Saturday, 21 December 2013

Carmela Semeraro (1949-2013)

Carmela Semeraro, Bedfordshire’s leading oral historian and the Oral History Society regional network representative for East England, died of cancer, aged 64, on 18 November 2013. Born on 30 August 1949 in Puglia, the area at the south-eastern tip of Italy, she moved to England at the end of the 1960s, married an Englishman, and set about educating herself. After an Access course at Bedford College, she gained a History & English Literature BA degree at De Montfort University, Bedford (now the University of Bedfordshire), while raising her family, and followed this with an MA in Women’s History at Royal Holloway College, University of London. She taught adult education Italian evening classes throughout her life.

Her interest in and support of elderly, first-generation Italian immigrants in Bedford led to her conducting a reminiscence project (1994-99) with them and her first oral history recordings. This material was later translated and edited by her to be published as a bi-lingual account (Italian/English), called Hidden Voices: Voci Nascoste: Memories of First Generation Italians in Bedford (Bedford Community Arts, 1999). This popular, well-illustrated history was underpinned by her academic research which resulted in her MA dissertation, Immigrants from Southern Italy to Bedford in the 1950s: A Gender Study of Continuity and Change from an Agrarian to an Industrial Society (1996). In 2003, she was awarded Bedford Borough Mayor’s Award, Citizen of the Year for Community Service, for her work with the Club Prima Generazione Italiani, which she set up in 1997 and led for some 16 years (until 2013).

Although having lived almost all her adult life in Bedfordshire, her Italian accent marked her off, potentially, to some native English people, as something of an ‘outsider’, despite her deep understanding of English ways. However, this was more than compensated for by her warm personality and she made friends wherever she went. When she later conducted hundreds of life-history interviews she soon overcame any suspicions and interviewees quickly relaxed, talking freely about their personal experiences.

Over the years she interviewed an enormously wide range of people from all levels of society and diverse occupations. From January 2001 to July 2005 she completed over 270 interviews with men and women who had lived or worked in the Marston Vale area of mid-Bedfordshire, for a Heritage Lottery- funded [HLF] project entitled “Changing Landscapes, Changing Lives”. From March 2008 to March 2010 she interviewed scores of Leighton Buzzard residents who had worked in the local sand industry in a project entitled “Sands of Time” for the Greensand Trust, again, an HLF-funded piece of research. In recent years Carmela has been Community Historian for The Higgins Museum, Bedford, recording over 100 interviews with members of the public across the diverse, multi-ethnic and multi-cultural local population, as part of an HLF-funded outreach programme between September 2008 and October 2013. Audio interview extracts now enrich the recently-created local history displays at The Higgins.

Carmela leaves behind a son, Paolo and a daughter, Angela (and an infant grandson, Romeo) and countless numbers of people who benefited from her friendship, kindness and inspiration. For historians of Bedfordshire she has left behind a very large body of recorded, transcribed and summarised personal narratives into which we and future generations will be able to tap for insights into life in Bedfordshire throughout the twentieth and early twenty-first century.

Written by Stuart Antrobus, who was both a friend and a colleague and summarised almost all the interviews conducted by Carmela. These interviews are accessible at Bedford Central Library and/or at Bedfordshire and Luton Archives and Records Service (BLARS), Bedford. See also the taster online sites, for “Changing Landscapes, Changing Lives” and “Sands of Time.

James Dyer

Dr James Dyer, who died in October 2013, was a teacher, archaeologist, historian, author, life-long resident of Luton -  and BHRS member.  One of his fellow Lutonians writes of him:

"Dr James Dyer's contribution to the field of archaeology and local history has been suitably acknowledged at a national, as well as local, level.  His enthusiasm took root while he was still a student at Luton Grammar School.  James knew what he wanted to do with his life and he had the initiative to find ways to fulfil these aims.
Taking a journey across Bedfordshire with James was interesting to say the least.  He would be saying:  `you see that building over there` or `you see that mound or that track between the trees`. All would have a story attached to them that James had studied.
James' enthusiasm was passed on to many of his students.  He spent his first month's salary as a teacher on buying books for his class and that same determination to help wherever he was able never left him.  There are so many stories to be told of times when James saw the potential in young people and helped them to climb the ladder to important and differing academic roles.
This generosity of spirit was one of his greatest gifts.  Working on a joint project could have its difficulties but the one which I undertook with him was altogether positive and I was pleased to be able to call him my friend."

He was a member of BHRS Council and I shall always remember one meeting when he went straight to the heart of an issue, that had been under discussion for some time, and instantly changed its course, for the better.  I only knew him for a few years but that included a long correspondence on the effect of the terrain around Luton, which is filed safely away for future re-visiting. He was as generous with his knowledge to me as to long-term friends.

Thursday, 31 October 2013

Statues in Bedford

How often does a visitor to a town wonder who 'that statue over there' is, or a resident ask 'what statue?',  having walked passed it everyday?  These questions are answered for visitors and residents of Bedford in a new guide Bedford town centre statues: a self-guided walk with street map, by BHRS-member Stuart Antrobus.

The guide features ten statues and a door with relief panels, sculpted over two and a half centuries (1768-2009), of well-known individual Bedfordians and groups who have contributed to the town and county: the First World War memorial; the South African (Boer) War memorial; John Howard; Sir William Harpur; Glenn Miller; the Meeting Group; Verso Domani;  Trevor Huddleston; Reflections of Bedford; the Bunyan Meeting bronze chapel doors; and John Bunyan. 
World War 1 memorial

Information about each statue is displayed over a double page with a photograph on one side and text on the other, describing the statue, what it commemorates, who the sculptor was and the circumstances in which the statue was put up.  Just one page of A5 text contains a fascinating amount of information and often highlights features that it would be easy to overlook, for example the art nouveau decoration on the base of the statue of John Howard.

This guide is carefully researched, beautifully illustrated and well-laid out.   It is both handy for the visitor and of lasting value to residents and those interested in the history of the town.

The booklet costs £5 and is on sale in Bedford at the Tourist Information Centre, the The  Higgins Bedford gallery and museum and the John Bunyan Museum shop.  Proceeds go to the British Schools Museum in Hitchin and can also be purchased from the museum by sending a cheque for £5.60 payable to Hitchin British Schools Trust and posted (with own address, marking the envelope 'Statues booklet') to Admin, British Schools Museum, 41/42 Queen Street, Hitchin, Hertfordshire, SG4 9TS.


Wednesday, 26 June 2013

Mark Rutherford exhibition

Continuing the Mark Rutherford theme, an exhibition at Honeywood Museum, Carshalton Surrey will be held from Wednesday 12 June to Sunday 28 July 2013. William Hale White made Carshalton his home, living at one time in the house which is now the museum. The exhibition shows how he kept his books secret from his family; and why he insisted on nine-inch thick brick walls to divide the rooms in his house. He lived a number of parallel lives but still, at 55, found time to learn to ride a boneshaker bicycle! The exhibition also gives insights into the Victorian Carshalton that he knew for almost 30 years. 
The Friends of Honeywood Museum are mounting two events during the exhibition: 
- on Friday 12 July at 7.30pm Mark Crees will give a selection of readings  - Mark Rutherford's People;
- and on Saturday 13 July at 2.30pm there will be a guided walk to places in Carshalton associated with William Hale White.  
(Tickets for both events are £3.50 (£3.00 Friends); bookings 020 8770 4297). 
Based on a contribution by Nick Wilde

Mark Rutherford (William Hale White) anniversary

Mark Rutherford, born William Hale White in Bedford in 1831, had his life celebrated on Saturday 22 June 2013 at a symposium commemorating the 100th anniversary of his death on 14 March 1913. The Symposium, organised by the Mark Rutherford Society and held at Dr Williams’s Library in London was opened by his great-grandson, John Hale-White (below) and chaired by Professor of English Literature at the University of Bedfordshire, Bob Owens.

William Hale White is generally regarded as the most important novelist of the nineteenth century to have emerged from a Nonconformist background and to have taken Nonconformist life and experience as his main subject.  He is undeservedly neglected and the Society’s aim is to redress this.  His portrait (above, left) is by Arthur Hughes, drawn in 1887.
He is best known for six novels written under the name Mark Rutherford, published between 1881 and 1896: 
The Autobiography of Mark Rutherford (1881); 
Mark Rutherford’s Deliverance (1885);
The Revolution in Tanner’s Lane (1887); 
Miriam’s Schooling (1890); 
Catherine Furze (1893); and 
Clara Hopgood (1896).
The ‘Mark Rutherford’ novels share a power and style which are distinctive in the literary history of their time. George Orwell described Mark Rutherford’s Deliverance as ‘one of the best novels written in English’. D. H. Lawrence wrote, ‘I have always had a great respect for Mark Rutherford . . . so thorough, so sound, and so beautiful’. Arnold Bennett regarded him as ‘a novelist whom one can deeply admire’. Claire Tomalin wrote that White’s novels ‘draw directly on a private store of memories and emotions, and you sense quite strongly that he took up a mask in order to be nakedly confessional in a way he could not otherwise have managed’.
Professor Owens opened the Symposium briefly summarising Mark Rutherford’s life and importance.  Roger Pooley, Professor of English Literature at Keele University followed with an assessment of Nonconformist culture and politics in The Revolution in Tanner’s Lane. The panel closed with Professor Valentine Cunningham of Oxford University on ‘Mark Rutherford and the Plight of the Dissenting Aesthete’.
After a lunch break in which academics and enthusiasts alike discussed Mark Rutherford over a buffet lunch, some early researchers were remembered.  Nicholas Jacobs looked at the contribution of young German researcher Hans Klinke who wrote his thesis in the late 1920s as well as noting that there were translations of Rutherford's books in French, Italian and Czech as well as Japanese. Nick Wilde read a letter from 95-year-old American Wilfred Stone recalling his work on Rutherford in the 1950s and Mike Brealey (author of Bedford's Victorian pilgrim: William Hale White in context,  Paternoster Press, 2012) told us about an early British pioneer of Hale studies, Henry Arthur Smith, whose thesis appeared in 1938. The afternoon concluded with Jean-Michel Yvard, from the University of Angiers in France, who discussed whether Mark Rutherford was an agnostic or a believer and Max Saunders, Professor of English at Kings College, London (author of Self Impression: Life-Writing, Autobiografiction, and the Forms of Modern Literature, OUP, 2010), spoke about the nature of fictional autobiography.
The day finished with an entertaining monologue by Mark Crees, Chair of the Mark Rutherford Society, imagining himself at Mark Rutherford’s grave in Groombridge, Kent.
Report contributed by Nick Wilde
PS Mark Rutherford's descriptions of nonconformists in mid-nineteenth century Bedford is drawn upon by the author of BHRS's 2013 volume The Rise of Methodism: a study of Bedfordshire 1736-1751, to be published in 2014.

Monday, 17 June 2013

Bedfordshire Local History Association Summer Meeting 2013

Forty-six local historians from twelve local history societies around the county assembled at Maulden Village Hall on Saturday 15 June 2013 for the Association’s AGM and a day of lectures and a visit on the topic of “Bedfordshire Railways”.
David Thomas gave a very interesting illustrated talk focussing on the Bedfordshire branch of the Oxford to Cambridge Line.  This began in the county with the London & North Western Railway line’s first stretch being built here from Bedford to Bletchley (still in operation) in 1846.  In 1851 the Bletchley to Oxford extension was built, and finally, in 1861-2, the Bedford to Cambridge extension.  The Oxbridge line’s main stations in Bedfordshire were at Ridgmont, Lidlington, Marston, Bedford, Blunham, Sandy and Potton with additional small halts, bringing the number of stops to 15 within the county.
Because of the importance of the universities at Oxford and Cambridge, this cross-country line was sometimes known as the “Varsity Line” and its trains “brain trains”.  It had connections with six main lines heading north, west and east from London and therefore gave great flexibility to passengers from Bedfordshire who could travel around the country, by changing at points on the line to other railway companies’ services, without having to go into London first (as is the case today!).
Unfortunately, following Dr Beeching’s rationalisation and drastic reduction in the railway system from 1967 onwards, the Bedford to Cambridge line was closed, with the Bedford to Cambridge lines lifted, leaving only a service from Bedford to Bletchley, meeting up with the London Midland Region main lines from London to the Midlands and the North West.
David Thomas then traced the more recent developments, including the closure of the old St John’s Station in Bedford, with the line being diverted to Bedford Midland Station in 1984 (with a later, new, halt at Bedford St John) and the overall modernisation of signalling and level crossings along the Bedford Bletchley line in 2004.  Earlier, in 1961, Marston saw the installation of the second-only automatic continental level crossing barriers in the country.  Warning signs, unusually, were in both English and Italian, as there were so many Italian-speaking workers at the local brick works!  Recently, it has been confirmed that there are firm plans to reinstate the Bedford to Oxford railway service in the near future.
The second speaker in the morning was Nigel Lutt from the county record office (BLARS) who gave a very informative illustrated talk outlining just some of the many archive sources for material on railway history in Bedfordshire, not all of them in documents where you would expect to find them.
Attendees to the conference were then treated to a very tasty hot lunch, after which they were able to view the range of interesting displays in the hall relating to railway topics, with displays from the ADALHS regarding temporary railways in Maulden Woods (operated by the Canadian Foresters during WWI), Warren Wood and Wrest Park.  Fergus Milne brought along examples of his railway art and there was an extensive display from BLARS.
For the afternoon session, members moved by cars to Millbrook where David Thomas, who lives in the Station House there, showed his collection of railway memorabilia.
Although less ambitious in its scope and number of speakers than in previous years (& consequently less well attended than, say, 2012, when there were 91 attendees from some 20 Beds societies) the BLHA committee is to be congratulated on putting it on and thanks given to the new Millbrook History Society for organising it.  The annual event is an almost unique opportunity for local historians to get together and catch up with each other’s researches, activities and publications.  BLHA’s own umbrella website is an excellent, one-stop source of contacts for all the many local history societies in Bedfordshire, with links to their websites and, in many cases therefore, to their programme of talks and visits.
BLHA is looking urgently for volunteer societies from its membership to take on responsibility for arranging a conference for 2014 (and also for 2015).  Societies which have not yet taken this on, perhaps finding the thought rather daunting, can receive much help from those other societies which have organised conferences in previous years.  
To discuss conference possibilities for future years, contact Clive Makin, BLHA Secretary, at 01582 655785 or via email  :
For information on Bedfordshire railway history, see F.G. Cockman The Railway Age in Bedfordshire (Revised edition 1994)
Written by Stuart Antrobus

Friday, 22 February 2013

Barry Stephenson, local studies librarian, retires

Barry Stephenson, a former BHRS Council member, and Local Studies Librarian at Bedford Central Library for over 25 years, retired on 16 August 2012 after working for 50 years for Bedfordshire Libraries.

Bedford born and bred, he started at as a trainee librarian with Bedfordshire County Council  on 10 September 1962, working at the old County Library, the former Town and County Club building on the Embankment in Bedford (now the site of the Swan Hotel car park entrance).  He was then sent on a two year course at Loughborough to gain his professional librarianship qualification before embarking on a career which took him to several posts and locations in the county.  The first professional post was at the old Dunstable Library in 1966 as Readers' Advisor, but within 12 months there was a move to the new, present Dunstable Library. 

In 1970 he moved to the County Library in the Riverside Building at County Hall [now Borough Hall] as Assistant Reference Librarian and he became Local Studies Librarian in 1974. He had meanwhile become one of the first part-time students of the new Open University and had gained his BA in History in four years.
When the County Hall Library closed in 1986 he moved to Bedford Central Library and served there until his retirement, albeit becoming part-time from 2008 when he reached pensionable age.

His proudest moment was in May 2000 when the Bedfordshire Heritage Library was opened within Bedford Central Library which allowed much historical material, previously in closed access, to become available to the public. 

One of Barry’s greatest achievements was in the creation, over three decades, of the extensive newspaper cuttings collection which has enabled countless thousands of readers to answer their queries regarding local history. When the Virtual Library came along he was able to enormously extend access to enquirers from around the world. Over many years he created online chronologies for Bedfordshire’s villages and towns, based on the incomparable collection of local histories he had helped to build up in the Local Studies section of Bedford Central Library.

A quiet and unassuming man, he is known for the diligence with which he answered the many postal (and, later, online) enquiries from around the country and abroad, as well as the face-to-face assistance to both local and family history researchers, and to international scholars who came to consult the famous Bunyan Collection. As a native Bedfordian, he loved researching Bedfordshire’s past.

Outside work, his abiding passion has been for Bedford Town Football Club which he has supported all his life. He served as Secretary from 1989-2002 and from 2002 as Company Secretary, a post he still holds. He writes a Memory Lane page for all ‘home’ programmes, so still visits his former library to do his research in local newspapers.  His other interests are gardening and attending tea dances.

Contributed by Stuart.