Essex Branch History

Branch History

By Shirley Durgan, published 5th May 2011

Essex Branch - Early Days

Essex Branch was founded in 1920 or earlier and was active continuously until 1936.  In 1920-1 the president was H. de Havilland of The Manor House, Great Horkesley, and the secretary Mr. E.T. Baldwin of Earls Colne Grammar School.  There were 56 branch members and 8 ‘life members from HQ'.  Four branch meetings were held.  The first was at Colchester, on ‘Puritanism in Essex', with illustrations almost entirely from Colchester and Dedham.  The other three were at the County Offices, Chelmsford, arranged through the County Director of Education.  Ald. F. Dent of Loughton dealt with the history of Essex ‘using 12" survey maps', C.H.K.Marten, Senior History Master, Eton College, spoke on India, ‘illustrated by some beautiful lantern slides', and Mr. George Jackson, member of Essex Education Committee and librarian of Barking Public Library, discussed the Early History of Elementary Education in England.

Membership increased in the late 1920s, peaking at 143 in 1927, with an average of 114 over the period.  Meetings were described as well attended, numbers present ranging from 30 to more than 50. The ‘addresses' were often illustrated by lantern slides, and tea was served afterwards.  Many topics were of special Essex interest or on educational matters.  In 1933 a joint meeting was held with Hertfordshire Branch at Hockerill Training College on ‘Two Queens: Catherine de Medici and Elizabeth of England'. There was an annual summer outing, for example in 1931 about 30 members went to St. Osyth's Priory and Church.  Attendance at the meetings in 1932-3 was reported as ‘fairly well maintained' but the AGMs in 1933 and 1934 were poorly attended.  In April 1934 there was ‘a very good attendance' at the talk on ‘The Psychological Approach to History Teaching', and as many as 50-60 went on the outing to Thaxted that summer.   In 1935 ‘a good number of members and friends turned up' for the summer outing.  However there were only 31 people at the meeting in March 1936 which was the last recorded in the surviving minute book.  There is no record of what happened immediately after this. 


Post-war Revival 1940s-80s

The branch was re-founded by F.G. Emmison, Essex County Archivist, some time in the 1940s. One of the Education Officers had asked why there was no HA Branch in the county, and Emmison responded by suggesting that the County could encourage one by providing free accommodation for meetings. Thus the branch was able to meet in County Hall, Chelmsford, free of charge, and other branches were very envious of this good fortune.

A.C. (Gus) Edwards, a teacher, later schools history adviser for Essex, and author of several books on Essex history, was chairman in the 1950s and 1960s.  The earlier pattern was replicated: a programme of lectures, and a summer outing.  Gus, as chairman, always professed hostility to committee meetings, minutes, and any sort of formality. The secretary, who was Ken Newton, county archivist, from the late 1960s or earlier, and the treasurer kept in touch with each other, but that was about all. Gus was not very keen on keeping in tune with HA Headquarters either, and the branch seemed to a later officer to operate as a 'Gus Edwards Supporters Club ... not altogether a bad thing, because of [Gus's] wide range of contacts and local historical knowledge'.  In 1967-8, for example, there was one meeting at Ingatestone Hall, when 79 people attended, as well as the usual meetings at County Hall.  In July 1968 the summer outing took members to Spaynes Hall at Great Yeldham, then to lunch at Sudbury, on to Abbotts Hall Museum of Rural Life at Stowmarket, back to Sudbury for tea, and finally to Middleton Church.  In the same year there was a second outing, in September, visiting Wolverstone Hall, Christchurch Museum in Ipswich, and Crowfield Church.  In December 1969 the county drama advisor and the Moot House Players presented ‘The Essex Hundreds: a series of words and music on Essex History'.

A keen member was Hilda Grieve, of the Essex Record Office and later deputy editor of the Victoria County History of Essex, author of The Great Tide, about the Essex floods of 1953, and of The Sleepers and the Shadows, a history of Chelmsford, as well as of an HA palaeography guide.  She enjoyed HA tours, as did Nancy Edwards nee Briggs, senior archivist at the Essex Record Office, who had joined in the 1950s.  Until her untimely death in 2009 Nancy was a very active member; serving as a committee member, and also chairman for part of this period and later.  She carried in her handbag her notes for a spare talk in case the speaker did not turn up. 

Robert Wood, county history advisory officer, succeeded Ken Newton as branch secretary in 1974, and was chairman 1983-9.  W.R. (Ray) Powell, editor of the Victoria County History of Essex, was secretary 1980-88, jointly until 1984 with Norma Knight, assistant editor of VCH Essex.  Ian Mason took on the role of programme secretary.  Committee meetings in those days started with a glass of sherry.  Members were encouraged to make full use of the facilities offered (publications, speakers' list, excursions, etc.) and the branch tried to involve more schools, which were encouraged to take up corporate membership, and school-teachers.  In 1980 an audience of about 700 heard A J P Taylor speak in the main hall at King Edward VI Grammar School.  One member recalled that AJPT ‘famously spoke without notes and held everyone spellbound'.  Christopher Hill spoke at a meeting at the School in 1982.  Janet Pearson, head of history at Chelmsford County High School, and Norman Jackson from the Chelmer Institute, played an important part in reaching out to students. Several sixth form conferences were held and a bursary offered for a sixth-form student to attend the national HA conference. In the 1980s and until he moved to Cumbria in 2001, varied lecture programmes were organised by Ian Mason, archive education officer in Essex Record Office.  This included an annual 'members' meeting' for short talks on various historical topics: often an opportunity for trying out a topic for a full-blown lecture, or a chance for less experienced speakers to 'have a go'. Some very worthwhile lectures owed their origin to such brief beginnings. There were also outings, for example, in 1985 to Bulmer Tile and Brick Co. and Castle Hedingham, and from 1984 to 1991 annual cheese and wine evenings with entertainment.  A Domesday Conference held in Chelmsford in 1986, organised by a sub-committee, was attended by about 170 people.

Meetings could continue at County Hall without charge, but some were held at Chelmsford United Reformed Church, and later at Guy Harlings, the Chelmsford Diocesan Centre.  There were good attendances in the 1980s, frequently more than 40 and sometimes over 50, with different age groups represented.


From the 1990s

Michael Bretherton, Frank Cooper and John Hunnable, with backgrounds in education, served stints as chairmen, as did Nancy Edwards again.  John Hunnable was mayor of Chelmsford 2003-4, and members much appreciated a mayoral reception he hosted for them at Hylands House.  Recent secretaries have included Jean Kemp, who served for over 10 years, and Debbie Cresswell from 2005.

However, Essex Branch, in common with many other branches, found that it was becoming much more difficult to attract teachers and students to meetings.  Branch activity was mainly the lecture programme and an outing, but in addition the Branch was usually represented at the biennial Essex History Fairs.  Attendances showed some decline, often numbering only in the 20s or even fewer, although some speakers did attract larger audiences with more visitors. For example, Bradley King from the Imperial War Museum spoke on ‘Film and Essex in World War I' to 52 people, and Prof Chris Wrigley addressed 42 on 'William Morris - Art and Politics'. The audience was increasingly composed of a greater proportion of associate members and fewer younger people.  Nevertheless in 2006 a most successful Celebration Day of lectures to commemorate the centenary of the Historical Association was organised by the branch at the Essex Record Office, in collaboration with the Essex Record Office and the Local and Regional History Centre at Essex University. It was attended by more than 80 people.

The branch had continued to benefit from meeting at County Hall without charge.  However, from 2001 with the increased security provisions following ‘9/11', the re-arrangement of the room, and the fact that eventually no branch member was associated with County Hall, the arrangement became less satisfactory.  In 2008 meetings were moved to The Link, a church hall of Trinity Methodist Church, Chelmsford, with the use of a kitchen, free parking and good facilities for the disabled, at a modest cost.  This enabled the branch to provide tea and biscuits again after the meeting, which had not been possible in the previous few years, and promoted a more relaxed and friendly atmosphere which members have appreciated.  The more welcoming atmosphere is attracting visitors and some new members, which helps to pay for the room hire. The speakers had always been entertained to lunch by a couple of committee members.  In recent years the invitation has been extended to any members to join in lunch (at own expense) with the speaker, now usually taken at the County Hotel which is conveniently opposite the Church

Besides the programme of visiting expert speakers, in 2009 six members contributed to a very successful and well attended themed Members' Meeting on The Second World War, followed by seasonal refreshments and a bring-and-buy history bookstall.  In 2010 an excellent lunch in memory of Nancy Edwards was enjoyed, provided by Trinity Methodist Church, followed by a lively talk by Ian Mason on ‘Using Original Historical Documents with Schoolchildren and ‘Children' of all ages.  This event was attended by 36 people.  Ian Mason was able to use the new data projector which the Branch had been delighted to buy with a grant from the Historical Association's Joan Lewin bequest.  In February 2011 an audience of 56, including 19 visitors, enjoyed a fascinating talk with excellent illustrations by the HA President, Prof. Anne Curry, on ‘Women and Work in the Middle Ages'.

In April 2011 the branch had 121 full members and 37 branch (formerly called associate) members.  An interesting and varied monthly programme of talks is presented on Saturday afternoons from October to May, making good use of the HA List of Speakers.  The branch now has its own website as well as space on the HA national website.   Websites will be an increasingly important means of publicity.  Visitors and prospective members are most welcome to come along and share a love of history at all levels.