Exeter Branch History

Branch History

By Robert Guyver, published 1st November 2012

A Brief History of the Exeter Branch
Exeter was one of the seventeen pre-First World War branches, founded in November 1906, the same year as the Historical Association itself. The Exeter branch was founded by Professor Walter (W.J.) Harte who became President of the (national) Historical Association 1932-36. Harte was appointed to the Royal Albert Memorial College in about 1900 as Professor of History and Literature, and probably taught the whole of both subjects at first, until Literature was given to another professor! The RAM College began in the museum building.

The building next door in Gandy Street, recently the Arts Centre (now called the Phoenix Centre), was built about 1900 to accommodate the growing teaching work of the college. At that time the college was not a recognised university college although a very few of its students did take London external degrees. Most were trainee (non-graduate) teachers. The fact that Harte started a branch of the HA in its opening year is to his credit as an encourager and developer. His other achievement was to start a History of Exeter Research Group, which published about eight books and pamphlets, very scholarly and still valuable. He also attended the very first Anglo-American Historical Congress in London in about 1921 - he appears in the group photo taken at the time. And he himself helped edit John Hooker's Description of the Citie of Excester for the Devon and Cornwall Record Society, in two volumes. Harte was a pioneer who worked with scarcely any resources, and he deserves to be remembered with respect.

The story of Harte's role (given here in edited version) is narrated by Donald Read in a feature article in the centenary edition of The Historian (No. 91, Autumn 2006, pp. 15-16), 'A Parade of Past Presidents 1906-1982':

W.J.HARTE (1866-1954) was president 1932-36. His presidency followed soon after his retirement from the Chair of History at the University College of  the South-West. [This later became the University of Exeter, and was originally based in Gandy Street]. Walter Harte had held this chair at Exeter for thirty years. He had attended the HA's foundation meeting in 1906, and during four decades he exercised a steady influence with the HA, drawing people together by his friendliness, and urging from the first that the Association should include not only teachers but all who were interested in history. In particular, Harte promoted the cause of history in the West Country, where he immediately formed the Exeter branch as a focal point. He was especially interested in the study of local history, and in 1951 a local lecture series was started in his name. In 1937-38 he was president of the Devonshire Association.

Before 1914 the branch had an average membership of 31, with a highest score of 45 (1914) and a lowest of 22 (1906). In March 1914 the Exeter branch held a joint meeting with the Exeter Child Study Society at which, it was reported, 'we had a delightful account of the Village Children's Historical Society' by Miss G.A.Hadow. During the First World War years the membership figures for Exeter were as follows: 1914/15: 45; 1915/16: 44; 1916/17: 49; and 1917/18: 53. There was rapid post-war expansion in the Exeter branch between 1918 and 1931, moving from a lowest of 56 in 1919 to a highest of 144 in 1923, with an average membership of 109.

Recollections of the Exeter Branch since 1969
Dr Bruce Coleman, our current President, who has now been Branch President twice in recent years, takes up the story. He recollects that the branch depended heavily on the staff of University's History Department of History, which was always the branch's main patron, providing room bookings for meetings and, for some years after the late 1970s, the secretary. (Normally a new and junior member of staff was told to do a stint as secretary for the good of his/her career.)

Presidents of the branch over the years included Professor Ivan Roots, Professor Jeremy Noakes, Dr Joseph Smith, Professor Nicholas Orme, Professor Nicholas Rodger and Professor Jeremy Black. Ivan Roots is the only National Fellow we have locally (the honour was awarded some four years ago) and now Andrew Kirkby is our only Branch Fellow. Among well-known speakers over the years were A.J.P. Taylor (who packed the Parker Moot Room to overflowing), Denis Mack Smith, F.M.L. Thompson and Ian Kershaw. The annual programme has normally involved six winter lectures (divided three/three between the winter terms) with a field trip or visit usually in May.

At least half the lectures have usually come from History staff in Exeter, most from the University Department of History but with occasional contributions from the Departments of Archaeology and Classics/Ancient History. The Presidents listed above have all given at least one talk to the branch. Only in the last few years has there been any attempt to take meetings to local schools, though we have always had some support from history teachers (and even VIth-formers) in the area. Links with the students' History Society in the University have fluctuated, largely reflecting changes in the nature of the Society and the extent of its academic interest. The recent talk by Professor Sir David Cannadine arranged by the Society for itself is an example of the kind of joint meeting that could be further developed.

Though the branch has had its up and downs, it has had a continuous and reasonably stable history, except for a glitch in continuity during the autumn term of 2010, when the university was no longer able to supply a Secretary and this went to an outsider, Robert Guyver, and the programme re-started a term late in January 2011. It is worth remembering that in the 1970s the largest and most successful branch in the SW (even nationally, I believe) was the Bristol one. It even published its own series of pamphlets. The Bristol branch has now gone completely (date of demise not known) and history enthusiasts in Bristol support an apparently flourishing branch in Bath. Absit omen!

Given that the Exeter branch began in 1906, the year of the HA's own foundation, we might well feel both some gratitude and some pride in our survival and current health. The article cited above pays tribute to W.J.Harte, our founder. There is still the possibility of locating funding within the University to help finance an occasional Harte Lecture in Local History, and a combined event with the University Department could revive it as an occasion. It seems that the University is likely to establish an occasional (or annual) lecture in memory and honour of Joyce Youings, with which the Exeter branch of Historical Association is keen to be involved. In fact the first Joyce Youings Memorial Lecture will be given by Professor John Guy,'What is the Future of Tudor History?'  This will be held on Tuesday 7th May 2013 at 6.30pm in the University of Exeter Moot Room (near the entrance to the Amory Building).