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A potted history of the Society on its first forty years

Peter Delaney

9 November 2021


Wargrave Local History Society - founded in 1981 proclaim the Society's banners. To mark the 40th anniversary, the November meeting took a look back over that time span, starting with what the village was like 40 years ago. In many ways it was as it is now, most of the housing developments that saw the village grow having already occurred, one new feature being the provision of traffic lights at the crossroads in the village centre. The businesses in the village, however, were somewhat different. The High Street included the pharmacy, a gift shop, an antique shop, an estate agent, a butcher, and a garage, whilst elsewhere in the village were a builder's yard, another garage, and a firm making specialist chemicals for the electronics industry - all since gone. To help bring all parts of the village community together, the Wargrave Village Festival had been started in 1975, whilst the Wargrave News was founded in 1978. So, how did the Wargrave Local History Society come into being at this time? Derek Bird, of a long-established village family, was interested in Wargrave's history, writing about it in the October 1975 Parish News, ending by saying that if anyone had old photographs, diaries etc, "they will be of interest if a Local History Group is formed". That was the first formal suggestion for such a group - but Derek's idea fell on 'deaf ears' at that time. The next specific mention of 'local history' was in the 1981 Village Festival programme, when Derek's collection formed the basis of an "Old Wargrave Exhibition" held in the Hannen Room. It generated a lot of interest, so a meeting was arranged for November 12th 1981, to consider a "Wargrave Historical Society". The meeting was a success, with the room only just able to accommodate everyone who wished to attend - the Wargrave Local History Society was born, with Derek Bird as its first Chairman. Lord Remnant kindly agreed to become the Society's President (which office he continues to hold). A programme of talks was arranged, the first having various long-time village residents, including Cyril Sansom and Clifford Maidment, sharing their memories of Wargrave in 'time past'. The next few months had John Ratings talking on "The eccentricities of the vicars of Wargrave", followed by Buddy Rose and Mick Pope on Scouting in Wargrave, and then Derek Bird recounted the story of the church fire and its rebuilding. The society also looked at the wider area, so the following meeting heard Michael Fulford, of Reading University, talk about the archaeological excavations at the Roman site at Silchester. This led to the first of another regular feature in the society programme, a visit to a place of 'local history interest', a trip to see the "dig" taking place at Silchester. The basic pattern for the society's meetings had been set. 1983 was the first Village Festival since the society's formation, and various ideas were considered on how the society could be involved. A further "Old Wargrave Exhibition" was staged, but this time on a larger scale using the Woodclyffe Hall for the Friday, Saturday and Sunday. On both the Friday and the Saturday this was followed by a 'Tour of the village' conducted by Derek, sharing his knowledge of people, places and events as participants walked around the village centre. The usual programme of meetings continued, and a similar involvement was planned for the next village festival, in 1985. However, a totally unexpected event happened in February of that year. Derek Bird died quite unexpectedly. He was just 38 years old. An obituary in the March issue of the Wargrave News noted that his research into village history "had taken several years of painstaking research", and continued "His interest was to be shared with others - he had been invited to talk to several groups in and out of the village. He had also written several pieces for the forthcoming historical book on Wargrave - and had taken many on historical walks around Wargrave. There were few questions that Derek could not answer on the village or its history. There are even fewer people who know as much about Wargrave as he did. He had a way of conveying that interest and expertise that gained the respect and appreciation of all those who knew him." The society AGM that month began with a 2 minutes silence. It also had to look forwards - and Lord Remnant proposed that the deputy chairman take over Derek's role. Planning continued for the Village Festival, with a 3 day "Wargrave Through Postcards" exhibition, again largely based on cards from Derek's collection. When the exhibition closed on the Saturday, a "Historical Walk" was to take place. "Meet outside the Woodclyffe Hall at 5pm, and come on a journey through Wargrave's past" said the programme. And they did! Some 70 people were waiting when the Alder Valley bus arrived. The look on the driver's face - there was no way they could all board his single decker! To his obvious surprise - or was it relief? - none of the people stood there got onto the bus. The "guide" managed to shunt the group into various 'safe spots' to hear about the village, sometimes splitting the group to talk to one half, then moving them on to talk to the second, but it was decided it would be unwise to do this again, so in future tickets were sold in advance, limited to 40 per group. Meanwhile, a dedicated team had been working on a project suggested at the inaugural meeting - to produce a book about Wargrave's history. The aim was to record both 'researched history' and the memories and reminiscences of villagers. The editorial team comprised Rosemary Gray, Sue Griffiths and Judith Stephenson, and the book was dedicated to Derek. The hope had been to publish The Book of Wargrave in time for Christmas 1985, but production problems at the Oxford University Printing House delayed it slightly. The reviews of the book were all very positive - the next week's Reading Chronicle already calling it a 'best seller', whilst the Henley Standard commented that "its true strength is that none the contributors is a professional historian or writer". "The book has been a real community project, written by villagers from all walks of life, all of whom had the common aim to capture the atmosphere of life in Wargrave over the years". It was a "best seller", as the initial 1000 copies were soon sold, so 500 more were printed. Another reprint followed - this time in softback format - in 1999, and even that has now sold out. The regular programme of meetings continued, with a local history visit each summer, and participation in the Village Festivals. The historic village walks continued to be popular (often selling out quickly), so the notes used by the guide were put into a small booklet format in 1991. That has been revised and updated over time, and continues to be available at a moderate cost. Following publication of The Book of Wargrave, further material became available, so a further book was published. Although under a different editor, it kept the format of a mixture of research into aspects of the village and further memories. The Second Book of Wargrave contained even more pages than the first, and the local media, including BBC local radio, again gave it good coverage. Paul Daniels opened that summer's Village Festival fete. Having done so, he made straight to the History Society stall, and then spent the afternoon at the fete, clutching the book he had bought in full view - the society could not have asked for a better advert!! One of the original suggestions for the society to undertake had been a Son et Lumiere, and that came to fruition as a Millennium event in September 1999. Held on Mill Green over several evenings, the society not only advised on village history, (the programme acknowledged "all those who contributed to the writing and production of the "Books of Wargrave" - they researched the Story of Wargrave which inspired this performance") they also mounted a display of pictures and documents in the refreshment tent, both before the performance and in the interval. The society acquired a lot more photographs - not least, the personal albums of Wargrave's benefactress Harriette Cooke-Smith, with images from the 1870s to the early 20th century. These enabled the publication of another book, with larger pictures, extended captions, and some short introductory notes to put the various topics into context. The Illustrated Book of Wargrave was published at the 2011 Village Festival and again proved popular. After 28 years, the society suddenly lost the use of the Hannen Room for its meetings. The Parish Council was in the process of converting the Old Pavilion at the Recreation Ground to a new meeting room, and the society became the first to make use of it, being welcomed to the September 2011 meeting by Dick Bush, the Parish Council Chairman. The facilities included a digital projector, a larger kitchen, and could seat 50 - as the society became more popular, even that was a tight squeeze at times. Another project, jointly with Wargrave Royal British Legion, was the creation of a memorial to the crew who died when an American 'Flying Fortress' bomber crashed here in November 1943. It was installed at Hennerton Golf Club, overlooking the accident site, and officially unveiled in November 2014 by the local MP, Theresa May, with the Military Attache from the US Embassy in attendance. At the 2015 village festival the society wanted to do 'something different'. Television programmes about antiques had become popular, and so local auctioneer and tv antiques expert Thomas Plant came to the Woodclyffe Hall to speak about the world of antiques and making the programmes. It was a sell-out event. Thomas returned for the 2017 festival, when audience members brought an 'antique' item for Thomas to describe and value, and then for the 2019 Festival he recounted "The Magic of the Auction". Even the softback reprint of The Book of Wargrave had now virtually sold out. The market for books had changed in the meantime, but there was a need for a publication to tell (especially) newcomers to the village about its history, so a well-illustrated booklet called A Brief History of Wargrave was launched at the 2019 Village Festival. This review has just touched on the major topics - other activities include publishing calendars, recording the churchyard inscriptions, exhibiting at local history fairs, being part of Wargrave's entry in the 2003 Calor village of the year competition, maintaining a local history website and establishing an archive of documents, photographs etc - currently about 3500 items. The anniversary was celebrated with wine and special birthday cakes made by Wendy Smith - one with candles, and the other bearing images of the Society's 3 hardback books. Little could those present in the Hannen Room 40 years ago have imagined the technology that would have enabled the society to continue with a programme of talks during the pandemic, but would maybe recognise that their intentions in founding the society have - and are being - fulfilled.

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