Workers Educational Association, Witham

Letter from Janet Gyford to Myra of Witham Workers Education Association (W.E.A.). Myra wanted information about the history of the Witham branch, to put in the Association magazine EF.

Date possibly 1996.

Dear Myra,

EF seemed very full and interesting to me so I find it hard to imagine you are really short of material as you say !

But just in case, here are a few reminiscences about Witham, inspired by Dorothy [Hancock]’s article. In between meeting at the Maldon Road centre and at Spring Lodge, we had a spell in Bramston School. It was interrupted at intervals by the school bell, but had the advantage that some of the girls came from the school to run the creche as part of their studies – I don’t think many boys came.

Very welcome they were too, because there weren’t so many playgroups in those days, and to some of us an hour and a half without the children was one of the main attractions – regardless of the topic. No offence to the tutors intended !

There were times when we wondered whether the crèche was a good thing, as it did cause extra problems with organisation. And a friend and fellow-founder member, Sheila Barbone, has just reminded me of the moments when one of the Bramston girls would appear at the door at a particularly gripping moment in the talk, and we would wonder whether it was our child that was being a nuisance and required our attention. Rather akin to having your car number called out for blocking someone’s way, only worse !

After that, Linda Bell [now Linda Farnell] ran the creche herself for several years, and the troubles seemed much viewer – we were all extremely grateful to her.

Now that I look back at my notes on all the fascinating lectures, and realise how many of my present friends I first met in the early days of the branch, I am sure that it was worth all the effort.

A number of the early members of the classes went on to more formal higher education as time went on, and I think that many would agree that the W.E.A. classes helped to give them both the inspiration and the confidence to do so. Shirley Keeble, the first treasurer, worked her way all the way from ‘O’ levels to a Ph.D.; as I write this she is teaching English in China.

I believe that our first series of lectures, in January 1972, was on the ‘History of Architecture’ by Mr.Weaver of Harwich. The next two were by a quiet but charming young man, Howard Newby [now Sir Howard], from the University of Essex; his first term was about ‘Social Change in East Anglia’ and the second about the ‘Sociology of Britain’. I recall that some members, particularly the older ones, were somewhat sceptical about this newfangled subject and asked many searching questions, but I think Howard left most people convinced of its value in the end. I certainly found it gripping and enlightening and have since found many of his points to be an important basis for local history. We were honoured to have him; he has since scaled many dizzy heights of the academic world.

I see that we were lucky enough to have at least three courses during the 1970s by Arthur Brown on different aspects of local history, including one in 1973 about Witham, which was a great source of inspiration and help to me and no doubt many others.

Another highlight of the 1970s was Myra Wilkins’ [a different Myra] heraldry class; it is much easier to get to know the rest of the class if you are all drawing and colouring shields rather than sitting in rows listening. Myra also showed us some of the heraldry in Witham, especially in the church, which I for one had passed many a time without noticing, and which again has been most helpful to me since.

One more quite practical and fascinating class was on the psychology of education by Mrs.Thomas, which I think was punctuated by various tests to do with shapes drawn on pieces of paper, though I can’t remember all the details !

I recall some very enjoyable outings too, to places which I don’t think I would have got myself to with small children. One was to the Museum of Rural Life at Stowmarket, where among other entrancing exhibits I first saw the poster for James Smyth and Sons, nineteenth-century manufacturers of seed drills at Peasenhall; they had branches at “Witham, Essex, and Rue Lafayette, Paris”.

Another trip was to a series of delightful gardens which I think were over the border in Hertfordshire; they certainly seemed exotic. The children rolled down the landscaped slopes and we enjoyed the statues and the trees and the flowerbeds. It must have been when we were returning from one of these that the coach demolished one of the gate posts at Spring Lodge; the entrance has wisely been widened since.

I hope this is some help. Do get in touch if you think I can help with anything else.





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