History of the Gloucestershire Branch 1919-2021

HA branch history

Published: 15th December 2023

This article is based on a talk originally given after the 2003 Branch AGM which drew on branch records subsequently deposited with the County Archives. These comprise AGM and committee minutes as well as notes on, and some details of, speakers for each meeting from the 1928-9 season to 1957, committee minutes becoming progressively fuller over that period. AGM and committee minutes from 1957-1998 have also since been deposited in the County Archives, together with the Treasurer's Reports and branch Annual Accounts. Records of the talks themselves are unfortunately lacking. For the HA's 75 th anniversary our then Chairman Margaret Tweedy wrote an article on the history of the branch which was published in the first edition of The Historian magazine in 1983, was the first history of the branch of which I am aware and is one of the sources for this article.

The branch was founded sometime between July 1 1918 and June 30 1919; the 13 th Annual Report of the HA 1918-19 noted “during the year a Gloucester and Cheltenham branch has been formed”. The oldest minute book is however headed Historical Association (Cheltenham Branch). The first branch President was the Dean of Gloucester. The first branch meeting of which a record survives was held at the Cheltenham Ladies College, where most meetings were held in the early years, on June 9 1921. The first lecture recorded in the minutes was on October 16 1928 in the Princess Hall at Cheltenham Ladies College; Mr Bell of Balliol College, Oxford spoke on “Tropical Africa, showing the importance of the administration of the colonies”. Illustrated lectures also featured; on January 29 1929 Gerald Grey gave a talk on “Symbiology of Animals and Birds in Norman Architecture”. One lecture in that season was on “The place of women in medieval civilisation”, with one in the following season on Joan of Arc. It would be interesting to compare this historiographically with the talk which former HA President Professor Anne Curry delivered to the branch on Joan of Arc in 1998, but no record of the earlier talk survives.

The first AGM recorded took place on June 6 1929; the first recorded branch outing was also in 1929, namely a guided tour of Malmesbury Abbey by the architect responsible for its restoration, followed by tea and a tour of the town, but “only 22” people attended. Promotion of history in schools and at all levels has always been an aim of the HA; there were joint meetings with the Education Society. The committee discussed a possible junior branch membership for schools, but felt this was unnecessary since interest in history was already being fostered by voluntary societies in schools and “responsible teachers ...in most cases are members of our branch of the Association”. Meetings at this time had a strong Oxford flavour, with Miss Clarke of Somerville College speaking on the deposition of Richard II and Professor Coupland, Beit Professor of Colonial History, on the future of Tropical Africa. It is interesting to reflect on these talks on Africa and the colonies in the light of the current debates about the legacy of Britain's imperial past. A branch study circle also existed and in 1930 discussed papers on the Renaissance, the Reformation and Elizabethan England. The suggestion of publishing papers on the branch website is perhaps the contemporary equivalent of this.

Finances were a concern in the 1930s. In February 1932 the committee felt unable to finance a 'local history through the ages' exhibition at Cheltenham Art Gallery without outside help. Contemporary politics was also addressed. In May 1932 the committee was seeking a speaker on Fascism. In February 1934 the committee arranged for a lanternist and an epidioscope, as well as coffee and cigarettes for the committee (and presumably the speaker) after the meeting, a reflection of the cultural norms of the time. The branch had a bleak period in the late 1930s. At the 1938 AGM Miss Popham was persuaded to remain on the committee for another year and later questioned the viability of continuing the branch, doubting whether there was sufficient interest. Committee members seemed to share her gloom and agreed that there were “other intellectual societies” that could reasonably be supported. Attendances were falling. Meetings were usually held in the evenings but in summer 1941, perhaps with the blackout in mind, the committee decided to experiment with meetings at 3 pm on Sundays; however, in 1942 it was agreed that the best time to hold meetings was on Fridays between 5 and 6.15 pm. Miss Jordan suggested a series of debates on present and future foreign policy, but the committee did not think that this was advisable. Such sensitivities were reflected more recently with a couple of committee members in the late 2010s feeling that topics including Irish Republicanism and some aspects of Islam should be avoided. The Ministry of Information was approached for a speaker on Russia in 1942 and Morgan Philips Price, MP for the Forest of Dean, was invited to speak on industrial aspects of Russia or on the historical background of Russia. The committee also investigated the possibility of a series of lectures on local history for the benefit of the US troops billeted in Cheltenham in 1943 and 1944; an educational committee for the American troops was formed by the town authorities and it was felt that the branch could be of service.

A perennial discussion throughout the history of the branch has been the relative balance between Gloucester and Cheltenham (the Gloucester Question) as the branch has sought to serve both the city and the town as well as the wider county. In June 1947 the committee decided that the Gloucester connection of the branch should not be revived, but in May 1951 decided to develop the activities of the Gloucester group and to hold 2 or 3 meetings per season in Gloucester. By the 1952 AGM great strides had been taken by the “Gloucester Branch” under Miss Wallen with 39 Gloucester members and in October 1953 after lengthy discussion it was agreed that Gloucester members should nominate their own chairman at their own meetings. The minute book started in 1947 is headed “Cheltenham and Gloucester Branch”. The Branch also stressed at the 1947 AGM the importance of maintaining a high standard of lectures as well as providing for the non-specialist historian.

Continued concern over availability of meeting venues has a contemporary ring. Lack of a permanent meeting place prompted an approach to the Borough Librarian for use of a room in Cheltenham Museum. Membership had increased following the earlier fallow period and stood at over 80 in April 1948. Outings were popular in the post-war period. In February 1949 (the first committee meeting whose minutes were written in biro) planned three outings, to Chipping Campden, Mitcheldean and Ross, and Bath. A social gathering and light refreshments were arranged after the AGM, and the possibility of a social event with “some historical amusement” was also discussed. The first reference to an auditor was in 1950, when Mr Venn, manager of the Midland Bank in Montpellier, Cheltenham, agreed to act in this capacity.

Controversy surfaced at the May 1953 AGM when the Branch President the Revd FW Potto-Hicks, Vicar of Winchcombe, expressed concern about words used to describe the visit to the Throckmorton home at Coughton Court, which in his view expressed undue sympathy for the Catholic point of view. The Secretary apologised. Planned meetings in the 1950s had a strong medieval flavour, with speakers approached including Richard Southern, R W Davies, W G Hoskins and E F Jacob, although records of actual programmes are lacking and it is not clear if they all accepted invitations. In any case, the difficulty of attracting audiences even for distinguished historians exercised the collective committee mind. Innovation was tried. The 1958 AGM was followed by a screening of the film Alexander Nevsky. This was followed by several short films shown at the 1960 AGM; according to the minutes, these varied greatly in quality, but all had the attraction of having been obtained free of charge.

The 1960s were successful years for work with schools. With the appointment of Dr Roger Whiting, Head of History at the King’s School, Gloucester as honorary Schools Secretary, sixth-form conferences flourished and attracted attendances of up to 100 to events including a Regency rout. An annual Sixth Form Conference was normally held at Dean Close School, although in 1968 one was held at Cheltenham Ladies College and a lecture by Professor JJ Scarisbrick attracted an audience of 200, this coming shortly after the publication of his biography of Henry VIII. However, audiences at schools events declined towards the end of the 1960s and in 1971 Dr Whiting told the committee that he did not plan to hold any further such meetings for the time being. Although records of the actual content of talks are lacking, at the 1966 AGM Mr Pick, who served as Branch Secretary from 1949 to 1967, said that all the speakers had “reported for duty, some had been learned, some inaudible, some incomprehensible, but all had been enjoyable”. Col Lloyd-Baker stood down from the committee in 1968, having served on it since 1924. In 1965 John Wyatt became Tours Secretary of the Branch and for more than a decade organised a highly successful programme of summer excursions, described by our former branch Chairman Margaret Tweedy as models of their kind. Mr Wyatt used to make detailed preparations which included calculating the time that needed to be allowed for travel to and from the venues. These outings included visits to Chavenage, Horton Court, Little Sodbury Manor, Rowsham House and Chacombe Priory. The social side of the branch included an occasional buffet supper in one of the historic rooms in Gloucester Cathedral. Former Branch Chairman Margaret Tweedy’s memories of the 1960s and 1970s include entertaining visiting speakers and of very friendly gatherings. The close links with the Ladies College continued in the 1960s when Mrs Phyllis Hembry, the head of history at the College, was chairman of the Branch and meetings were again held at the College.

April 1969 was one of the highlights of the Branch's history; it hosted the HA Annual Conference; the national HQ praised the branch for its organisation of the event, which 619 people attended. The committee continued to look at possible activities in addition to the traditional lectures; in 1970 suggestions were made for a meeting with several papers to be given by branch members and the publication of a local history booklet. The committee felt that the branch should pay more attention to local history and agreed to support financially the publication of three pamphlets on local history, including one by Dr Roger Whiting on Gloucester during the Civil War.

The need to recruit new members led in September 1974 to the introduction of branch associate membership with an annual subscription of 80p. The status of associate members was a cause of much committee discussion over the next few years, driven partly by the fact that some branch officers were associate members rather than full HA members as required by the HA nationally and this was a source of tension with HA HQ. On November 7 1977 Professor AJP Taylor spoke on the Origins of the Second World War at Cheltenham Ladies College to more than 600 people, many of them from schools. The committee had earlier noted that plans were being made to prevent this meeting being swamped by school parties. Schools’ attendance had indeed recovered; in 1979 the committee was facing a problem with too many schools attending. Concern had been expressed in 1978 that the cost of coffee at Shaftesbury Hall of the College of St Paul & St Mary was putting people off attending meetings. In September 1978 the committee also agreed to seek to organise meetings outside Cheltenham and Gloucester, for example in Stroud, Cirencester or Tewkesbury. This suggestion has resurfaced more recently, but the lack of availability of suitable meeting venues at reasonable cost prevented this suggestion being taken forward. The branch will, however, hold a meeting in Tewkesbury in March 2024

A new branch constitution was adopted at the 1980 AGM, the first held at the Municipal Offices in Cheltenham; around this time full day outings were discontinued due to the high cost of coach hire. An annual afternoon or evening summer outing has been a fixture of the branch year since then. The branch continued to seek to attract younger members, whilst the Teachers Centre in Archdeacon Street was adopted as the Gloucester meeting venue from 1986 until it became unavailable a few years later. The pattern of holding meetings generally alternating between Cheltenham and Gloucester was established at this time.

In the 1980s and 1990s the committee continued to seek to devise a varied and balanced programme covering a broad range of chronological and geographical topics. In 1985 the then HA President Professor Irene Collins spoke at the Cheltenham Literature Festival on the painter Jacques-Louis David. The branch has also drawn on the research and leisure interests and travel experiences of branch members. For example, late former chairman Richard Slessor spoke on Angkor Wat and the Khmers and on the Moghul buildings of Northern India; our late Chairman Evelyn Christmas considered the coaching inns of Gloucester and the Crusader castles of Syria, whilst committee member Michael Greet spoke on the Tudor household accounts of the Courtenay Earls of Devon and local Charlton Kings gardener and poet Isaac Bell. A more recent branch chairman, Professor Neil Wynn, spoke on the experience of US GIs in Britain in the Second World War and on another occasion on Martin Luther King. Attendances varied; a talk on the history of Australia during the bicentennial year of 1988 attracted only 9 attendees; there was a far bigger attendance for a talk on the history of Cheltenham as part of the town's bicentennial year that same year by the curator of the town museum, Dr Stephen Blake. Nationally known speakers included General Sir John Hackett in 1989 on Warfare in the Ancient World. The committee was also concerned about the future, with worries expressed at its October 1989 meeting that the committee might become a self-perpetuating oligarchy.

In 1990 the branch again hosted the HA Annual Conference at the College of St Paul and St Mary, our then Chairman Evelyn Christmas and Treasurer John Howe coordinated and organised a very successful programme, which included outings to Monmouth and Tintern Abbey.

The branch was concerned about the changes to the history curriculum in the 1990s and sought to reflect the requirements of this curriculum in the lecture programme, albeit with limited success in terms of attendance from schools. In 1995 the first meeting was held at the Chester Studio of Cheltenham Library; Dr Steven Gunn of Merton College, Oxford considered Tudor government. The branch also lobbied local authorities over concerns about the future of the County Archives caused by local government changes. The branch also sponsored an event at the 1995 Cheltenham Literature Festival. This was a discussion entitled “Gladstone Revealed” between Professor Colin Matthew and Lord Jenkins of Hillhead, biographer of Gladstone.

Conscious of the role of the HA in promoting historical education, the committee regularly discussed possible ways in which to support teachers and schools, but a proposal in 2003 for a day school for teachers did not bear fruit, in 2005 there was no one available to coordinate such an event, in 2007 branch links with schools were described as minimal and in 2008 it was impossible to organise a day school for teachers or sixth-formers, due partly to the modular “pick and mix” nature of history A- level courses. In 2009 the committee was anxious to involve younger people and schools and was concerned about the future of the History department at the University of Gloucestershire and the lack of a specialist History or indeed Humanities adviser to Gloucestershire County Council. It was not until 2018 that the branch was able to hold an event for teachers. This was well received by those attending but attendance was disappointing. More recently, the Branch has offered an annual prize for the best undergraduate history dissertation at the University of Gloucestershire.

The programme in the 1990s reflected political changes. Just as talks in the 1930s had included the subject of Fascism and, during the Second World War, talks on Russia, so new political realities were reflected in talks in 1991 by Professor BW Ife on the transition of Spain from dictatorship to democracy and in 1997 on the history of Ukraine by Kateryna Wolzcuk.

In 1999 the committee discussed publishing a branch booklet with summaries of talks. Although such booklets were published in 2005 and 2007, the amount of work involved rendered this unsustainable in the long term and, with the advent of electronic publishing, the time for such traditional printed publications had probably passed. Afternoon lectures were held in 2001 and 2002 with the aim of attracting schools, but attendances were low and the experiment was not continued. The committee first discussed setting up a branch website in 2001 although one was not created until 2012. The overhead projector purchased in 2003 became redundant as speakers brought their presentations on USB sticks. Although speakers increasingly used PowerPoint, several branch talks demonstrated that pictures and PowerPoint are not necessary for a lively and informative talk on a historical subject. A good example was a talk in 2012 by former County and Diocesan Archivist Dr David Smith on the impact of the established church between 1500 and 1857, a traditional talk also using audience participation to act a scene from Shakespeare's As You Like It.

Venues were a perennial issue. The Municipal Offices in Cheltenham were no longer available for evening meetings after September 2005, ending 25 years at that venue. The branch subsequently met at Hatherley Library but the need to rearrange furniture, limited seating and lack of IT provision led to several delayed meeting starts and prompted the move to The Park campus of the University of Gloucestershire in 2014-15. This further fostered the long-standing links and partnership over many years between the branch and the College of St Paul and St Mary, which became the Cheltenham and Gloucester College of Higher Education and, in 2001, the University of Gloucestershire. Between 1991 and 2012 Gloucester meetings were normally held at the Friends Meeting House, until an arson attack brought the use of this venue to an end. Although this venue was in many ways satisfactory, lack of IT facilities there had in any case become a problem. The branch has also met at the Oxstalls Campus of the University since November 2015, further developing the partnership between the branch and the University, benefitting from the University’s teaching facilities and in particular its IT facilities and provision.

For several years programmes were designed around a theme. In 2003-4 this was Warfare, with talks by Professor Anne Curry on Agincourt (or, as she reminded us, Azincourt) and Professor Laurence Goldman on the American Civil War. At the 2004 AGM it was agreed that this had worked well. It also noted the concerns of the wider HA about the results of a survey which had shown widespread ignorance of the basic facts of British history (for example, the belief that Napoleon had invaded England). The 2004-5 season took the theme of Monarchy, including talks on the monarchy of Israel and Judah in the Old Testament, local historian Stephen Blake on George III and Cheltenham, and HA council member Gordon Batho on Henry VIII. The 2005-6 season theme was Ships and the Sea, marking the bicentenary of the Battle of Trafalgar, whilst our Treasurer John Howe stood in at short notice to talk on the Battle of the Atlantic. As a political and economic historian, this was not his specialist subject, but it was not the only occasion on which he spoke at short notice, a mark of his ability as a historian. The committee considered Manners and Mores for the 2006-7 season, but settled for Riot, Rebellion and Revolution, with talks on the American and French Revolutions and the Tudor rebellion of Perkin Warbeck.

The branch marked the HA Centenary in 2006 with a dinner at the Hotel De La Bere, Southam, (now the Ellenborough Park). This was recorded in the annual report as “an excellent event in suitably historic surroundings”. The then HA President the late Professor Barry Coward spoke on Oliver Cromwell to a gathering of members and guests including long-standing members and branch officers past and present, including Mary Bowen, Margaret Tweedy, John Howe, and Evelyn Christmas. Familiar concerns continued to occupy the committee, including how to encourage teachers to join the HA and how to attract younger members, as well as publicity on local radio and plans for the branch website. The 2007-8 season took the theme of slavery, workers and labour relations, but in November 2007 the committee felt that themes could serve as a straitjacket and noted the need to consider the balance of topics and not neglect local history. After the 2008 AGM, Professor Neil Wynn gave his talk on the experience of black US soldiers in the UK in the Second World War; as noted above, a previous branch committee in 1943-44 had discussed how the branch might support the education of US soldiers then billeted in Cheltenham. Professor Wynn used film clips to illustrate his talk; as also noted above, not the first occasion on which film had been used at a branch meeting. The Secretary's 2007-8 annual report mentioned the need to increase the profile of the HA amongst the local history community, many of whom were ignorant of the HA's existence. The committee discussed in October 2010 the role of the HA in setting family and local history in its wider context, an aspect which John Howe was always keen to emphasise.

A Presidential dinner with then HA President Professor Anne Curry at the Robert Raikes House in Gloucester in October 2009 was a very happy occasion; the Fellowship of the HA was presented to Evelyn Christmas for services to the cause of history over many years, including the campaign to keep open the Oxstalls site of the University of Gloucestershire. Professor Curry spoke on the future Henry IV as Prince of Wales; she is one of several speakers who have given several talks to the branch, including in 2015 as well as the earlier occasions noted above in 1998 and 2003. Suggestions for developing other Branch social activities also included a cheese and wine party with members speaking on their research interests, although this did not come to fruition.

As part of the HA’s aim of seeking to reflect and cover all aspects of history and, working with the University of Gloucestershire, the branch has sought to recognize and mark Black History Month and Womens History Month. In 2011 it marked Black History Month in October with a talk by Professor Elizabeth Anionwu on Mary Seacole. The Mayor of Gloucester hosted the October 2013 talk by committee member Nicholas Watkis on Nathaniel Wells, High Sheriff of Monmouthshire and the first black officer in the British Army. The branch also continued to mark anniversaries and reflect current world events and political developments. December 2011 and March 2012 talks had an Olympic theme, namely the Cotswold Olympicks of Robert Dover and Hitler and the Berlin Olympics respectively. In April 2011 Tony Heathcote spoke on Afghanistan and the Great Game, his mention of exit strategy sounding very contemporary, and in 2014 Dr Rodney Atwood considered the British Army in Afghanistan in 1880. Before the Scottish independence referendum in 2014 Dr Clare Jackson examined the 1707 Act of Union. In January 2014 local history was again set in its wider context, looking at the 30 Gloucester Rugby Club players who were killed in the First World War. The 800 th anniversary of Magna Carta in 2015 was marked with talks in April 2015 by Professor Nigel Saul and in February 2016 by Professor David Carpenter, reflecting the importance of Magna Carta in influencing the drafting of the US Constitution and of the European Convention on Human Rights. More recently the branch programme has also included talks on LGBTQ+ history, marking LGBTQ+ History Month, thereby reflecting changing social attitudes.

A different type of presentation as a variation from the traditional talk has been tried on a couple of occasions; in February 2010 John Howe and Dr Charles More discussed the Conservative party between the war, whilst in March 2013 branch committee member Dr Iain Robertson and Dr Carl Griffin discussed 19 th Century labour unrest.

Evelyn Christmas did not seek re-election to the committee in 2010 after many years of service as successively Secretary, Treasurer and Chairman. The September 2012 AGM agreed to change the name of the branch to Historical Association Gloucestershire Branch. In the following year John Howe had to stand down as Treasurer due to ill health after 29 years’ service; at the 2014 Branch Christmas dinner he was presented with both Honorary and Jubilee Fellowships of the HA.

Branch programmes continued to cover a wide range of topics, chronologically, geographically and thematically, but there were concerns at the February 2013 committee meeting that the subjects did not always appeal to the general public. In the 2015-16 season subjects ranged from the history of pantomime to the mosaics of Ravenna. Talks also reflected links between disciplines, a case in point being a well-attended joint meeting with the regional branch of the Royal Geographical Society in May 2017 on the importance of maps in the post-World War I peace treaties.

The Covid pandemic and the national lockdowns in 2020-1 brought an abrupt halt to face to face meetings but, with the support from national HQ and the work of members of the branch committee the branch, like many other voluntary and professional bodies, started holding virtual meetings using Zoom. The September 2020 AGM was the first of these meetings and was followed by a talk on the Victoria County History of Gloucestershire by the late Dr James Hodsdon, who was chairman of the Gloucestershire VCH Trust. More recently, in 2021 and 2022 the branch has resumed meetings in person and started hybrid meetings, which have attracted a wider audience from across Gloucestershire and further afield, including on occasions from overseas. Holding meetings in this format has also enabled the branch to invite speakers who would not be able to come to Cheltenham or Gloucester in person.

No history of the branch would be complete without paying tribute to those officers and committee members who served the Branch for many years, including Roger Whiting, Mary Bowen, Phyllis Hembry, Evelyn Christmas, John Howe, Derek Watson, Stephen Gibbons, Richard Slessor and Margaret Tweedy. The records reflect the continuity and length of service of branch officers through changing educational and social contexts over the years.

Robert Sutton
Branch Secretary, Gloucestershire Branch 1998 – present.
August 2023