park, 2012

As the years passed the membership increased, attracted by the many speakers who were university lecturers, experts in their own right. The outings to the mainland often followed up a particular talk, as for example the visit to Silchester or Embley Park and in the summer guided history walks around local villages provided more than just a winter programme of lectures. The promotion of Local History weeks in 2002 and 2006 involved twenty other local history/heritage societies, were based at St Thomas’s Minster, attracted over 2000 visitors each time, raised the profile of the Branch and spawned the IW Local History Forum. 

In 2000, the Fiftieth Anniversary year, the Branch invited children of the founding members to an afternoon tea at God’s Providence House, Newport where it had all started. In 2010 the IW Branch celebrated its sixtieth Anniversary with another afternoon tea held at the Brading Roman Villa with sixty members and friends, including Mrs. Shelia Mace (nee Roberts), Tom Priestley, John Hobart and Andrew Hutchinson joining in the celebrations. Terence Blunden, current Secretary, in a short talk reminded members of life in 1950 at national and Island level. Rebecca Sullivan, Chief Executive Officer of the Historical Association, welcomed the opportunity to join the Branch in its celebrations and congratulated it on its progress. Tom Priestley proposed a vote of thanks on behalf of the invited guests. 

Over the past twenty years, starting with the chairmanship of Molly Pewsey, the Branch has moved forward using modern technology to provide a better service for its members and reduced the administrative work load. For example, the Branch no longer produces a bi-annual Newsletter, but instead through the good offices of the Treasurer sends out by e-mail to 90% of the membership a “Monthly What’s on ...” information sheet which does include details of other societies’ meetings. Annual General Meetings (AGM) often only attended by current officers and committee members, are held at different Island manor houses and attract 35+ members. The mailing of all AGM papers in the now traditional A5 booklet form ensures that each member is aware of Branch proceedings irrespective of whether they are able to attend the annual meeting. 

Initially, the Branch supported the Historical Association’s (HA) biennial Debate and had the excitement of attending the final round at Birmingham where a Sandown High School student was proposing the contribution to society of Robert Hook.   Liaison with the previous High Schools and latterly the eight secondary schools has slowly developed and the introduction of linking a committee member to each school will strengthen the links, possibly producing “debaters”! In 2017 the President promoted for five years an annual £1000 Bursary for the best Island A-level student who intended to read History at university – another school link. 

Before the change from a three to a two-tiered system of Island Education, the committee enjoyed the contributions of co-opted students, one of whom subsequently became a qualified history teacher on the Island. In the early days lecturers hardly ever used visual aids to support their talks, but times change and the Branch has kept abreast of requirements by purchasing with some help from the HA an overhead projector, a carousel slide projector and now PowerPoint equipment. Some members feel disappointed if they do not have a picture to look at! The introduction of the December afternoon meeting followed by tea has been popular and enabled lecturers who wished to be back in London the same day to contribute to the programme. The change from the summer Annual Dinner to a New Year Lunch proved popular with the older members who tend to have their main daily meal at midday. 

 History Week at St Thomas's Church

It had been a long-cherished dream of the Committee, particularly the Treasurer who had squirreled away funds to cover it, that a speaker of national repute be invited to the Island. The last one was A.J.P. Taylor in the 1970s! In 2017 Dr Bettany Hughes at Ryde School chose “Helen of Troy” as her topic. A goodly number attended. Add to this the warm welcome given by the Treasurer to all who attend meetings and the staid image of yesteryears has changed to vibrant, friendly group of people with a common interest: all reflected by an encouraging membership of 236 for 2019–20. 

People often erroneously think that because it is an Isle of Wight Branch it is concerned with local history, but is not! Its focus is on national history leaving the local history and heritage groups to consider local topics. The Historical Association based in London supports its fifty-two local branches, including the Isle of Wight, with insurance protection, stationery, access to its web site and a list of speakers who are prepared to visit local branches as long as their travel and subsistence expenses are reimbursed. Obviously, our speakers, mainly university lecturers, tend to come from the south eastern part of England thus reducing the travel time and expenses. Where necessary committee members have provided overnight accommodation and occasionally the following morning the lecturer has spoken to Sixth form students or visited a place of interest. 

At the end of the day, it could be said that apart from archaeological digs, current programmes have embraced all that Walter Roberts envisaged seventy-odd years ago. Credit must be given to the countless succeeding Chairmen, Officers and Committee members who have been, sometimes unwittingly, faithful to Walters’s vision. 

Terence J. Blunden, BEM, FHA 25th May, 2020
Honorary Secretary