The Norfolk and Norwich Branch History

Branch History

By Rowena Burgess, published 27th April 2011

The Norfolk and Norwich Branch - a short history

The branch was founded in 1920, at the instigation of two local teachers, W. J. Blake (the father the famous historian, Robert, Lord Blake) and Walter Stephenson, the father of our most long-serving (1941-1962) president, Andrew Stephenson, who was himself a distinguished headmaster of King Edward VI School, Norwich. The inaugural meeting took place in February 1921 with a lecture by G. C. Coulton of St John's College, Cambridge, on ‘History of the Future'. At the first AGM officers were elected: Mrs Ivo Hood as president; W. J. Blake as secretary; and a young teacher, Miss Gertrude Hanks, as treasurer. Miss Hanks thereby began an active involvement with the branch that was to last for over fifty years. The first branch outing was held in July 1920, to view the Norwich Guildhall and the civic regalia that was kept there.

Initially we were called the Norfolk Branch, but the designation Norwich and District Branch also appeared in some of the original literature. In the 1960s the current title, ‘Norfolk and Norwich' was agreed upon, and this we have remained ever since. We hold our meetings in the City of Norwich, which remains a real local capital; many of our members come in from across the county, and our recent partnership with the Norfolk Club symbolises our position as an Association for the whole of the county, as well as the fine City itself.

The branch officers have included a number of distinguished and colourful, personalities. W. J. Blake was the first secretary and held office for nine years, before handing over to the redoubtable Miss Hanks, who kept the branch running with characteristic enthusiasm until 1941 when ill health forced her to resign. Because there was some difficulty in finding a successor in wartime conditions, the treasurer, Miss Jessie Soffe, was prevailed upon to combine the two offices ‘for the duration'. The minutes and the branch programmes then, and for some time afterwards, identified Miss Soffe, at her insistence, as ‘Hon. Sec. Pro. Tem' but after the war a new treasurer was eventually found, and she continued as secretary, ably assisted by Miss Hanks as deputy, until her unexpected and untimely death in 1951. Thereafter Miss Hanks picked up the reins once again, initially ‘pro tem' but in fact until 1970, by which time she was more than ready to hand over to a younger generation after what had been a lifetime of service to the association. This was recognised by the gift of an inscribed gold watch and the award of an honorary life membership by the association. At a committee meeting in January 1946 it had been reported that, ‘The item on the agenda "Revision of Branch Rules" was adjourned owing to the indisposition of Miss Hanks, who was felt to be the only member of the branch who knows what the Rules of the Branch were'. Miss Hanks was succeeded by Alan Metters (1970-87) and then, in turn, by Margaret Elbro, Marjorie Holden and Rowena Bryce, the current incumbent. We have also been fortunate in enjoying the services of a number of highly skilled and long-serving treasurers: after the war, L. W. Malster (whose laconic and trenchant interventions at committee meetings, after he had retired and become a vice president, are still remembered by some), Charles Ellwood, R. C. (‘Mac') McLennan, Tim Molander, Peter Craven and now Chris Unsworth.

The branch presidents, beginning with Mrs Ivo Hood, included a number of notable local scholars. Walter Stephenson was one, and another was his son Andrew, mentioned above, who helped to lay the very firm foundations for a variety of branch activities in which he took a prominent part, both as a lecturer and in leading visits to places of historic interest in the city. He was succeeded by Dick Bawden (1962-69), who went on to be a long-serving member of the association's council. He was head of history at Wymondham College until a new post in Sheffield took him away from the branch; but he remained a member of council for many years after that. Stuart Andrews, another headmaster of Norwich School and an expert on Methodist history, then followed, and John Salmon (1971-82), a national vice president and renowned leader of association excursions both in Britain and abroad, found that his retirement to East Anglia would entail yet more active service to the local branch when he joined us. When John left the region for a brief exile in the West Country, Professor Robert Ashton took over, in time for the national AGM and conference in 1983, followed by Professor Hassell Smith, Mrs Sally Carus, Dr Alan Metters and finally Professor John Charmley, who is still ‘in harness' and has now completed ten years. In 2011 Professor Charmley introduced a new partnership between the University of East Anglia and the local branch, designed to take our activities forward in ways which took full advantage of the Internet and other social networking media. In 2009 he became Editor in Chief of the HA's main journal, History, thus consolidating the relationship between the branch and Head Office.

Branch programmes have been of a varied nature, although lectures have formed the backbone of our activities, and we have benefited both from the association's list of voluntary lecturers and also from good friends in the locality and our neighbouring universities. The latter have included Cambridge and, more recently, the Universities of East Anglia and Essex, but we have also been able to attract a lot of speakers from London. Among our local speakers, some call for a special mention because they lectured to the branch on a number of occasions: Andrew Stephenson, who has already been mentioned, and indeed virtually all of our branch presidents; Rachel Young, both when she worked for the Norwich Museums and after her retirement (the branch was so grateful for her many contributions that she was elected an honorary vice president); R.W. Ketton-Cremer, the eminent chronicler of much Norfolk history; Marian Bell, who gave a series of scintillating talks on the travels of Francois de la Rochefoucauld, and also on Arthur Young; and Charles Cudworth, from Cambridge, a cousin of one of our members, who put on a number of memorable ‘events' with music, drama and costumes, aided by additional guest performers. Among our other distinguished speakers, drawn from the wider academic community, we have had R. N. W. Blake, both before and after his ennoblement, J. H. Plumb, A. J. P. Taylor (at least twice), E. M. Carus-Wilson, John Saltmarsh, G. R. Elton, a plethora of national presidents, and most of the history faculty of UEA. In addition, in the 1970s a series of sixth form lectures were organised, specifically geared to A-level syllabuses and taking place in the evenings rather than the more usual Saturday afternoons, which were not always convenient for a younger audience. These were then supplemented, from 1975, by all-day sixth form conferences held at the University of East Anglia, which ran successfully for many years, and which were reintroduced in 2012.

Twice in its history the branch hosted the annual conference and AGM of the association, the first time in 1959 and the second in 1983. In '59, of course, there was no University of East Anglia, and so members had to be billeted in a variety of locations, including the Keswick College of Education, and Wymondham College. The detailed programme survives among the branch archives and it was clearly impressive: lectures by the association's president, R. F. Treharne, Wyndham Ketton-Cremer and John Saltmarsh; varied discussion groups; a special performance at the Maddermarket Theatre (Andrew Stephenson, branch president, was both a trustee and an active member of the Norwich Players); a civic reception at Norwich Castle; Norwich visits and Norfolk excursions; along with the usual business meetings. It was a triumph. The branch AGM later that year recorded that, ‘It was very largely due to Miss Hanks that the numerous meetings and excursions went off so smoothly, which made the AGM the great success that it was'; although some members still complained that there had not been a Spring Weekend that year! When the national body descended on Norwich again in 1983, all we had to do was put together a similar kind of programme, based this time more conveniently at UEA. The special lectures were given by the association president, Mrs Irene Collins (‘"Hardly any women at all" - Jane Austen on History', a wonderfully subtle exposition of non-militant feminism), Alan Carter (‘Dirt Archaeology and Partly-Standing Buildings'), Lord Blake (‘The Writing of Twentieth-Century British History') and Professor Peter Lasko (‘German Impressionism - "the French Connection"'). There was the usual mix of discussion groups and assorted excursions, a civic reception, again at the castle, a conference dinner in the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts, and the business meetings. Again, it all went well and there were many messages of appreciation after the event.

Other special events have included the various jubilees that have celebrated the branch's and the association's own histories. In 1970 Miss Hanks organised a Golden Jubilee festival, as her valedictory contribution, which included a dinner at a prestigious Norwich hotel. The association's secretary and honorary secretary both attended but President Denys Hay was unable to come - his telegram, though, ‘Congratulations, best wishes for a century', still survives in the archives. In 1980 we had a Diamond Jubilee celebration with a lunch at the Sainsbury Centre, a reception at the Norwich Guildhall, a lecture from Rachel Young on ‘Family Life in Early-Tudor England' and an excursion to Oxborough Hall and Swaffham. Slightly less ambitious programmes were arranged for our 75th in 1995, for our 80th in 2000, and again for the association's centenary in 2006, but we still rose to the occasion each time.

In the 1960s there was much discussion about the desirability of starting a series of branch publications, along the lines of the pioneering efforts of the Bristol and Coventy branches, but nothing came of it at the time. However, in the 1980s, in collaboration with the newly-revamped Centre of East Anglian Studies at UEA, the idea was resurrected and three very innovative and useful pamphlets appeared under the generic title of ‘Creative History from East Anglian Sources'. They were collections of original source material for use in schools and colleges: Wymondham Inventories 1590-1641 edited by John Wilson; A Case of Piracy in the Sixteenth Century edited by Hassell Smith; and Cromer and Sheringham - the Growth of the Holiday Trade 1877-1914 edited by Andy Reid. It was a great pity that this promising initiative could not be maintained, but the departure from the area of key people and the distraction of others by apparently never-ending ‘educational initiatives' imposed from above eroded the amount of time and energy which practising teachers had at their disposal and finally put paid to the enterprise.

A trawl through the branch's very extensive archives, which are on permanent deposit at the Norfolk Record office, has thrown up many examples of the human face of the organisation, and also at times a certain ‘tongue-in-cheek' humour. At the AGM on 3 May 1941 the treasurer's report was not read because she had forgotten to bring it, but nobody seemed to mind very much (on at least one further occasion the minute book was also forgotten). During and for some time after the war the lecture programme carried the strict instruction ‘Please keep this card in a prominent place' and one has the impression that a lost card would not easily be forgiven. The secretary's report for 1941-42 included the statement, ‘Our sympathy is extended to the Headmaster of the Grammar School for the loss by enemy action of the wing of the school in which so often we have held our meetings. The Castle Museum Committee has come to our aid and has allowed us the use of a room in the Castle', which at least shows a certain stoic determination to ‘keep calm and carry on'. Subsequently branch meetings were held for many years in the Georgian splendour of the Assembly House in the centre of Norwich, followed by a long period at the United Reformed Church. In 2012 the Branch moved its meetings to the elegant surroundings provided by the hospitable Norfolk Club in King Street, which allows our members to lunch at the Club before the lecture, and to relax in its facilities afterwards. We welcome anyone in the county (or visiting it) to our meetings, which are always held on a Saturday afternoon at 2.30.