Thursday, 27 September 2012

Patricia Bell

  Patricia Bell, formerly Bedfordshire Archivist, general editor of Bedfordshire Historical Record Society and patron of Bedfordshire Family History Society, died on 12 September in Bedford.  Her death has shocked friends and acquaintances - she was a huge influence on many people in the worlds of archives, historical research and Bedfordshire history.  Her obituary by Richard Wildman was in the Guardian on 24 September.

Thursday, 2 August 2012

September 2012 Heritage Open Days

The Heritage Open Days' website lists seventeen places in Bedfordshire that will be open on various dates from 7 to 10 September.  For some sites these days are in addition to normal opening; for most sites tours or events have been organised by local societies. 

This would be a good opportunity -
  • to see some local churches, including St Andrew's Church Biggleswade
  • to see Keeper's Cottage  and Queen Anne's Summerhouse both on the Shuttleworth Estate at Old Warden, opened by the Landmark Trust
  • to explore Bedford with local experts on guided walks,
  • to visit the library of John Bunyan's Museum in Bedford which is normally only open to researchers,

and, for garden historians and enthusiasts, to visit Luton Hoo's Walled Garden laid out originally by Capability Brown.
 (photo from CPRE website, c Barry Halton)

Before visiting, check the Heritage Open Days' site for the full list and opening times (not all places are open each day).

Thursday, 26 July 2012

Thurleigh Airfield Museum

Bedford is fortunate in having two excellent private airfield museums dedicated to curating and displaying material from the Second World War. Sections of the American 8th Air Force were based in north Bedfordshire (& elsewhere in East Anglia), engaged in aerial bombardment of occupied Europe as part of the Allied offensive.   Both Museums are just off the A6 road from Bedford to Rushden.  

Twinwood Airfield is well known for its Glen Miller Museum, original airfield control tour and a range of WWII airfield buildings and wartime displays.  Slightly less well known, but well worth a visit, is the 306th Bombardment Group Museum at Thurleigh Airfield (now a Business Park), sited in an original wartime building donated by Dr Jonathan Palmer, of Bedford Autodrome, and opened on 27 July 2002.

Thurleigh is the creation of its curators, retired locals Ralph and Daphne Franklin, who have built it up over the last 10 years to what is now a superb collection of material (much of it donated by veteran US servicemen and their families), both military and social.  Not only does it evoke the experiences of the American servicemen who served there from 1942 to 1945, but also has excellent displays on Home Front life: a 1940s kitchen, a local pub, wartime GI-bride weddings, and the ‘land girls’ of the Women’s Land Army.

On Sunday 8th July I joined scores of others who gathered, despite the occasional rain, to celebrate the museum’s 10th anniversary and to witness the re-dedication of the memorial to the 306th Bombardment Group who served here during the Second World War, and many of whom lost their lives in the daylight raids on Germany.  Wartime vehicles, re-enactors and the superb Mainline Big Band turned up to help recreate the wartime atmosphere with Glen Miller music and dancing in the adjacent marquee.

Dr Vernon Williams, a history professor at Abilene Christian University in Texas, attended the event to represent the 306 Bomb Group Association which is still active in the USA.  He is webmaster of their online site and editor of the newsletter Echoes.  Vernon is quite well-known in north Bedfordshire as well as in Cambridgeshire and elsewhere in England as the director of a major oral-history project entitled the East Anglia Air War Project.  Beginning in 2003, he has conducted countless interviews with US veterans, both flight and ground crew, who served here during the war, and also those English people who came in contact with them during those years.  His aim has been to explore not only the operation of the air war – he is a military historian – but also the nature of the relationships developed between the host population and their American ‘cousins’.  He visits the East of England twice a year to conduct his research.  He is currently working on writing a number of books based on his extensive research. I, for one, am looking forward to his book on the Anglo-American relationships forged locally during wartime. (He interviewed some of ‘my land girls’ and extracts from their video interviews have appeared in some of his historical documentary films, for example, the DVD Thurleigh at War).

Barbara and Charles Neal also attended, representing the UK's 306th Bombardment Group Association.  Barbara is the secretary of the organisation and Charles heads the Second Generation efforts within the 306th BGA.  The two of them laid wreaths during the Memorial ceremony.
Small specialist museums such as these carry out a useful role in complementing the work of the major museums by introducing members of the public, some of whom are possibly intimidated by the larger ones, to topics and periods in our history which deserve our attention.
Both Twinwood Airfield (open Sundays only) and Thurleigh Airfield museums (Saturday & Sundays) are open each weekend during the main ‘tourist’ season.  For further information about hours and events see Twinwood's and BGA's websites.

Stuart Antrobus

Sunday, 17 June 2012

BHRS's centenary

One hundred years ago in November 1912 BHRS was founded by Dr Fowler and others to research and publish Bedfordshire's rich history.  Except for the years of the two world wars, the society has published a volume every year covering all manner of subjects and periods from Domesday to WWII.

The first event to mark the Society's centenary took place last week with a garden party at the home of the Society's President, Sir Sam Whitbread.  In a period of unpredictable weather - storms, gales and unseasonably low temperatures - the sun shone on the afternoon.  About 100 Society members and their friends attended.  We renewed friendships, chatted, took tea on the lawn and listened to a jazz group which included our secretary, Richard Smart. 

The speeches - only two - emphasised the immense amount of research and publishing that the Society has undertaken and the prospects for future work.  They also highlighted the close relationship between the Society and the Bedfordshire and Luton Archives and Records Service (BLARS).  In 1913, the year following the establishment of BHRS, Dr Fowler set up the county record office- the first in the country - and was its first archivist.  Succeeding county archivists and their staff have contributed to, and been general editors of, the Society's volumes.   Today the relationship is as strong as ever.

Other events to mark the centenary will include the display in venues around the county of joint posters with BLARS; the completion of cataloguing Dr Fowler's library in its new venue (the University of Northampton Library); and a stimulating lecture following the AGM at Stockwood Park in Luton in September.

Bedfordshire Local History Association Conference: 9 June 2012

The annual get-together of Bedfordshire local historians took place on Saturday 9 June under the auspices of the umbrella organisation for local history societies in the county, Bedfordshire Local History Association.  It was hosted this year by Ampthill &District Archaeological and Local History Society and held in the Learning Zone at Poplars Garden Centre, Toddington. Over 90 people attended, representing some 20 local history organisations, as well as individuals.
They were treated to a diverse range of talks on topics including the fire at Wrest Park in 1916, “The Lost Hamlet of Wadelow”, “Art Deco Buildings in Luton” and the medieval wall paintingsat Chalgrave Church.  Martin Deacon brought us up-to-date with what Bedfordshire Archives has to offer and on the Centenary celebrations planned for 2013 by what was the first County Record Office in the country, established in 1913 by Dr.George Herbert Fowler, its first archivist.
Ruins of Houghton House near Ampthill, built in 1621
For me, the highlight was the illustrated talk on “Lost Houses of Bedfordshire” by leading Bedfordshire historian, Simon Houfe.  Not only did he show us pictures of some of these houses and tell us about the families who built them but analysed the various reasons which led to their demise.  In 1765 there were 60 substantial country houses in Bedfordshire; by the 1960s there were only 6 which had been built in the 18th century.  Reasons why they failed to survive ranged from decline in the income from the land around them on which they mainly relied, the vagaries of inheritance whereby they sometimes ended up in the hands of someone who preferred living elsewhere in the country, to the tremendous impact of the Great War of 1914-18 which led to the death of sons and heirs.  It was usually a case of the survival of the fittest. Death duties were the final blow to many.
Eggington House photographed about 1900
BLHA President, Martin Lawrence, summed up the conference and reminded us of various significant anniversaries being celebrated this year, especially the centenary of the setting up of our own Bedfordshire Historical Record Society, in 1912, again by Dr Fowler and others.
The annual BHLA conferences are always worth attending for the opportunity to meet like-minded local historians from around the county, most of whom one only sees once a year at this event.  It also reminds us of the great interest there is in the county in its history and of the contribution which local history societies can make in researching, publishing and enthusing to others about their unique locality.
This year, in addition to the presentations, it was worth attending, if for nothing else – and the food was very good! – for the opportunity, as a group, to visit Chalgrave Church [Grade 1 listed building, built c1300] and view the outstanding medieval wall paintings it contains which make this a real gem in the county.

Stuart Antrobus
Bedford Architectural, Archaeological and Local History Society.

Monday, 2 January 2012

Bedfordshire Seventeenth Century Tokens

Thanks to Gary Oddie who has sent this information about his new book on seventeenth century tokens in Bedfordshire:

"The upheavals of the seventeenth century had many consequences for the everyday activities of the people of Britain. A shortage of small change resulted in many shopkeepers and tradespeople issuing their own tokens between 1648 and 1672. These provide a tangible record of a group of people who otherwise do not appear in the history books. One hundred such issues can be attributed to the county of Bedfordshire. This new book lists not only many unrecorded varieties but also opens a window on the lives and day to day activities of the token issuers themselves. Extensive use of contemporary records sheds light on the trades, wealth, beliefs and final wishes of the token issuers. The catalogue illustrates every known variety of token twice life-size. The photographs, along with an analysis of some of the design features of the tokens, allow comparison with the issues of other counties. An essential record for students of Bedfordshire seventeenth century tokens and the token series more generally. Of interest to all those studying local, social and family histories of this period."

Bedfordshire Seventeenth Century Tokens, John Gaunt, edited and expanded by Gary Oddie.
Published by Galata, Llanfyllin (Powys), 2011. Quarto, pp. 154, colour illustrations throughout, tables, card covers. Limited print run. £35 + p+p.

New Year honour for local historian

Congratulations to Mrs Vivienne Evans, local historian, lecturer and writer and founder of Dunstable History and Heritage Studies, who has been awarded an MBE for services to the community in Dunstable in the 2012 New Year's Honours.