Lecture Reviews

Scroll down or click on the jump links below to read a short review of each of our recent 2023-24 talks.

Kate Peake - Gloucestershire events and traditions

While Kate describes herself as an amateur videographer, her series of short films were of professional quality, carefully edited and with some stunning shots, certainly justifying the variety of awards she has received. Besides the time filming, by hand and with a drone, she reckons that a finished five-minute video with voice over can take another six hours or more to prepare. Amongst those she played were the Tewkesbury Civil War re-enactment, Brockworth Cheese-rolling, and the Gloucester Tall Ships. The particular historic value of recording such events was brought home to us when, after showing the 2019 Wassailing ceremony in Stroud, she mentioned that it had not been repeated since. Kate has made a number of other short films and we look forward to inviting her back to see her work on the Cotswold countryside from a completely new perspective.

Alison Lister – Textile Conservation


Visiting National Trust and other historic houses, Churches, Museums and Galleries, we may be unaware of the vast amount of background work required to maintain the fabric of the buildings and preserve their contents to continue the memories. We were given a fascinating insight to an important part of this. Alison moved to the SouthWest 20 years ago, having begun her training in conservation some years before with Dame Karen Finch at the Textile Conservation Centre, then based in Hampton Court. Progressing through internships and then leading the TCC’s MA course, she joined the Textile Conservation Studio, now Bristol’s Textile Conservation Limited, of which she is the owner and director, employing a permanent staff of two and a variety of other freelance conservators as needed. Alison’s enthusiasm was evident as she took us through the training and knowledge required before describing the breadth of work undertaken by her team, from the interventive restoration of embroideries, through the stabilisation of World War II flags to the cleaning of huge tapestries, such as Graham Sutherland’s Christ in Glory at Coventry Cathedral. Along the way Alison enumerated the many challenges faced in her work on the practical side of conservation, and concluded by highlighting the challenges faced by her small business, competing for contracts in our uncertain times. 

Angela Lerwill - Tales of a Sussex Family Farm

It is not often that one of our own members features on our programme, so it was a particular pleasure to hear from Angela Lerwill. Recently turned author, Angela self-published her first book ‘Tales of a Sussex Family Farm’ in June 2023. Her writing was a product of Lockdown during the Covid pandemic, and she began by telling us how she progressed from short accounts in a local newsletter to the completed book, and how her style was influenced by James Rebanks’ writings about Cumbria. After leading us through family life with her parents Berns and Counsello and her elder brother and sister during the latter part of the 20th C, Angela then talked about the changing face of agriculture during this time. Despite the challenges, mixed farming at Frithwood in the Arun valley remained true to the old fashioned ways, and so all the better for the welfare of the pigs, the beef cattle, and the 1400 free range Christmas Bronze Turkeys. Reading a small selection of tales from her book Angela, with some emotion, highlighted happy, sad and funny episodes on the farm. Sadly the farmhouse is now a weekend cottage and the fields taken over by others. An inspirational presentation from Angela and her husband Brian, which evoked fond memories for us all.

John Huggins - Backstreet Bronze Casting: don't try this at home!

In 1976 John forsook his career in teaching to become a full-time sculptor, working in bronze. So, on a tight budget, he set up his own garage studio, recycling and repurposing second-hand equipment to build a kiln and furnace. Over the last 50 years, while remaining close to his roots in Gloucestershire, John has developed immense skill and craftsmanship, becoming a Fellow of the Royal Society of Sculptors, and is now a mentor of his art. During his move to Frampton eight years ago he rediscovered a number of boxes of slides and prints, recording his sculpting life. His talk, from ‘Bronze Casting Marshfield 1979’, allowed us a fascinating insight to Cire Perdue, the lost-wax casting process. He lead us from preparation of the wax former, incorporating the piece, through mould building with plaster grog, onto draining the hot wax and then pouring in the molten bronze (often recovered gas taps). Despite the last being a potentially explosive experience if all the wax has not been removed, John has survived to tell us his amusing tale. (Perhaps because he favoured running shoes for a fast escape, rather than expensive leather protective gear). After allowing the bronze to cool, he accounted for three to four days of cutting out the piece, cleaning and polishing, and perhaps patination. Following a barrage of questions from a much enthused audience, John passed around two small abstract sculptures, both, as usual, inspired by natural forms. The earlier piece, from his bird series, was polished bronze, while the more recent, the representation of the head of a woman, had a wonderful speckled olive green/brown patina. The second was also surprisingly light, being a thin bronze (and so the better surface), just a few mm depth, formed in between the mould and an inert, readily removed core. Though now well past the normal age of retirement John continues sculpting, and offers his pieces through two agents, one nearby in Bristol, Clifton Fine Art. John proved a superb raconteur and received much warm appreciation.

Lecture Secretary - the SouthWest Film and Television Archive

As the planned speaker was unable to attend, at short notice, a presentation about the SWFTA was given, to inform members about films featuring the more recent history of our region, which might be included in a future Club programme, as well as highlighting an outstanding location for a Club visit.

The SouthWest Film and Television Archive, founded in 1993, is the regional film archive for the SouthWest of England (covering the area from the Isles of Scilly to Gloucestershire in the North and as far East as Bournemouth). In 2020, as part of the Plymouth History Centre Project, the Archive found a new home at the wonderful Museum and cultural hub, the Box, in Plymouth. Their moving image collection is recognised nationally as the largest and one of the most valued regional heritage film archives in the UK. It comprises over 250,000 titles; the originals are conserved in a specialist cold store within the Box. The films date from 1898 (a travelogue from Ilfracombe to Barnstaple), though the core collections are the Television SouthWest Film and Video Library (which includes all Channel 3 material for the area from 1961 to 1992 for the ITV franchises Westward TV and TSW) and the BBC SouthWest Film Collection (dating from 1961 onward). There are also many other amateur and professional collections, such as the Major Digby collection, recording the changing life of Cornwall in the 1930s through the lens of a Truro shopkeeper, and the Page collection, showing the travels in a caravan and home life of Bristol-based Frank Page from the 1930s to the 1950s. While much of the collection can be viewed at the Box, many films are now digitised, so there is a wealth of material to hire on DVD; and there are also some online resources, the Box on Screen, conversations about film clip compilations, such as ‘Women on Film’, which includes items from the 1930s to the 1990s. 

Jim Pimpernell - The Berkeley Estate in the 18th Century

Jim gave a riveting account of his PhD research into the nearby Berkeley Estate, which he completed recently following his retirement from a career in IT. Whilst beginning with a broader remit concerning the landscape, discovering little had changed in the 18th and 19th centuries he refocused on the business side of the Estate during the lifetimes of the 2nd to the 5th Earls. The Estate archives at Berkeley Castle hold a wealth of material including the Stewards’ accounts (rather less legible during the middle of the chosen period) and some revealing Estate maps. The current owners, who can trace their residence in the Castle back to the 12th Century, gave Jim free access to digitise the necessary documents, and he ended up with over 11,000 images to study at his leisure. He soon narrowed down his interest to the changes in the rental income from the agricultural land from1699-1809. Hidden in what at first sight seemed a simple graph that he had drawn of income plotted against year(see page 7 the Autumn 2022 Berkeley Buttress), he was able to tease out a fascinating tale of social and family fortunes and catastrophes. Because of the nature of the tenancies and the way they changed in type over the period there was a different story emanating from each Earl’s stewardship. The income over the lifetime of Charles, the second Earl, was reasonably constant bar frequent spikes; it turned out these reflected the deaths of tenants and the levying of a substantial ‘fine’ for the renewal of a tenancy. Jim’s sleuthing showed how the profligacy of subsequent incumbents, or their young age could be read from the graph, as, for example, the need for extra funds leading to lifetime tenancies being renewed early, though at favourable rates. Frederick Augustus, the 5th Earl, almost bankrupt the Estate with debts of over £60,000 in 1790. It was thanks to his wife, Mary Cole (22 years Frederick’s junior, and who bore him 5 illegitimate and 7 further offspring after their marriage), that the Estate was saved for the Berkeley family. She was responsible for having new, precise maps drawn up, changing all the leases to annual rents and charging the market value. Clues were encoded in the graph and Estate maps too on the rise of ‘fines’ such that the leases could only be afforded by investors who would sub-let to the farmers, and eventually reversion to direct lease by the farmers on Mary Cole’s intervention in the Estate management. Who could not help but be enthused over such intriguing research into our local history by Jim’s amazing account?

Philip Taubenheim – Tales of a Country Auctioneer

Philip gave an excellent and amusing talk which was very well attended. Starting with his father in 1945 who was defending Berlin for the Germans while the Russians, Americans and British were closing in. He was taken prisoner by the Americans and handed over to the British. He was then taken to a camp in Minehead (later a Billy Butlin’s camp). While there he worked as a farm labourer and was released in 1948. 

He was offered the choice of returning to Germany but chose to stay in England. He carried on working as a farm labourer and to improve his English he used to buy books by the box full from local auctions. He found he could make money selling some of the books at a profit. He married a farmer's daughter.  After seeing an advert in The Lady magazine for a couple to run the grounds and garden and a retreat for a convent, with a tied cottage included, they moved to Oxfordshire. Three children later they moved to Burford where they lived and opened a book shop.

When Philip got to 16 and couldn’t decide what he wanted to do, his father gave him the Yellow Pages and told him to go through them and see if there was anything he fancied doing. He got as far as Auctioneer and decided he would like to try that. He had work experience, unpaid, for a whole summer in Cirencester. There was not a vacancy at the end but the following year they offered him a post, so he started at the bottom and worked his way up. He now has a thriving business Auctioneering in Wotton-under-Edge.

Fifty years ago the role of an auctioneer was very different from today. They were also estate agents and valuers. Building societies started buying the estate agency side and auctioneering took on a separate roll. Before the advent of modern technology, the auctioneer knew a lot of the buyers and worked a room to get the best prices, but now it is not unusual to sell to just phone and internet bidders.

Chas Townley - Stroud Workhouse: a danger to sick people

Since relinquishing his roles as a social housing manager and a District and Town Councillor for Stroud, Chas has been busy pursuing his other interests in local social history (Rodborough House, Margaret Hills - the secret Suffragist from Stroud, the lives of Stroud servicemen from World War I etc) and public rights to access. Chas began his talk with a brief overview of the Open Spaces Society, for which he was recently appointed a Cotswold champion, before telling us the story of Stroud Workhouse, from its inception through to closure.

The Open Spaces Society began its existence as the Commons Preservation Society in 1865, and as such is the oldest national conservation organisation in the UK. (Its founders included Sir Robert Hunter and Octavia Hill, who, 30 years later, went on to help set up the National Trust). The Society campaigns for, assists and defends local open spaces and rights of way, initially just in London, but now nationwide. Chas’ initial involvement was in saving the common at Sneedhams Green, Gloucester, while his current focus is on recording the forgotten rights of way in and around Stroud before the Government registration deadline of 1st January 2031. According to the Ramblers’ Association there are over 1000 miles of missing paths in the County.

In the second part of his talk Chas turned his attention to the history of Stroud Workhouse, putting its evolution in the context of the changes to the Parish, County and National provision for the poor and infirm. Some Parishes, such as Rodborough, founded workhouses or poor houses after a 1602 edict, which made them responsible for the poor in their communities. Stroud Workhouse began in Silver Street in the early 1700s, but moved to larger purpose built premises on upper Bisley Road around 1840; this was consequent on the 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act which nationalised the welfare system and lead to the Poor Law Union for Stroud, which incorporated several Parishes. In the 1851 census the list of the 295 inmates, covering 14 pages, included elderly paupers, unemployed cloth workers and weavers, children and the mentally ill. From the beginning, the regime was harsh and dehumanising with wives, husbands and children separated, belongings confiscated, and draconian rules enforced. The building was extended in 1899, but by the early 1900s, according to the social reformer Charles Booth’s survey of Workhouses and the poor, there were just 128 inmates over the age of 65 with a further 602 receiving welfare relief in the community and a further 50 medical relief, so no longer was support dependent on entering an institution. In the 1930s the National Coalition Governments’ policies were for modern hospital provision alongside that of residential care for older people, and of around 250 Stroud Workhouse inmates, the majority were sick or infirm. The Workhouse was now seen as not fit for its revised purpose, but the proposal to demolish and rebuild in Leonard Stanley was eventually turned down by the County Council. A subsequent plan to simply remodel the existing building was also abandoned after the County Medical Officer declared it unfit for nursing sick people. So the Workhouse was closed at short notice in 1939, with the remaining patients scattered to the four corners of Gloucestershire with no thought to their family ties. Demolition was scheduled, but World War II intervened. After the War the building served as the Museum store before the Council sold it for redevelopment in the 1970s, ironically this lead to its preservation as a residential complex, Stone Manor.


Fiona Warin - the Land Girls

While in the late 1930s Britain was self-sufficient in some staples like milk and potatoes, the country imported half or more of others such as meat and wheat. Overall only 30% of our food was produced domestically. Increased food production was going to be critical in a time of conflict. This could only be achieved by bringing back farmland that had fallen into disuse over fallow times in the previous decade, but with former farm labourers having joined up 10,000 women were now urgently needed to work on the land. In 1941 the Government brought in the National Subscription Act requiring 20-30 year old women to do some war work.

So Fiona set the scene for her highly original presentation in which she took the part of an Officer of the Women’s Land Army, with the audience as prospective recruits hearing about the jobs, the digs, the uniform, pay, and the social life of a Land Girl. Some were selected for a light-hearted interview, all passed and were accepted. Joan, a pacifist, was keen to work on a farm; Doris fancied wearing the uniform, especially the breeches; Patricia, rather well-to-do, thought it might involve just a spot of gardening; Jean liked the idea of working alongside the lumber-Jacks; while Shirley just wanted to do her bit, although just over 17 she could volunteer. While all in the WLA faced pretty hard labour, many found camaraderie, but a few, like Shirley, were abused and treated no better than slaves.

There were three sections to the WLA: agriculture, timber cutting and forage. After a few weeks agricultural training, including how to milk a cow, and gaining a proficiency certificate, the Land Girls were sent to live on farms to begin work which was varied and gruelling, rooting up thistles, clearing ditches, driving awkward tractors, harvesting crops such as potatoes and sugar beet, tending to the livestock, etc. Subsequently it was recognised that larger groups of women could work more effectively on some tasks, for example in clearing a field, so dormitories were set up, each for around 30 Land Girls, and every working day (Monday to Saturday morning) the group set off by charabanc to the allotted farm. 

Initially lumber-Jills were involved in less physical tasks, identifying trees that had been specified for felling to make pit props and aeroplane parts, and ensuring the timber was cut to size. Later on in the War, as even lumber-jacks were called up, women also took over their role.

The above precis does little justice to the wealth of humorous content of Fiona’s talk, which she concluded in fine voice with her patriotic rendition of the Women’s Land Army song (with audience participation).

The WLA was finally disbanded in 1950, by when the area of land in cultivation had more than doubled. However, the Land Girls’ contribution to the War effort was then completely forgotten until the 1980s when it was highlighted in a BBC documentary series. Not before time, service medals were awarded in 2008 and memorials to the 240,000 Land Girls and Lumber-Jills from both World Wars were unveiled first in Clochan, Moray in 1912 and then at the National Arboretum, Staffordshire, in 2014.

Recruiting poster (WWI)