Since its first meeting in January 1958 the Brentford & Chiswick Local History Society has provided a forum for people interested in the history of the area. Over the last 50 years its annual programme of talks and outings has been supported by occasional exhibitions, events, research projects, publications and the respected Brentford & Chiswick Local History Journal. The account of our work which follows was compiled in May 2008 for distributions at our 50th anniversary dinner at the new Musical Museum in Brentford.
The Society has seen itself as a trustee of local history, fostering interest and maintaining its profile. We have shared information and expertise with Hounslow’s local studies library and museum and worked together on acquisitions and projects. We have assisted researchers of every kind, including the press, and provided a medium through which they can share the results of their work. During this time the Society has intervened when resources for local history have been threatened. We initiated the Friends of Gunnersbury Park & Museum in 1981 and were founder partners in creating the Chiswick House Friends in 1984. We campaigned to prevent the closure and sale of Hogarth’s House in 1984 and ensured that the Thomas Layton Collection remained in the borough.
We work closely with fellow societies in West London and have been a member of the co-ordinating committee for the annual West London Local History Conference since it was formed in 1981. We have also developed partnerships with other groups, like the Battlefields Trust and the William Hogarth Trust. The Society is a long-standing member of the British Association for Local History and the London & Middlesex Archaeological Society (LAMAS).
The Victoria History of the Counties of England, begun in 1899, made great progress in many counties although only one Middlesex volume was produced, in 1911. The Middlesex Local History Council revived the scheme in the 1950s and growing interest led the Borough of Brentford & Chiswick to hold a local history exhibition at Chiswick Library in 1957.
The council minutes recorded that “it would be of considerable assistance in the preservation of local records and future work of research and collection if a Local History Society was formed. It is hoped that this may be achieved as a result of the Exhibition”.
The exhibition ran throughout October and welcomed 1,740 visitors. Its catalogue confirmed that much research still needed to be done and encouraged potential researchers to join the proposed Local History Society. A steering committee of senior librarians and members of the Library Committee agreed the constitution in December. The new society would meet on the first Thursday of the month for talks on local history topics and the subscription would be five shillings (25p).
At the first AGM on 16 January 1958 Michael Metford Sewell, a local solicitor and Library Committee member, became Chairman, Florence Green (Borough Librarian) Honorary Secretary, with Winifred Heard (Reference Librarian) as Assistant Secretary and S W Lunt as Honorary Treasurer. The Committee comprised Professor A V Judges of Strand on the Green, Wolf Feldman, another local solicitor, Anthony Jones, Deputy Librarian and organiser of the 1957 exhibition, Cllr Eric Kenward and Mrs D M Lawrence. An audience of 28 new members heard its Assistant Editor, Susan Reynolds, talk about the Victoria County History of Middlesex.
The Society met monthly for evening talks, except in July, August and December. By December 1958 it had 57 members. Group visits were made to Gunnersbury Park Museum and to the Layton Collection at Brentford Library – members were encouraged to travel there by trolley bus 655. The second year was more precarious, with only 3 meetings, and membership fell to 37. At the third AGM it became clear that Florence Green had been very ill so Winifred Heard took over as Honorary Secretary.
From 1960 the Society operated smoothly, with an annual programme of talks and outings. There were occasional joint meetings with other local societies. Vernon Radcliffe of Gunnersbury Park Museum and his wife baked Brentford Buns for members in 1964 and in 1968 the Society put on another exhibition at Chiswick Library, successfully campaigned to stop the demolition of the presbytery of the Catholic Church in Chiswick High Road, and provided volunteers for an archaeological dig in Brentford.
A flourishing Society
During the 1970s the range of activities grew and the subscription rose to 30p in 1974 and 50p in 1977. From 1975 meetings took place on Mondays. Guided walks at Strand on the Green and Chiswick Mall formed part of the programme and there were more exhibitions at Chiswick Library. Social and Domestic Life in Brentford and Chiswick in the 18th century and 19th century Brentford and Chiswick each attracted over 500 visitors, while Royal Connections with Brentford and Chiswick for the Queen’s Silver Jubilee in 1977 drew in over 1,000 visitors.
Members decided in 1974 that they would like a social gathering at the AGM. Wine and cheese were offered that year at both the AGM and the Christmas meeting. In 1975, however, the refreshments met a sad end – the committee reimbursed Dr Shaw “for the wine purchased for the Christmas Party cancelled owing to fog and afterwards stolen from the Library”.
From 1978 volunteer stewards from the Society opened Boston Manor House on summer Saturdays, helped by the Boston Manor Residents’ Association from 1985. Charlie Judge supervised the complex rota. We provided a display and reprinted an account of A Royal Occasion at Boston Manor for sale to visitors. But Hounslow Libraries advertised a long summer season each year without consultation, provided poor publicity, and the relationship with the housing association upstairs proved very difficult. After ten years the burden was simply too great, so the Society withdrew and was amazed to find that Hounslow could afford to pay some of our stewards to open the House, on Sundays as well!
Thomas Layton left his antiquarian collection to the people of Brentford in 1911. Most of the objects went to the Museum of London in 1959 and in 1978 we discovered that the Layton Trust intended to move the library to the University of East Anglia. A successful campaign to keep it in the area began with a lecture on Thomas Layton at Brentford Library. This attracted a large audience and was the first of a series of occasional Brentford lectures which proved very popular. In the event, a new trust deed was agreed in 1987 and the Council provided the collection with much improved storage at the new Hounslow Library.
Local history for a wider audience
The Society produced its first publications jointly with Hounslow Council. Kathleen Judges’ Strand on the Green in the 18th Cent-ury appeared in 1970. The first of many books of old photos was Brentford and Chiswick As It Was; we selected the images and wrote the text for Hendon Publishing in 1978. We issued a greetings card from an old print of St Lawrence’s Church in support of its restoration, and made donations towards restoring Brentford’s Jullion Clock and Zoffany’s painting in St Paul’s Church and the conservation of the 1820s Chiswick night patrolmen’s note-book in the Local Studies Collection.
Numerous talks were given to promote the Society and the publications. These included lectures in Brentford by Elizabeth Wood on Brentford’s Waterways and others on the Firestone Factory and Brentford Archaeology. We set up sales tables at local fetes and alongside the annual art show on Turnham Green, and ran quizzes for children; ice cream and rain were occupational hazards. We put on talks and walks for the new Waterman’s Arts Centre in 1984, hoping to reach a new Brentford audience. A Walk round the Grove Park Estate was published jointly with the Grove Park Group in 1981 and sold over 5,000 copies. Christine Shaw’s detailed account of The Rebuilding of Chiswick Vicarage in 1657-8 appeared in 1982 and a second book of old photos, Chiswick As It Was, followed in 1986.
Our first Journals were issued in 1980, 1981, 1982 and 1985, as a record of talks given to the Society, plus topical contributions from local librarians, curators and archaeologists. However, as speakers began to rely more on colour slides in their presentations it became increasingly hard to turn their talks into articles and the Journal ground to a halt.
The Society contributed to several exhibitions at Gunnersbury Park Museum during the 1980s: Who was who on Strand on the Green, with the Strand on the Green Association, Life and Work in Old Chiswick with the Old Chiswick Protection Society and Romans, Travellers & Highwaymen: the Bath Road, working with Andrea Cameron, Local Studies Librarian, who for many years represented the Borough Librarian ex-officio on our committee. Our partnership with the Museum continued with the shared publication of Gunnersbury Park & the Rothschilds.
We celebrated the Society’s 25th birthday in January 1983 with a supper for members at Chiswick Town Hall; St Michael’s Players provided an entertainment with a local history flavour. We started a publications fund by pooling the small donations made when we gave local history talks to other societies. In the 1990s more local history was being commercially published. Many of these books were written by Society members, including Gillian Clegg, Peter and Carolyn Hammond, Janet McNamara, William Roe, Shirley Seaton and Diana Willment. So we began to run a bookstall at meetings to increase this fund.
Small project groups were established during this period. The first researched the life of Thomas Layton. The next transcribed a group of letters to Humphrey Morrice of Grove House Chiswick, then newly purchased for the Local Studies Collection.
We reviewed the idea of the Journal and re-launched it in 1996, with Gillian Clegg as editor. Rodney Walshaw has designed it since 2003 and Carolyn Hammond became editor in 2007. It has continued as an annual publication, free to members. From 2005 we introduced a full colour cover to make it more attractive for sale to others. We published Flood! by Val Bott, with an innovative design by Toni Marshall, telling the story of the Brentford Flood of 1841; it won the first LAMAS London Local History Prize in 2004. Local libraries and museums have been important in selling our publications since local bookshops were not keen to stock our slim volumes. Publications have fostered greater interest in local history and raised awareness of the Society.
Since 2000 the Society has been involved in public history events aimed at engaging a wider community in their local history. In 2001 we joined the successful campaign for a millennium statue of William Hogarth in Chiswick High Road. An Awards For All lottery grant funded the first Local History Week events, with Hogarth’s Chiswick (2002) and Chiswick’s Pictures (2003), two exhibitions at Hogarth’s House created by teams of our members. Alongside these, the grant also funded lively programmes in Brentford, organised jointly with Hounslow Heritage Guides, a partnership which has continued ever since.
The Society wanted to mark the 50th anniversary of the first V2 aimed at Britain, which exploded in Staveley Road, Chiswick, in September 1944. English Heritage rejected our request for a blue plaque to commemorate those who died. A lottery grant and local fund-raising helped us to mark the 60th anniversary in 2004. At a moving event a memorial was unveiled in front of a large crowd. On the same day, in Wassenaar, a suburb of The Hague, a similar memorial was unveiled at the spot where the V2 was fired from a mobile launcher. Later we planted a cherry tree like those in Staveley Road at Peenemünde in Germany, where the V2 was developed. All of this was organised jointly with the Battlefields Trust, with whom we worked again in 2006-8 on interpreting the story of the 1642 Battles of Brentford and Turnham Green.
Publicity about the V2 project on the internet helped us reach former Chiswick residents whose memories we assembled in albums for the Local Studies Library, the Imperial War Museum, the Peenemünde Museum and the Mayor of Wassenaar.
When we were forced to find a new venue for our meetings in 2002 the committee feared that membership would fall. However, the combination of a comfortable room in the Chiswick Memorial Club at Afton House, an arrangement negotiated by our vice-chairman, William Roe, and the opportunity to raise awareness of our activities through ChiswickW4.com and BrentfordTW8.com, the lively community websites, has been very successful.
Our higher profile in the last decade has attracted non-members to specific talks. All are welcomed and encouraged to join – and many subsequently do; our membership has doubled from 97 ten years ago to over 200 today. We are marking our anniversary with a new website.
1958 Michael Metford-Sewell
1961 Cllr Eric J Kenward
1964 Dr Maurice Shaw
1977 Dudley Clark
1980 Doris Yarde
1983 James Wisdom (acting chair)
1984 James Wisdom
1968 Dudley Clark
1977 Doris Yarde
1980 Eric Kenward
1980 James Wisdom
1985 Charlie Judge
1994 William Roe, retiring 2008
1957 Florence Green
asst Winifred Heard
1960 Winifred Heard
asst Mr K A J McGarry
1963 asst Miss B Easter
1966 asst Mr E T Moldram
1969-1984 no asst secretary
1984 asst Nicola Brunt
1985 Nicola Brunt
1990 Mary King
2001 Tess Powell
1987 Catherine Owst
2001 Sheila Caygill
2004 Catherine McCallum
2010 David Bright
1957 S W Lunt
1961 J H Barnes
1967 Miss R E Powell
1969 Mrs Rennie
1970 Christine Shaw
1970 Valerie Wilson
1981 asst Les Whitby
1987 Les Whitby
1991 Dr Prakash Datta
1996 Peter Hammond