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Helmdon Branch WEA - History
Charity reg. no: 1112775

The WEA - Fifty Years In Helmdon

an article by Audrey Forgham

preceded by a note on the celebration.

10th May 2009

Cutting the anniversary cake
   Founder member David Brookhouse and  Branch chairman Jan Harrold cutting the anniversary cake


Helmdon WEA branch celebrated its 50th anniversary at the Reading Room on Friday, 17th April, in the presence of nearly sixty WEA members.  

Bob Chapman, enthusiastic friend of the branch and WEA county organiser for Northamptonshire until his retirement, apologised for not

being present.   He wrote:

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.” 

It is great that our millennium village film, the recording of the monumental inscriptions in the churchyard, our six Aspects of Helmdon publications and the creation and continuing maintenance of the village website, all conceived in the late 1990s and early 2000s, have been so well remembered and valued." 


David Brookhouse

Present at the formation of the branch in 1959, David Brookhouse (pictured left) then spoke.   His mother, Doris Brookhouse, encouraged him to attend the first meeting with, amongst others, the Rev Dickie Rowbury and his wife, and Geoff Ipgrave. 

With the exception of a few terms missed, classes have been running in the village ever since.   In its early days the branch met in the rectory, but down the years the pub and the school and even member’s homes have been used, with the Reading Room now the preferred venue.

Edward Parry annotating

one of the fascinating old maps

he showed



Local historian Edward Parry, a Helmdon resident over thirty years ago, spoke on “Helmdon Past and Present – Reminders of Helmdon’s History”.  His talk ranged over the years of the village’s existence and of particular interest was his mention of a vicar of St Mary Magdalene in the latter part of the seventeenth century who had his portrait painted by the famous portraitist Sir Peter Lely, no less, which deserves further investigation.  

The formalities were followed by the usual delicious supper provided by members.  To round off proceedings chairman Jan Harrold proposed the toast to the continued sucessful running of the branch, and a magnificent celebratory cake was cut by Jan and founder member David Brookhouse.


                 THE WEA (40 years in Helmdon)

                            An article by Audrey Forgham





1999 will see the fortieth anniversary of the Helmdon branch of the WEA. Established in 1903, the WEA is a countrywide (and, indeed, international) organisation that responded to a surge of demand for adult education at the beginning of the century, and in Northamptonshire it has been providing courses since the First World War. Today it caters for a wide spectrum of educational opportunities, including workplace and community courses (pre-retirement education, training for volunteers, etc.), outreach courses designed for people who have missed out on educational opportunities because of social, economic or health factors, and thirdly, for a range of liberal studies courses such as architecture, creative writing, literature, art and musical appreciation, current affairs, history and natural sciences. This last category of courses is offered chiefly by local voluntary branches, and this is where the WEA branch at Helmdon fits into the overall framework of WEA provision.

The idea that Helmdon should have WEA 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, were among 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, who was 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 ever since. At first it was popular to have a two-term course but in latter years the branch has followed the trend of the Eastern District, if not the country as a whole, and now two successive one-term courses are the norm. There have been times when two courses have run simultaneously, either because of differing interests or because some members preferred a more active to a passive course, but this has usually been not very successful in financial terms.

Indeed, as far as balancing the books is concerned, the branch has had its ups and downs. Fees are kept as low as possible and there is a range of fee concessions. Not all the costs have to be found by the branch. Public funding provides part of the financing required but during the past twenty years there has been 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 sixties, 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 recalls that one year 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, says Dorothy, the group were saved again! Fees have increased somewhat from the time in the early sixties when they were six shillings a term but still give good value for money, and 1998-99 has left a healthy bank balance in branch accounts (carefully nurtured by treasurer, Stewart Moir), which is pleasing for current members who enjoy their regular Tuesday meetings.

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. Not that all members came from Helmdon and now, as in the early days of the branch, participants of classes are warmly welcomed from other villages. 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 Eastern District of the WEA which meets 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), and Roger and Barbara Mobbs (from Wappenham), are among those who have been faithful supporters over the years and still happily attend today.

In the early days 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 Baptist Chapel schoolroom, or even members' own homes. It was in the eighties, Dorothy Cernik recalls, 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 on to 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. It is the venue again at the present time because the County Council currently very generously still pays the room charges.

The coffee break has always been important to members. The short relaxation in the middle of the session is enjoyed. It is a time to get to know fellow participants and perhaps to change the library books assiduously provided by the Northamptonshire Library Service. 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 Sue Wallace, Judy Cairns, Liz Woolley, and Joan and Douglas Hadfield, have loyally kept the urn on the boil, as it were.

Subjects chosen have often been historical, mainly local and natural history, and as far as the former is concerned, it was, of course, the local history course "The Village in History" that spurred WEA members to begin the booklets Aspects of Helmdon, these publications being the first attempt of the branch to put anything into print. 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. At the end of the decade and into the'90s, 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". In 1998 he visited the branch again to talk on "Local Crafts and Industries". Marshall Martin greatly interested the class, too, with his lectures on the churches of Northamptonshire. However, titles other than history creep in fairly regularly, examples being "Classical Music", "Aspects of Law", "Criminology", "British Birds", "Antiques", "Ceramics", "Modern Russia", "Thomas Hardy", and "Introduction to the Opera". Members choose topics for the following year's classes so that the courses reflect the interests of those currently attending.

WEA outing to Swiss Garden in 1999Outings are 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 recalls 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 present 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.

There has been considerable "out of class" activity of late for those with the time and inclination. Apart from the publication of three local history booklets, the village memorial inscriptions have been transcribed under the direction of Val Moir, and as a contribution to the millennium year, Willy Watson is making a film of life in Helmdon to be kept in the village for posterity. The branch also plans to put some local history on to the Internet.

Everyone with a desire to learn may join a WEA class. It is unique in the village in that is the only organisation, apart from the Fellowship, that is open to both men and women, and in fact children from the age of sixteen can join a class, as, indeed, did young Michael Ipgrave many years ago. Look for information on current classes on village notice-boards in the autumn and around Christmas, or contact the secretary. You become a member of the national association on payment of the class fee. It is all very simple. We do not collect payments until the second week of a course, so why not come along and see if the subject is to your taste? You will be warmly welcomed.

Article taken from Aspects of Helmdon 3 by Audrey Forgham

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