Nuneaton Branch History

Branch History

By David Paterson: Branch Chairman, published 24th January 2011

The  Nuneaton Branch of the H.A. was originally founded in November 1919 as one part of a county wide Warwickshire branch.  Instrumental in this was the editor of the Nuneaton Chronicle, Albert Francis Cross, assisted by local doctor turned local historian, Edward Nason. After this arrangement ended Nuneaton was re-founded as a separate branch in 1929. But as early as 1921 there were seventy-eight  members and in July 1924, the first outing was recorded when fifty-five members (including both the Mayoress and the Vicar of Nuneaton) went in a ‘charabanc' on a tour of Leicestershire churches ending at Fenny Drayton (only three miles from Nuneaton) where they joined in the celebrations for the tercentenary of the birth of George Fox in that village. A little later sixty-five members of the branch went on an outing to Stoneleigh Manor and Kenilworth Castle.

A leading figure between 1921 and 1954 was Sidney Reed Brett, Chief History Master at the local King Edward VI Grammar School. Brett, Branch Secretary in the 1930s, was one of seven members of an Advisory Committee set up by the H.A. Council during the production of Reid and Toyne's 1944 Report on Teaching History in schools, just re-published by the H.A. In 1937 one of the branch speakers was the National H.A. Secretary, Dr. J.F. Nichols, who spoke on ‘Recent Excavations at St. Albans'.

Between the 1930s and the 1950s branch programmes suggest that, 1939-45 apart,  there were six meetings a year from September to March only slightly fewer than today, as well as an AGM and summer outing which we still retain. Again, as now, meetings were normally held in King Edward VI School, (now a Sixth Form College). Headmasters were frequently Branch President and also gave talks. The cost, however, was very different: in 1937 yearly membership was five shillings, or ten shillings including History magazine, and was exactly the same ten years later. The programme for 1946/7 established a typically eclectic post-war flavour with ‘The Anglo-Saxon invasions' ‘The Agrarian Revolution of the 16th Century',  ‘Liberty in England 300 years ago' (the 1640s) as well as ‘The Spirit of Swedish History', ‘Postage Stamps as Historical Documents' and ‘The Pleasures of Archaeology', the last of these being the contribution of the King Edward's Headmaster.

The branch helped to found the Nuneaton Community Association in 1948, co-ordinating cultural activity in the town. Out of this came an initiative to set up a local history research group developed by Arthur and Eileen Gooder and continued by local historian Ted Veasey. Its full effect was not felt until 2002 when Ted's fine History of Nuneaton was published. The results of the researches are still of great value to local historians today.

Another highlight was the Nuneaton H.A. contribution to the Festival of Britain celebrations in 1951. Members organised a week long Exhibition at the Council House of ‘early records and objects of historical interest'. Described by the County Archivist Anthony Wood as ‘truly magnificent', it included Enclosure Award details, a Chantry conveyance, and much on the historical records of Nuneaton Priory, (the Nuns of which gave the town its name) the local landowners the Newdigate family, and the history of the endowed King Edward's Grammar school including ‘the tumult of 1665', a school boy riot against the Master supported by his great enemy, the local vicar. In January 2011 our current Branch Chairman is speaking on this very subject.

The local paper noted the 50th Anniversary of the H.A. in 1956 and that 1000 of its 8,300 national members were expected to attend a special function in London, including some Nuneaton members who would have seen ‘an exhibition on 50 years of historical study and teaching'. Two branch members also attended the 75th Anniversary celebrations in 1981. At the AGM in 1960 branch members presented four short talks: today branch members frequently give the talk at the AGM.  Numbers declined in the 1960s but meetings continued regularly. In October 1968 members held a debate on The British Prime Minister has become a dictator. However, by the early 1970s the branch, though still meeting occasionally, was clearly struggling.   

It was revived in 1974/5 by a new Secretary, Dr. Trevor James, now our H.A. National Honorary Secretary. Based at King Edward VI Sixth Form College, (which the Grammar School had just become) Trevor exploited the large potential sixth form audience to arrange lectures that would appeal to them as well as the general public. Dr Ian Smith of (the then comparatively new) Warwick University spoke on Hitler and the Second World War at the first meeting of the revived branch in September 1975.  Twenty-two of the thirty-six attending were students. However, it was not all ‘Hitler and the Henries'.  The range of A Level History courses offered made it possible to meet A Level needs yet still present a varied programme, although it took some ingenuity at times! But it meant we slowly built up our general membership.

In the late 1970s and 1980s attendances varied between 25 and 60.  Sometimes other schools would send a party and occasionally in the 1970s and 1980s audiences would be nearer 100. A highlight was the visit of AJP Taylor in 1977. He may have re-cycled his 1976 lecture marking the Bulgarian atrocities but he held the 300 strong audience spellbound. As Branch Treasurer at the time I know that he charged expenses of just £6, the second class rail fare to Nuneaton from Euston. For this lecture and occasionally for others we had to move from the College's Music Room, which held a little under 100, to the larger Assembly Hall. Another  time we did this was in 1981when Dr. Dorothy Thompson of Warwick University spoke on Chartism, a lecturer and a subject attracting school parties from all over the Midlands.

Another highlight was in 1990 when the branch organised a book launch meeting for Eileen Gooder's Squire of Arbury  which was one the  Coventry H.A. local history publications (usually pamphlets but on this occasion a full scale book). For this very well-attended meeting we forsook our normal venue and held it in the Arbury Hall stable block, appropriate for the book's subject, Sir Richard Newdigate. [see the Historian of 1990 for further details of this event]. Other organisations were invited to join us on that occasion and for about 25 years we have held one or two joint meetings a year with the Nuneaton Civic Society with local history subjects, our overlapping interest, ensuring a satisfactory attendance at meetings not attended by students. We have occasionally met with other local organisations such as the George Eliot Fellowship.

The subsequent years did see some decline in student attendance at evening meetings but two developments kept numbers up. Our regular membership, though still quite small, increased and attended loyally and we widened the range of talks on offer. As I write this I hear about the death of our oldest member, almost 97, who attended frequently for over 50 years. Was he the oldest regular attender in the country? We maintain some local history sessions but, unlike other historical societies in the area, we also appeal to those who are interested in national and international history. Also, the branch Committee decided to arrange two meetings a year in an afternoon which would especially target local King Edward VI College students and the variety of courses that they now study. This has been successful (many of our ordinary members are retired and able to come) and in recent years we have had to move to the College Library, rather than a College classroom for these meetings. The College's recent introduction of Ancient History at A Level has been reflected in the subjects of some of our recent lecturers. We hope the love of history has rubbed off permanently on to many of our students. We know it has sometimes: to celebrate the millennium in 2000 we invited back past King Edward's student Carl Watkins, who had become a History Fellow of Magdalen College Cambridge: he spoke on The Year 1000.

The tradition of an annual outing established back in the 1920s still continues. Historical town walks have recently been popular and have included Ashby de la Zouch, Coventry, Lichfield, Stratford and Warwick. Chronologically the range of visits has gone from the Roman fort at Wroxeter to 78 Derngate, Northampton re-designed in the First World War by Charles Rennie Mackintosh. For a number of years in the late 1980s we organised annual tours of midland churches (reminiscent of that trip in 1924) with expert guide Lawrence Jones.

While Nuneaton remains a small branch we have survived financially. Treasurer Helen Allred has managed the budget with skill for thirty years and our band of Associate members has provided us with useful additional income, whilst our central position in the country ensures a variety of speakers from a variety of places without excessive travelling expenses. We also warmly thank King Edward VI College who have provided us with a free venue just as we have provided their students with free lectures by some of the best in the business. King Edward's history teachers have played a major role on Committee but we have always insisted that non-teaching general-interest members play an active role. One of our regrets is the limited role played by teachers at the 12-16 schools in the area, unfortunately a sign of the times. However, the commitment from King Edward staff remains as strong as ever.

At present we have about twenty-five people on average at most evening meetings rising to around fifty when the students attend in the afternoon. Our members remain committed and several have themselves addressed the branch in recent years, especially at Annual General Meetings. We hope to remain in good shape to celebrate our own centenary in a few years time.