The following reports of meetings in the 2016-17 season are available:
28 Sep 2016: "The Treasures of St Lawrence Church" - Dr Hugh Pihlens
In August, the 200th anniversary of St Lawrence's was commemorated. Dr Pihlens's talk on its treasures had a special resonance and attracted a capacity audience. His rigorous research and the intensely interesting information he had quarried, complemented by excellent illustrations, provided a most illuminating presentation.
In his introduction, Dr Pihlens placed St Lawrence's in the historical context of parish churches: 14,000 nationwide, 12,000 pre-Reformation and 2,000 Victorian Gothic. Hungerford's present church, built in 1814-16 on the site of two previous churches in Georgian Regency style, is gracious and restrained; spared the frequent Victorian over-exuberant, elaborate transformations.
It is the third church on this site. The first, recorded in 1147, flourished during the medieval period, became structurally unsound, unusable and fell into dereliction. The second "rebuild" in 1811 collapsed. In 1814-1816 the present church was constructed in Bath stone transported on the "new" Kennet and Avon canal.Many monuments were saved and re-located. A very interesting watercolour of 1806 and a lithograph of 1809 are the sole representations of the earlier churches.
Each "treasure" selected by Dr Pihlens gave a unique and fascinating insight into the lives of individual people and events in the Hungerford community within the social and religious context of the period from the pre-Reformation to the 20th century.
Fortuitously, some of the most precious items survived the Reformation and creeping dilapidation of the centuries, and were painstakingly retrieved and restored for today's heritage.
A "gem" is the beautifully carved octagonal 15th century font. After 300 years the effigy and "Indulgence" tablet of Sir Robert De Hungerford was restored to the church which had flourished through his munificence. The bells' history, to the eight bells of today, was a fascinating story.
Wall memorials include that of Henry Hungerford in 1673 and in 1762 the unresolved killing of William and Ann Cheney at home in the High Street. The young officers Richard Richens of Hopgrass killed at 19, and Edward Astley of the Royal Berkshires age 21 have individual memorials; the "fallen" of WW1 and WW2 are recorded in the fine memorial headed by the patron saints of sailors and soldiers. There is also the poignant memorial to those killed in the Hungerford tragedy of 1987. All give moving accounts of individual lives in Hungerford.
In 1879, major reconstruction and restoration took place, almost a "rebuild", including the carved stone foliated columns, raised roof, chancel, rood screen and installation of the organ.
A major treasure, the beautiful stained glass windows, were installed from 1889, some coinciding with the Diamond Jubilee. Each was dedicated as a memorial to a much loved individual and based on a Biblical story: "The Raising of Jairus's Daughter", "Healing of the Blind Man", reflecting the restored sight of a much respected Vicar, also "The Transfiguration".
There are two most interesting features in the churchyard: the very rare "tumble stile" and also the "saved" headstone to James Dean, the Bath coachman killed by a hearse crashing into his coach in Charnham Street.
Dr Pihlens's masterly presentation engaged everyone's interest and imagination and sense of pride in Hungerford's heritage surrounding its Parish church of St Lawrence.
26 Oct 2016: "The Horse in History" – David Chandler
David Chandler brought exceptional knowledge about horses and saddlery to his talk, having been a seventh generation saddler in the Marlborough family business begun in the 18th Century. He is a member of the Saddlers' Livery Company and was Master in 2009-10.
In Britain the 1900s marked the peak of ascendancy of the horse. Horse traffic was a major problem in London! The Army maintained reduced cavalry until 1940, when armoured vehicles replaced horses. In WW2, however, horses were once again used in agriculture, replacing fuel-driven machinery.
The earliest ‘wild horses’ came from the Eurasian Steppes: small, compact, tough animals of 13-14 hands, resembling our native ponies. They flourished in a 5,000 mile area from the Eastern Steppes to the Danube recorded in Kazakhstan in 4,000 BC.
Initially hunted for food, their potential for ‘hauling’ became obvious: faster than plodding oxen, and the lighter weight donkey. ‘Domestication’ followed, assisted by hunting dogs.
The invention of the wheel revolutionized civilizations. The solid wheel was superseded by the lighter ‘spoked’ wheel, as metal-working skills, initially in iron, were overtaken by bronze. A flourishing Bronze Age industry rapidly spread. The chariot ‘war machine’ was adopted throughout ancient civilizations: Egyptian, Assyrian, Hittite, Persians, for example. It was critical for conquest and in use for over 1,000 years.
In Greek and Roman times chariots were also used for sport ‘status' in addition to military use.
Interestingly, riding came after driving chariots. ‘Controlling’ the horse was a problem. Initially, the rider sat further back as on a donkey in 1,000 BC, with a loose ‘bridle’ and nose ring, sitting on a cloth. The single mounted archer with the crossbow, the latest weapon, gave rise later to ‘mounted cavalry’. Alexander's military supremacy was based on his cavalry and disciplined infantry superseding the chariot.
The invention of the saddle in the 4th Century BC, by nomadic tribes in Siberia, enabled the formidable cavalry of the Mongols to establish its vast empire. Riding more comfortably over greater distances became possible. Stirrups were only invented in 1 AD by Chinese and Asiatic peoples dependant on the advance in metal-working skills from iron to bronze, which rapidly spread to ‘industrial’ bronze foundries in Europe.
In the medieval period of massive social and political change the horse played a crucial role. The rise of feudalism, changes in warfare, the Crusaders, chivalry and the symbolic ‘medieval knight’ and charger: the horse was the key component. The highly skilled metal-working and leather-working for armour and saddlery achieved the highest status for knights and horses. Horses were bred to bear the heavy weight.
The horse was crucial to the conquest and settlement of the Americas. The Spanish took 100 horses to South America and vanquished the Maya and Aztec civilizations. Within 30 years ‘wild horse’ from escaped horses populated both South and North America – and played a huge role in colonization and settlement.
The bloodline of the British thoroughbred of today can be traced to three Arabian stallions introduced to refine the native breeds. ‘Byerley Turk in the late 1600s then ‘Godolphin Arabian’ and ‘Darley Arabian’ were brought in in the early 1700s; this direct bloodline is yet another chapter in the fascinating history of the horse.
The audience much enjoyed a most interesting and enlightening talk.
23 November 2016: "Motoring in the Kennet Valley – the early years" by Roger Day and Tim Green.
The talk was divided into parts:
Part 1 by Roger Day ("Early Years 1896-1920")
Part 2 by Tim Green ("The Golden Age of the 1920s & 1930s").
Part 1: Early years 1896-1920
The earliest motorized road vehicles, successors to the stage coach, were considered potentially dangerous, such that legislation was passed to protect both the public and horses. The Red Flag Act 1896 required any vehicle to be preceded by a person carrying a Red Flag of warning to reduce speed – a maximum of 4 mph, later amended to 4-8 mph in towns and 12 mph in the countryside.
In 1907 Lord Handsworth of the Daily Mail sponsored a 1,000-mile Round Britain Trial; 83 vehicles took part. It was very well organized: marshals at check points were tasked with monitoring speed and recording on time sheets. Fuel was paid for in advance at pumps along the route! The London to Bristol leg was won by Montague in a 1899 Daimler at 12 mph. The Berkshire police were out in force to check speeding! Large crowds lined the route, many seeing "motor cars" for the first time. Vehicles travelled through Thatcham, Newbury and Hungerford at 5 mph.
The necessity of having readily available fuel gave rise to petrol pumps springing up nationwide for passing motorists. Initially attached to local shops and private houses on any convenient site, they were soon to add essential repairs and maintenance.
World War I created a huge demand for vital motorized transport for both men and equipment, and gave an immediate impetus to development. At the end of the war masses of surplus vehicles were bought up: lorries, for example, were converted to 14-seater "charabancs", others "multi-purpose". To meet the increasing demand "garages" opened to include the facilities for working on vehicles as well as selling fuel. In towns and villages, locally in Newbury, Hungerford and Ramsbury, garages sprang up all along the A4.
Part 2: The Golden Age: 1920s &1930s
After 1918 increasing use of advanced technology led to a rapidly expanding number of vehicles. This necessitated a move to construct "purpose built" roadside garages for both fuel and maintenance and later, sales.
In 1920, the first local petrol station at Aldermaston with "hand pumps" was the typical pattern. Later a small shop for "extras", accessories and motor oil was added. By 1930, however, Halfords had developed stores throughout the country.
The design of these "new" garages in the 1930s mirrored the contemporary design, for example "The Sun" garage in the Bath Road A4. In 1934 Murray and Whittaker had a prestigious architect-designed garage filling station complex in Newbury, boasting electric petrol pumps! Towns and villages often had several garages, reflecting the popularity of motoring.
Some rapidly moved into sales, of any make of car, before "franchising". Newbury had a number of prestigious "family run" garages: Stradlings, Wheelers, Nias and Whittakers, Murray, Marchant.
Both parts of this very interesting and entertaining talk were greatly enhanced by the impressive collection of photographs, newspaper cuttings and memorabilia about an absorbing aspect of local history. Its nostalgic appeal was reflected in the many questions from the audience of over 80, who were invited to provide their own contributions for further research by Roger and Tim: perhaps we will enjoy a Part 3 of this fascinating subject!
22 Feb 2017: "Lions led by Donkeys? The British Army at War 1914-1916" by David Du Croz.
David Du Croz is a historian with a special interest in World War I and the battlefields of the Western Front. His accumulated knowledge and special interest were the background to his close, critical examination of the quotation from the 1960s "revisionist" history of World War I, "Donkeys" by Alan Clark. He aimed to "de-bunk" the myth for a more balanced interpretation.
"How did the myth arise?" He suggested the very powerful, impressive and emotional War Poets - Graves, Owen, Sassoon and Jones – were an impetus. Their writing in anger and bitterness depicted the reality of war as they experienced it. The growing pacifist movement towards ensuring that "there must never be another war", and yet World War II following within 20 years, also led to the 1960s "revisionist" history. World War I was claimed as a "Bad War", reflected in satirical and anti-Establishment writing.
"Who were the real 'Donkeys'?" The Generals: French, Haig, Robertson, Rawlinson were all experienced "in scattered overseas wars". None had faced the formidable might of a massive, professionally trained, well-equipped fighting force of the German Army of over two million troops, compared with the British Expeditionary Force of 160,000. Britain had invested its resources in the Navy to ensure its invincible maritime supremacy to protect the country and the Empire.
"The principal culprits?" The Generals who faced huge tasks: to raise a mass Army of Volunteers "who were eager, willing, but untrained". To industrialise weapons production, transport and manage the logistics of an unprecedented large scale war.
Haig was always a controversial figure, although by 1918 he had won the respect and admiration of his "Tommies" and great public acclaim for "winning the War". In 1914-16 and the dark period of heavy losses and failures, they had borne the blame. By 1918, with a five-fold increase in manpower, modern weaponry, aircraft, tanks and long experience, "winning the War" became a possibility. In 1917 the United States had entered the war.
"Bad Battles" were recounted: the disastrous, costly Gallipoli campaign, doomed from the start from the failed invasion landing and naval support. Loos was a defeat blamed on "command and control" and communication failures. The Somme covered a vast area and sustained few gains, huge losses and prolonged stalemate at this stage of the war.
"Reasons for failure?" The British army was outnumbered and outclassed by the highly organised German Army, which had all the advantages of an army of occupation: strategic positions, formidable defence fortifications, lines of communication and advanced weaponry in 1914-16.
"The Lions" were the ordinary soldiers, eager young untrained volunteers under command of young officers from school Officers' Training Corps with minimal training in 1914-16. The Tommies had great resilience, courage and camaraderie and learnt from hard experience and improved training. By the end of the War "the British Army were second to none in modernity, thoroughly competent through experience and capable of winning the War". It also had by then the advanced weaponry to inflict defeats on the now exhausted German Army. A hard-won victory for Donkeys and Lions!
A very interesting, thought-provoking talk marking the World War I centenary.
Daphne Priestley (Chairman)
22 Mar 2017: "The Astor Family Past and Present" by James Sadler
James Sadler, the Head Gamekeeper of the Astor Kirby Estate, has met and worked with many of the Astor family members. The Astors have been pivotal in influential circles in Britain and the United States. He has had privileged access to archives and photographs during his long (thirty years) service.
His account covered five generations and was complemented by excellent photographs, newspaper articles and letters.
The Astors succeeded in amassing enormous wealth and producing a prolific family. John Jacob Astor went to New York in 1789 from Germany. He made a vast fortune initially in the fur trade, flooding the US market and then turning to China, exporting furs and returning with cargoes of tea and opium. He then bought up land, and it was the continuing land acquisitions over the generations that ensured their enduring wealth, combined with their astute business management, that increased their huge fortunes. John Jacob Astor IV left nearly $87 million when he died, equivalent to $2.16 billion in today's money!
The second Astor also pursued land purchases, soon owning 60% of Manhattan, also Broadway and land alongside the new railways.
The third Astor was massively wealthy from his continuing land acquisitions. He was also a philanthropist, and financed housing in New York, and as a passionate book lover left the impressive monumental library "containing every book" as a legacy of a world class library.
John Waldorf Astor invested in the hotel business. The Waldorf Astoria, "the biggest and best" in New York, was the template for those in major US cities and later internationally. "The Astors owned New York", and built a station, subway and trams!
Turning to Britain, they bought Hever Castle and other properties, and owned The Times and The Observer. The brothers John and Jack were lost in the Titanic, but Jack's wife survived to have their son Vincent. He helped finance expeditions and invested in "the best horses" for the horse-racing he loved. Later he began selling off land in the US for the prolific US and English Astors.
Nancy Astor was given Cliveden as a wedding present from her father. She became the first woman MP to take her seat in Parliament and was a legendary hostess. Much later, in March 1963, the then "Cliveden set" attained much notoriety as the Profumo scandal unfolded.
Of local interest, John Astor became a popular and successful MP and built up the Kirby estate. He pursued shooting and geared up the estate to become more commercial.
Richard Astor sadly died in 2016. Mrs Astor strongly supports the very successful profitable calendar of shoots managed by James alongside the impressive conservation projects. She designed the moving memorial to the British victims of the Twin Towers tragedy built on Astor land.
James Sadler concluded his most absorbing talk by expressing his gratitude for all the opportunities he had gained from working with the Astors: meeting so many interesting people, unimaginable visits and attending outstanding events. His enthusiasm for his daily work as gamekeeper and passion for conservation shone through a fascinating talk, much appreciated by a capacity audience.
26 April 2017: "The Aldbourne Bell Foundry" by Graham Palmer
Graham Palmer, a local historian, based his talk on 30 years' study of bells, especially relating to the Aldbourne Bell Foundry. Drawings from the 17th century illustrated that the village had not changed drastically, and a number of buildings remain today. The Green, no longer a "working place" is now a well-kept amenity.
The Bell Foundry, installed by Robert Corr in the 17 th century, cast cannons emblazoned with his distinctive embellished marks; several generations followed as gunsmiths. Later, church bells were cast, including for the rebuilt St Lawrence's Church in 1814. Bells were cast for an increasingly wide range of uses: in expanding farming, for sheep; horses' harnesses in carts and haywains to warn of their approach, the "juggernauts" of their day in narrow country lanes.
In domestic use for entrance to houses, but also to summon servants and as the main form of communication throughout the house, bells were becoming an essential part of country and town house living. Night-watchmen and town criers also had their distinctive bells in their public rôles.
In 1760 under later owners, the Witts were the first to cast handbells, which became very popular. Also the bells for morris dancers were, again, increasingly widespread.
The next owners, the Wells family, fell on hard times and had to sell up. The famous Whitechapel foundry, however, bought up some of their patterns and expertise. They cast Big Ben's bell in 1858, the first was too large, the second cracked, but it is still in use!
The "Bell" public house no longer exists with its iconic sign to record Aldbourne's unique industrial past and renowned foundry.
The very interesting talk was followed by the enthusiastic audience having the opportunity to view the splendid display of some of the unique collection of bells Mr Palmer has amassed over the years, and was a fascinating ending to a most enjoyable and entertaining evening.
24 May 2017: “Wilton Windmill, Chateau Guédelon” by Charles Baxter and Kevin Challen
Many of the 320 wind and watermills in this country recently held “OPEN WEEKENDS” as part of the Europe-wide “heritage of milling” commemorations. The talk was especially topical about our “local” mill at Wilton.
Charles Baxter gave a most interesting and informative illustrated “guided tour” of the mill: the building’s interior design, external features and the whole process of milling carried on today, much as it was when it was built in 1821. The mill flourished until the competition from cheap grain from Australia and Canada led to its closure in 1920.
In 1970, Wiltshire Council bought the derelict mill and undertook major restoration of this listed building. In 1974, the Wilton Windmill Society was founded to restore it to
working order; it now regularly produces flour 10-12 times a year. Enthusiastic members volunteer to repair and maintain it and organise events and school visits, run a shop and raise funds to finance the running costs. The mill has become a major local attraction.
Kevin Challen, Chairman of the Society, has worked for the mill for 30 years, and gave a very interesting illustrated account of the long history of milling and variations in different societies. Windmills were designed to maximise wind power, all “pointing into the wind”. Each mill was constructed according to the individual location, available local materials, and this led to a wide variation in the architecture of mills.
Wilton windmill was a “late” construction with the advantage of more advanced ironwork such that much of the mechanisms were re-usable in its restoration. Timbers had to be replaced, the original elm being superseded by oak. Charles Baxter explained the advanced “louvre” type shutters on the sails which made it “very fast”, needing a 15-20 mph wind to give a consistent speed. New sails were installed in March 2017 and the fine granary building from the Laycock Agricultural Museum will be re-sited at Wilton.
The nearby Crofton beam engine, a fine feat of engineering, overcame the problem of water supply for the Kennet and Avon canal: it is still in working order. The mill was close to the canal and could access it for transporting its products; it replaced five earlier mills.
It is a remarkable achievement to have restored such an outstanding example of a working windmill in the heritage of milling. Such an interesting account should attract more visitors from the very appreciative audience!
Charles Baxter then gave a fascinating account of his work as a volunteer craftsman in the amazing “Guédelon Castle in the making” in Burgundy. It is a most ambitious, rigorously researched construction of a 13th century château built from scratch; the project started in 1997. Some 60 full-time craftsmen of all trades have been assisted by volunteers from many different countries, working to 13th century practices.
A BBC film led to an influx of visitors, now 300,000 annually, and it is now progressing the work in the Great Hall.
This absorbing account concluded most interesting talks by both speakers.
Afterwards the audience enjoyed seeing some of the essentials of the milling process and buying some of the flour.