The following reports of meetings in the 2015-16 season are available:
23 Sep 2015: "The Fall of the Berlin Wall" - Mrs Suzette Davis
On 9th November 1989, Mrs Suzette Davis, a TV journalist, headed up the N.B.C. News Bureau for news coverage in Central and Eastern Europe. 'Through good judgement and luck' her crew achieved the internationally recognised 'coup' of this historic night being the only 'live' broadcaster there. The unforgettable scenes of the dismantling of the symbolic Wall swept across world TV screens within hours: the history of Europe changed.
Her riveting account of the build up to this momentous occasion held the rapt attention of a full capacity audience: The year had been marked by staggering events in Poland, Libya, England and Tiananmen Square also on 9th November. In all Eastern Europe tensions and desperation were mounting, mass protests and demonstrations arising and the flight of
refugees reaching crisis point.
'Behind the scenes' diplomacy was crucial. In the rapport he achieved with Gorbachev, the German Foreign Minister, Dietrich Genscher, 'pushed' the concept of change and eventual glasnost. In East Berlin to stunned international journalists the Interior Minister announced that visas would no longer be required from 'Now'!
By 11.00pm, floods of people 'free' at last were 'gushing through check points' to the symbolic Wall and dismantling began. The scene captured by the camera crew swept across TV screens across the world. The rest is history.
To conclude the dynamic presentation the audience viewed that tape which recalled this historic occasion brought to life by Suzette Davis's vivid account. On a sober note however, she drew parallels with the current humanitarian crisis of the huge refugee problem in Europe, as yet unresolved. [Daphne Priestley]
28 Oct 2015: "Political Reflections" - The Rt Hon. The Lord Owen CH
A capacity audience were privileged to listen to an intensely interesting talk by Lord Owen recounting some of the outstanding events, issues, challenges and achievements, also the interplay of personalities in his long career in politics.
He came into politics almost by chance. He qualified in medicine and then specialised in neuropsychiatry and had started a promising career. This experience left a passionate commitment to health issues: mental health, child welfare and a lifelong vigorous championing of the N.H.S. He became an M.P. for Plymouth in 1966 and continued for 26 years.
At age 30 he became Junior Minister for Defence with responsibility for the Royal Navy, an incredibly exciting and challenging role for the young Plymouth M.P. Later, Harold Wilson assigned him the exceptionally fitting role of Minister of Health. His experience as a Doctor underpinned his passion for reform of the N.H.S. and has never diminished. His highest office came in Callaghan's premiership when at 38 he was appointed Foreign Secretary, the youngest ever. It was an immensely responsible, challenging and exciting time, travelling worldwide and facing many crises and when "Africa was aflame".
He vividly recalled the "key players" in the Labour Government, its internal politics and the increasing need for change in face of loss of public confidence. Disillusion and dissent led to the founding of the "Gang of Four" which he ultimately led. The S.D.P. won much public support but not in terms of Parliamentary seats. Personally, he was against an alliance with the Liberal Party.
An unexpected new role came later as E.U. negotiator in the protracted negotiations surrounding the complex, bitter and savage Balkans conflict. His account stressed the almost insurmountable difficulties in resolving historic deep divisions ethnic, religious and political. The importance and strains of diplomatic relations nevertheless had to seek a peaceful resolution through negotiation. A sound working relationship with the US negotiator Cyrus Vance was established. Once again, Dr Owen had achieved a successful pivotal role in international politics.
In the House of Lords, he continues to make vigorous contributions, championing issues such as health and the N.H.S. defence, medical matters and child welfare. He is a convinced European, arguing for a community of separate nation states, and opposes federalism. Ideally, he envisages a much smaller, reformed House of Lords, with its important revisionary remit. Members should be elected and have a fixed retirement age.
He holds national and international business roles and many voluntary commitments. His strong interest in neuropsychiatry and research continues in publishing papers. His writing covers not only medicine and politics, for example In Sickness and in Power and The Hubris Syndrome, but political history: A Different Perspective, autobiography and a range of topics, most recently The Health of the Nation – the NHS in Peril.
The audience were immensely impressed by the stimulating and enlightening talk by Lord Owen – a brilliant "elder statesman", whose experience, wit and wisdom made the evening so memorable, recounting an outstanding and unique contribution to political life since 1966. [Daphne Priestley]
25 Nov: "Lawrence of Arabia – an archaeological investigation" – Col Mike Relph, MBA, MA
Colonel Mike Relph’s most interesting talk on ‘Lawrence of Arabia: An archaeological investigation’ recounted the findings of the early stages of a 10 year project by University of Bristol teams of professional and volunteer archaeologists in southern Jordan to explore the remains from the conflict of the Arab Revolt over the area.
The Revolt in 1916 was a dramatic and seminal event when the Allies were doing badly in the Middle East. General Allenby deployed Lawrence to mobilize and lead Arab military resistance, win the support of the Royal family and the very divided Bedouins. There was some limited support from the British and French air forces.
Starting from Mecca, they later captured the Red Sea ports and targeted the vital Turkish supply link the Hiraz railway line. The strategy was to disable the rolling stock, the stations and forts were attacked but the line itself not destroyed; it was a highly effective ‘guerilla’ campaign. Lawrence proved himself a charismatic leader, brilliant tactician and succeeded in mobilizing and unifying the fearsome Bedouins into a crack force. The black and white film shot in 1916 interspersed with clips from the film ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ brought the account vividly to life.
Lawrence achieved an almost impossible mission to capture the Red Sea port of Aqaba. Starting out with 17 men they went overland across the worst desert terrain. They collected 700 Bedouin fighters and Lawrence decided to circle Aqaba and launch a rapid attack from the rear. The Turks expected an attack from the sea and the port was captured without firing a shot. This incredible military success, masterminded and led by Lawrence has become legendary in military history.
Lawrence won the great support, admiration and gratitude of the Arabs: the ruling Royal family and Bedouin communities believed they would be free of Turkish rule after centuries. Lawrence had provided the inspirational leadership to this end. He was able to present a very strong case in 1919 but was shattered at the outcome of the Treaty at the end of the War and the Sykes/Picot Agreement he believed to be treacherous in its outcome for the Arab cause. He never recovered from this devastating blow: even a changed identity could not expunge the haunting sense of betrayal by the British and Allied governments and his mental health problems ensued. Although almost a century later, the bitter legacy and aftermath of those decisions contribute much to the present complex and ever increasing tragic conflicts in the Middle East today.
The field work in the archaeological ‘digs’ is increasingly yielding evidence of the tent circles, spend ammunition , weapons and detritus of everyday military life of both Arab and Turkish forces; the latter having about 22,000 troops deployed. Deep in the sand are derailed trains, guns, shattered buildings remaining as stark reminders of that conflict in the infinite desert landscape. Col. Relph will be returning to continue with the project’s investigations marking the centenary next year. It was an excellent most informative talk on a subject with stark relevance for today.
27 Jan: "Aldbourne Stables – The Band of Brothers link" – Tim Green
Tim Green a professional carpenter and an enthusiast for World War 2 history became involved with the replacing of the old stables at Aldbourne used by the US 101st Airborne Division in training for the D Day invasions. Troops were quartered there.
Toccoa, a small US town in North Georgia, wanted to rescue the building to promote a heritage museum strengthening the British/American bond of WW2. Much effort was devoted to raising funds such that in 2004 skilled dismantling of the stables began and was meticulously flat-packed and stored at a nearby barn. “Detritus” of US troops was discovered: paratroopers’ long boots, a discarded letter to a member of the “Band of Brothers”’ a kit list, clothing, chocolate and coffee wrappers all to become Museum exhibits.
The daunting challenge of transportation was eventually resolved by the USAF providing a huge new C17 transport aircraft on its way back from Afghanistan stopping off at Brize Norton where the RAF fumigated the flat-packs and carefully loaded “the stables” to the US. A year later Tim and the ‘team’ arrived in Toccoa to the warmest welcome and generous assistance to reconstruct the building “on site” to be part of the old railway station conversion to a museum. In spite of the complex of challenges it was completed in two weeks.
In 2005 the grand opening complete with ‘Guard of Honour’, veterans from Aldbourne and Chilton Foliat and the British team including Tim, was a heart-warming event. An amazing number of photos and items were assembled for the museum’s exhibits. This memorable event marked the culmination of an amazing feat of reconstruction and a triumph for US and British ‘local’ enthusiasm for preserving a unique time in the ‘special relationship’ in WW2.
Littlecote House has its own small, but excellent, museum developed by the enthusiastic initiative of the ‘Kennet Valley at War Trust’ of which Tim is a member. It is open to the public. Many members of the warmly appreciative audience will want to visit Littlecote Museum after Tim Green’s splendid talk.
24 Feb: "Donnington Castle" – Dr David Peacock
Sir Richard Abberbury started building Donnington Castle from his former manor house in 1386 reflecting the 14th Century aspiration for the trappings associated with knighthood. The history of the Castle was influenced by the owner’s relationship with the monarch: determined by the ebb and flow of his fortune. Initially, the Black Prince with whom Abberbury had fought in France, but later Richard II, Anne of Bohemia to whom he became Chamberlain, later Henry VIII, Edward VI, Elizabeth and lastly Charles I, dramatically ended its importance nationally and locally with the outcome of the Civil War.
It is remembered for the protracted siege war in the Civil War and famous Battles of Newbury in 1643 and 1644. The pounding of the heavy mortars of the Parliamentary Army, the contemporary ‘weapons of mass destruction’ reduced it to two towers attached to the Gate House the sad remains we see today. The proud ruins in its commanding position are Newbury’s most distinctive historical feature and reflect its dramatic turbulent history.
“Myths” surrounded an association with Geoffrey Chaucer who visited as his son Thomas became the owner, not Geoffrey. Thomas’s connections later led to Henry VIII’s visits, Edward VI, Elizabeth then incurring extensive repair work for her visit before she gave it to Lord Howard in 1600. It had been much altered back to ‘manor house’ interiors.
With the development of explosives and dramatic change in weaponry to cannons which could cause huge damage to previously impregnable castle walls the construction of earthworks was essential to protect the towers and Gate House. At the beginning of the Civil War massive earthworks were constructed by means of a local levy and labour from all the surrounding villages. The present mounds are the remains of this huge undertaking. The large area of 17th Century brickwork in the tower illustrates the repair over a deep crater caused by colossal damage from the ‘new’ very large devastating mortar.
The beleaguered force of 200 under Sir John Boys did not surrender until 1646 when after negotiation with Colonel Dalbier the Parliamentary forces lifted the siege and Boys and his troop marched out of the ruined castle with drums beating and flags flying.
Dr Peacock’s rigorous research and passionate interest in Newbury’s history and, in particular, Donnington Castle, provided a most illuminating insight into its past. His account was complemented by excellent illustrations and the large audience greatly appreciated a most engaging address.
23 Mar: "The Postal History of Hungerford" – Dr Hugh Pihlens
Dr Hugh Pihlens founded the Hungerford Historical Association in 1979. He is the distinguished authority on the Town’s history, writer of excellent books on the subject, the HHA’s Archivist and creator of the highly successful ‘Virtual Museum’. He chose his topic to celebrate the 500 years of the postal service 1516-2016.
In 1516, Henry VIII’s ‘Royal Post’ passed through Hungerford. At the time there were no accurate maps, the roads were appalling and travel was slow: 3-6 days from London to Bristol.
From 1696 Hungerford had a ‘Postmaster’ and a Post Office from 1754 and only 21 until 1986! The individual personalities, their achievements and foibles were described in fascinating details. Their roles combining as shopkeepers, later insurance agents with that of postmaster. The ‘Post Office’ location moving according to their shop premises.
The coaching era with the improved turnpiked road system of the Bath Road, and popularity of Bath’s ‘golden age’ was the heyday of Hungerford’s prosperity. Bustling hostelries, coaching inns such as ‘The Bear’ and many others thrived. Rapid change of horses enabling 10 coaches daily to pass through the town from 4am reduced travel time from London to Bristol to 38 hours. The trade peaked in 1830-1840. The ‘refronted’ new Regency style High Street houses reflect the wealth of these halcyon days.
The revolutionary change in the postal service came in 1840 with Rowland Hill’s introduction of the Penny Post and the adhesive postage stamp payable by the sender rather than ‘recipient’ as formerly. It provided a standard postal rate covering Great Britain and was a huge advance in personal communication now for all social classes, and necessarily required an expanded efficient postal service.
Soon the railway in 1847 brought vast changes to the town, its construction slicing through the Town and transforming travel both for population and mail. The Great Western Railway from Paddington to Bristol brought about the demise of the coaching era. By 1856 Hungerford rail connection enabled a twice daily delivery of mail and a permanent High Street Post Office.
The telegraph system followed the railway. In 1904 Hungerford was connected and successfully petitioned for an Exchange. It was set up in the Post Office basement and had 16 subscribers ‘to rent the apparatus’, in 1914 six more were added. Interestingly some of these numbers remain in use today! Open hours however were limited at that time!
By 1913, the Post Office was no longer adequate. In 1914 the handsome Crown Post Office was built. It had a skilfully constructed ‘security squint’ for the night patrolling beat police officer, demonstrated in an entertaining photo of Dr Pihlens!
Between 1915 and 1984 there were only six Postmasters. The ever increasing volume of mail required post boxes. Initially Hungerford had ‘pillar boxes’; later wallboxes. In 1877-1905 sadly only three VR remaining, one in Charnham Street. In 1959 boxes were enlarged to accommodate larger envelopes and there were 300,000 nationwide. In 1990 the Crown Post Office was superseded by the postal service being conducted from Martins, across the street.
The postal service in Hungerford had a proud and fascinating history developing into a vital public service. Dr Pihlens’ talk gave a brilliant coverage of this unexplored important aspect of the Royal Mail’s role in the Town’s history illustrated by his most impressive photographs enhanced by the HHA’s new projector and screen. The packed audience greatly enjoyed Dr Pihlens’ most masterly informative entertaining presentation.
27 Apr: "The Royal Berkshire Regiment in the First World War" - Mac McIntyre and Col Michael Cornwell
Both speakers served in the Duke of Edinburgh’s Royal Regiment formed in 1959 amalgamating the Royal Berkshire and Wiltshire Regiments. They now play a major role in the royal Gloucestershire, Berkshire and Wiltshire Museum at ‘The Wardrobe’ in Salisbury also the Rifles’ Museum. Col. Cornwell is the former curator, he and ‘Mac’ McIntyre continue as volunteers. It has provided an invaluable resource for Mac’s impressive publications, photographic histories of the Royal Berkshire Regiments from 1743-1914 and 1914-1959.
The presentation provided the ‘Tommy’s Perspective’ on the actions in France from August 1914 to November 1918. The Regiment originally comprised 4 Battalions but by the end of the War had mustered 11 Battalions. It was very much a ‘PALS’ Regiment of local ‘Brothers in Arms’ and gave very distinguished service in its many actions mainly on the Western Front but also in Italy and Salonika.
The losses were heaviest in 1916, mirroring the devastating toll for the whole of the British Army on the Somme. By 1918, the Royal Berkshires had lost 353 officers and 6,375 other soldiers and had won 3 VCs and many other Awards.
Mac McIntyre had trawled through hundreds of photographs and associated papers to encapsulate the soldiers’ lives on service in key actions and gave a vivid commentary with notes from diaries, letters and press reports. Col. Cornwell’s masterly account of the campaign’s progress ‘talked through’ his excellent maps and illustrations of the main engagements including Loos and Ypres.
Their complementary narratives brought the ‘Soldiers’ War’ powerfully, and often poignantly to life. Having ‘set the scene’ of the Regiment’s engagements, the focus was narrowed to some of the 75 Hungerford soldiers who died and are commemorated on the town War Memorial. Some very impressive photos of individual soldiers and an account of their brief lives accompanied by extracts from letters, and diaries, retold an often harrowing story: it was a moving account.
The presentation concluded by giving an interesting insight into some of the ‘characters’ of the Regiment. An artist serving as a medical orderly in Salonika later became the famous war artist, Sir Stanley Spencer, whose war experiences were captured for posterity in his awesome, overwhelming murals in the Sandham Memorial Chapel, Burghclere. A schoolteacher from Welford/Wickham rose through the ranks and Major Attwell became the Head Teacher of Hungerford Council School.
A number of those present had proudly served in the Royal Berkshires: some had relatives in at least two, sometimes three generations and today in the ‘successor’ Regiment. For the whole audience however, it was a most impressive, memorable and sobering presentation by two excellent speakers and especially relevant in the centenary year of the Battle of the Somme.
A visit to the Regimental Museum at Salisbury would be an interesting ‘follow up’ to such an informative evening.
Daphne Priestley, HHA Chair