| home | search | back |
home > history resources > articles index > history of the wea


The History of Helmdon Branch WEA

by Audrey Forgham
Before tracing the history of the Helmdon branch, it may be interesting to quote what Bob Chapman, enthusiastic friend of the branch and one-time WEA county organiser for Northamptonshire until his retirement, said:

Founder member David Brookhouse and Branch chairman Jan Harrold cutting the 40th anniversary cake
The branch is - and has been - fortunate in having so many committed officers and members. If there was anything new and exciting going on in the branches, you could be sure Helmdon was leading the way. It was a pleasure to attend classes and "special occasions" at Helmdon because I felt there was a spirit there that was characteristic of the WEA at its best. It was always the jewel in the crown of the county's branches - long may it so remain.” (1999)

Early Years

The idea that Helmdon should have adult education classes was first mooted in February 1959. The Rev. Dickie Rowbury and his wife, Sarah Rowbury, together with David Brookhouse and his mother, Doris Brookhouse, and Geoff Ipgrave, the headmaster of Helmdon school, were amongst the first people in Helmdon who were active in the setting up of the WEA in the village. Meetings were held in the Rector's study. Soon "lectures were in full swing" according to the secretary, Sarah Rowbury, undoubtedly the prime mover behind this new village activity. Her letter to the WEA District office went on to say that the number of people attending (seventeen) was steadily increasing and that she "felt sure that it would continue to do so as the village gets used to the idea". The village did get "used to the idea", and with the exception of a few terms missed, courses have been running every year. At first it was popular to have a two-term course but in time two successive one-term courses were the norm.

The fact that the classes have continued so successfully has been due to the people who have been office holders and faithful members over the years. Stalwart office holders in the late sixties and seventies who carried on the hard work of Sarah Rowbury include Louise Moelwyn-Hughes, Geoff Ipgrave, Dick Collett, Miss R Carey (from Abthorpe), George and Mabel Webb (from Brackley), Tom Harvey (from Syresham), Cyril Thorp and his wife (from Wappenham) and, of course, Jean Spendlove, who went on from branch activities to be elected on to the Executive of the now defunct Eastern District of the WEA which used to meet in Cambridge. In the eighties it was office holders Dick Collett, Dorothy Cernik, Angela Wardle, Alan Radford, Adrian Eyre, David Watson, Mary Nash, Bob Wallis, Joy Webb, and Jane and Mike Barnes, who kept the WEA flag flying. The loyalty of the core group of members who attend term after term must not be discounted for without their regular attendance any amount of planning would be of no avail and Tony and Ann Smith, Sue Wallace, Willy Watson, Peggy and Alan Ryalls, Gerald Holt, Derek Ward, Jenny Overson, Eileen and Alan Watson, Jenni Liversidge (from Weston), Nora and Arthur Howes (from Weedon Lois), and Roger and Barbara Mobbs (from Wappenham), are among those who were faithful supporters over the early years.

Members look at antiques with lecturer Joanne Rodgers (middle) in the school hall, 2009
In those early days, the far gone 1950s, the branch met in the Rectory (no doubt because it had the Rector's wife as an office holder). It continued to do so even after 1967 with the advent of the new incumbent Rev. Frank Thompson, Tom Harvey having by this time become secretary. Then at various times meetings migrated to either the Reading Room (here Mary Nash recalls that each member had to take their own mug and woe betide if their own was not returned to them to drink out of); the school (Geoff Ipgrave, then head of Helmdon school, and his wife, used to take their dining room chairs from the School House when the group first moved there); the Bell Inn, the Baptist Chapel schoolroom, or even members' own homes. It was in the 80s, Dorothy Cernik recalled, that the group met in great comfort at the home of Bob and Gay Wallis in Church Street. However, the blazing fire and the dimmed lights (for showing slides) resulted in several refreshing snoozes for some members. One night, with unerring instinct, the cat leapt onto Nora Nichols and settled down on the only cat-hater in the room! At one time, too, Philip and Carol Andrews hosted a music class, also providing the equipment. Here again, members were very comfortable, although Mary Nash remembers that there was a chiming clock which sometimes struck at inopportune times. Eventually it was decided it would be best to meet in a public rather than a private place, but this interval from the paying of rental costs did help to improve the branch finances. First mention of the school being used for a WEA class was 1976 but when the council asked for rent for use of the school in the 1990s it was decided to use the more convenient Reading Room.

As far as balancing the books are concerned, the branch has had its ups and downs. Fees are kept as low as possible and there was a range of fee concessions. Not all the costs had to be found by the branch. Public funding provided part of the financing required but during the past twenty years there was uncertainty as to the exact amount of government contribution and there are a few early records of times when there was financial difficulty as, for instance, in the early 60s, when at the end of the year there was a deficit in the accounts of ten shillings. In l983 the credit in the books amounted to l5p and in 1984 to £1.23, thus leaving little in hand for a rainy day, in other words a time when an otherwise interesting course might have to be jettisoned for lack of participants. Past secretary Dorothy Cernik recalled when she talked about her involvement in the WEA that one year in the same decade she had to coax a donation, only half promised, from Alan Radford, and that this kept the books looking healthy. During the next year the group had to have a coffee evening to raise money. It was looking as if the evening had not been successful in its aim and then Barbara and Roger Mobbs, who could not attend, sent a donation and so, said Dorothy, the group were saved again.

The reports of annual general meetings always comment if there has been difficulty in getting someone to provide refreshments during the class and fulsomely praise those who have performed this tedious task. In 1969 Doris Brookhouse, in charge of refreshments, was thanked for the "excellent feast" at the AGM, and in the eighties Eileen Collett was thanked for "wielding the kettle so efficiently". In the nineties and onwards Sue Wallace, Judy Cairns, Liz Woolley, and Joan and Douglas Hadfield, loyally kept the urn on the boil, as it were.


Subjects chosen have often been historical, mainly local and natural history. Geoff Ipgrave recalls that at several of the early courses on archaeology held at the Rectory, a Mr Terry, curator of the Guildhall Road Museum in Northampton, was the speaker. Also, in the 1960s, there was a course entitled "Egyptology" and David Brookhouse remembers ferrying the lecturer, a professor from Birmingham, to and from Banbury station for the evening meetings. One day this gentleman proudly showed a prized museum piece around the class, and David said everyone thought it looked like a piece of old slate. Eileen Collett recalls one course of lectures which "drew the crowd". The subject was "The Mary Rose and her Crew", the Mary Rose being the Tudor warship which had been recently raised from the sea bed. The lecturer was a pathology expert and Eileen said that it would appear that she had a pile of bones in her back yard and she brought some along from time to time for the class to discuss and examine. Eileen felt that handling the skull and bones was all rather spooky. In the eighties "Architecture of Northamptonshire" was so popular that it ran for two years of two terms each, complemented by excellent visits. Members chose topics for the following year's classes so that the courses reflected the interests of those currently attending. At the end of the eighties and into nineties, industrial archaeology aroused much interest, with Geoffrey Starmer enthusing course members as he enlightened them on such subjects as "Buildings and Their Function" and "The Technology of the English Country House" and Marshall Martin greatly interested the class with his course on the churches of Northamptonshire.

More Recent Times

The early nineties saw computer courses take place in the ICT suite at the school with tutor Danny Moody which started many members on their computer literacy journey.

Lecturer Danny Moody and the class
Greg Spellman presented perhaps the best attended course ever, “The Weather & Climate of the British Isles”, and Owen Bryce, pictured below showing his trumpet to Margaret Reardon and (right) Lee Alfandary, also ran a very popular course. He had met Louis Armstrong amongst many leading jazz musicians.

Other subjects included the interesting “Wildlife Around Helmdon” (Brian Webster) and fascinating “Lost & Deserted Villages of Northants” (Ted Walmsley). We also had Astronomy for Beginners (Frank Gear), Keith Hasted on “Olympics, Airports & Museums”, and who can forget the several visits of Elaine Rawlinson, particularly her “Shakespeare’s England Behind Closed Doors” and “1066 - More Than Just a Battle?” Philip Hemming led an intriguing course on the Great War. David Price was “In Tune With The Times” in 2017 and had the honour of delivering the last WEA course “Behind the Iron Curtain” in the autumn of 2018. David also arranged for this class to have a very special finale/send off – a lady who lived through Communist rule in Bulgaria gave a talk on her experiences. She was also a very accomplished cello player and interspersed her talk with appropriate musical pieces.

Social Evenings

The annual social evenings were always much enjoyed and often took place in Will Watson’s house (now demolished) at the bottom of the Radstone Road. In the early 2000s we had an interesting visit from local historian Dr Peter Hall on “The Origins of the Green Man”, and the branch were pleased to host an evening with a relative of one of our members, Dame Jenni Murray from “Woman’s Hour”, with her thought provoking talk on “The Changing Role Of Women Over The Last Fifty Years’. Later on our social evenings were in the Reading Room and the branch enjoyed a visit from Dr Glyn Jones who talked on Charles Darwin.

Glyn Jones standing in front of a Darwin Centenary poster
We were also glad to welcome Edward Parry talking about Helmdon history, Maureen Jeffrey spoke on “Christmas in Tudor Times”, and proving that the WEA was all encompassing on its choice of subjects “Are You Sitting Comfortably?”, a talk on the “The History of the Privy & Water Closets” by Judith Hodgkinson (Starmer), was highly enlightening. Bruce Smith also visited us one evening and spoke about a subject close to home, the Welsh Lane and the Drovers’ Roads.


Outings were made from time to time, usually in support of the subject of a class course. The Mary Rose lectures were followed by a most enjoyable trip to Portsmouth, and Eileen Collett recalled that another course of lectures being given by a member of the probationary service ended with a visit to Bedford Prison. Here afternoon tea was served in the Governor's office by the inmates, a weird but interesting experience. "Aspects of Law" culminated in a trip to the Northampton Law Courts where members were able to sit in at the end of a murder trial and on a rather incomprehensible fraud case. The 1997 "Prehistoric & Roman Britain" class had a very cold but illuminating trip to Chedworth Roman villa and Cirencester (some members lost their way and now have a good knowledge of the ring road round the town!), and later in the year students also visited the site of the lecturer's own enthusiastic interest, the archaeological excavation at Piddington. Members attending "The Story of the English House" in 1998 enjoyed outings to Stamford, Doddershall Park and Weston Hall, and "Victorian Life & Times" culminated in a visit to the Black Country Museum near Dudley. "The History of the English Garden" in 1999 was followed by informative visits to Rousham House, the Swiss Garden and Wrest Park. Outings tailed off a bit in the 2010s, perhaps mainly due to there not being places to visit relevant to the courses, but a return visit to the Piddington Roman site was much enjoyed as was a visit to the Ardley Recycling plant.

Formation of the Local Studies Group

In 1995 John Raybould tutored a course entitled "The Changing Village". It covered the last hundred years, and focused on Helmdon. His enthusiasm lingered after the course was over, whetting the appetite for further historical research, and several members of the original class formed themselves into a Local Studies Group. At the beginning, Val and Stewart Moir, Judy Cairns, Audrey Forgham (Harwood), Jean Spendlove and Will Watson were the main members. In Spring 2000 two new members, Danny and Kate Moody, joined the group, both very interested in the difficult-to-unravel early history of Helmdon. From the outset, the group felt that what was researched should be recorded in some way and so, steered by Ross Vicars, six local history booklets (editions Aspects of Helmdon nos. 1, 2), and then by Audrey Forgham (Aspects of Helmdon nos. 3 – 6), were published. This research has subsequently been published on www.helmdonhistory.com and in 2019 there were over 150 articles and documents, an array of old photographs, and a gallery of press cuttings (a few before but mainly after, the year 1990.) The Local Studies Group re-forms, with old and new members, as projects are conceived.

The branch made a film called "Helmdon 1999 - A Year in The Life Of A Village". It was shown to members and over 200 Helmdon residents in May and June 2000. The filmmaker, Richard (Will) Watson, was highly praised for his work in putting the film together, which portrayed the activities in the village throughout the year, for instance the carnival, the Remembrance Day service, the pantomime, farming activities, the school sports, the Women's Club meetings. The film was made for posterity, for people to look back at in say, fifty years’ time, and find out what made a village "tick" at the turn of the millennium. Will had the support of the local studies group, Judy Cairns, Cec Harrold, Audrey Forgham, Val and Stuart Moir, Jean Spendlove and Liz Woolley.

Poster advertising the film

Will Watson, the film maker

In 1997-8 the group, under the direction of Val Moir, transcribed the inscriptions in the parish church, churchyard, chapel, war memorial and elsewhere round the village. There are over 500 entries, beginning in the mid-seventeenth century, and where possible the most appropriate entry in the burial register was added.

Herewith an example of an early entry of an inscription in the North Chancel, followed by the entry in the burial register kept by the church.

In memory of / GEORGE FAIRBROTHER Gent / who departed this life / November 9th 1803 / aged 60 / also of JANE relict of / GEORGE FAIRBROTHER Gent / who departed this life / April 1st 1805 / aged 60 /

P.R. 1803 George Fairbrother (Gent) Nov 13th P.R. 1805 Jane widow of George Fairbrother April 5th

was the 100th anniversary of the First World War and in November 2014 a War Memorial project was published on the website to find out more about the history behind the names of the servicemen on the Helmdon War Memorial. The group who gathered the information were Ross Vicars, Judy Cairns, Danny Moody, Audrey Forgham and Cec Harrold. Charles Binns restored many of the old photographs and postcards. Hard copies were given to the church, the WEA and the school.

The Display in the
Reading Room

Photos of Old Helmdon Postcards of the War Memorial and the Project Booklet

2016 saw the completion of the update of the now nearly 20-year-old grave inscription project, updating the list the graves in rows combining the graves with pre-1997 and post 1997 inscriptions in the newer arm of the churchyard, to the left of the church path. Some rows have been re-numbered. Judy Cairns did the bulk of the research, Bill Elkington made a map, Conrad Woolley checked the rows and Audrey Forgham typed the project for the website. A hard copy is with the church. All new entries are now meticulously being added to the list of inscriptions on www.helmdonhistory.com.

2016 was also the year when WEA members co-operated with a church instigated project of cataloguing all the kneelers in the church (all made by Helmdon residents) was finished. Jenny Overson and Mary Nash did the bulk of the research with Colin Nash as photographer. Audrey Forgham typed the project. Albums are in church for all to look at.

Helmdon Website

The creation of a Helmdon web site (www.helmdon.com), was first mooted in 1999. Renhart Gittens helped in the initial stages and then in 2000 Danny Moody became webmaster and Audrey Forgham website editor. From the beginning the site has received much praise. In March 2002 it received the Amdow Web Design Community Website Award. Then the web site was reviewed by BBC's Radio Five team as part of Simon Mayo's regular "Top Web Sites of the Week" feature, and in April 2002 they placed it fourth. A year later the site was acclaimed the UK Villages Online Website for 2003. Further success came in the Calor Village of the Year 2005, when the web site was instrumental in Helmdon winning the ICT Village of the Year for Central England (see press cutting). Danny and Audrey went up to The Dorchester Hotel in London to receive the award and plaque from Alan Titchmarsh. Then In 2013 the website won a prize for being the most informative website in Northamptonshire in a competition run by Northamptonshire ACRE.

In 2018 the parish council website www.helmdonparishcouncil.gov.uk took over the transmission of information about the parish council and village activities and www.helmdon.com morphed into www.helmdonhistory.com, continuing to research the history of the village. Still run by Danny Moody as webmaster and Audrey Forgham as website editor, the team would welcome local history contributions and suggestions as to how to further develop the site.

The Helmdon branch WEA was born in 1959. Committed members had worked hard over the years. In the 90s onwards stalwarts included Audrey Forgham, who was secretary 1992 to 2002; Richard Farquharson (secretary from 2002 until 2018); chairs David Powell, Arthur Howes, and then for many years Jan and Cec Harrold, who did much to keep the branch from early closure. There were also members such as Richard Foster, who took over from Stewart Moir as treasurer, Val Moir, who did so much towards the Aspects publications in the 90s, Ross Vicars who continues to add to Helmdon history research, and amongst others Judy Cairns who updates the church inscriptions regularly.

Much to the regret of many, without a new secretary coming forward, and exacerbated by the fact that lecturers were hard to find, the branch officially closed in June 2019. However, the spirit of the Helmdon WEA, if not the name, will live on in www.helmdonhistory.com and the Local Studies Group.

Audrey Forgham (formerly Harwood)
August 2019
home > history resources > articles index > history of the wea
| home | search | back | top