The Society’s History

The birth of Hitchin Historical Society can be precisely dated to a meeting held at Hitchin Library on the evening of Friday 4 March 1977. For the Society’s fortieth anniversary in 2017 Terry Knight, one of the founding members who attended that inaugural meeting, wrote a piece for The Hitchin Journal, our twice-yearly magazine. His description of the beginnings of the Society is republished here in full:

The Start Of It All

by founder member Terry Knight

I came to work in Hitchin in 1972 when I was appointed as a Sub-editor on the now defunct North Herts Gazette newspaper, which occupied a building, now turned into flats, on Exchange Yard, off the Market Place.  Several years later, in addition to my editing duties, I wrote a number of historical articles, some of them on Hitchin.  One such article was on banking, which was based on a piece written by Anthony (Tony) Foster which had appeared in the journal Hertfordshire Past and Present number 3, 1962/3.

When it appeared in the Gazette I received a phone call from an upset Mr Foster.  I had sought permission to use the facts in his article but not from him.  However, after I had apologised, we agreed to meet and we became good friends.  On a visit to my home I suggested to Tony that it might be a good idea to start an historical society in Hitchin.  He subsequently mentioned it when he gave a lecture to members of the town’s grammar school old boys’ association, which I attended as a guest.  Tony also wrote a letter, which was printed in the Gazette, inviting interested people to an inaugural meeting to be held at Hitchin Library on 4 March 1977.

More than 40 members of the public turned up.  Tony, who took the chair, with me sitting beside him, explained that the society’s main aims would be to co-ordinate members’ researches on the town and to encourage individuals to assist in recording Hitchin’s history, past and present.  A committee was chosen to elect officers  and arrange, in greater detail, the work of the society.

The committee met on 25 March and elected the following officers: Chairman, Tony Foster; Vice-chairman, Ron Pigram; Secretary, Jean Williams; Treasurer, Pat Gadd; Press Secretary and Speaker Finder, myself; Research Co-ordinator, Helen Poole.  Mrs Poole, of Hitchin Museum, and Kay Petrie, of Hitchin Library, were made ex-officio members of the committee, with the addition of Aillie Latchmore.

The first meeting of our Society was held at the Library when Mrs Poole spoke on Hitchin records and researching.

At this point I would like to give some details about Tony.  He was born in 1920 and educated at Hitchin Boys’ Grammar School.  He joined the family building firm of M & F O Foster in 1936 and trained as a Quantity Surveyor.  He was Vice-chairman for many years and from March 1948 and during the 1950s he edited the company’s magazine, Mortar,[1] and became a member of the Institute of Industrial Editors[2] and a Fellow of the Institute of Builders.  He was a member of the Hitchin Museum Committee and a founder member of The Bancroft Players.

He devoted his time, energies and talents to the study of Hitchin’s past and wrote articles for the Gazette, the Hitchin Comet and the Hertfordshire Countryside magazine.  The Book of Hitchin was the first fruit of his hard work and dedication but sadly, as it was in preparation, he was taken ill and died in 1981.  Several years later our Society published Market Town, which consisted of Tony’s research into many aspects of Hitchin’s history, edited by Lionel Munby, and we also financed the students’ room in Hitchin Museum, then on Paynes Park, in his memory.

Initially meetings were held at Hitchin Library, and refreshments were prepared in the staff kitchen but, as the membership grew, moves were made to Hitchin Priory, Tilehouse Street Baptist Church Hall and finally Church House.

In our early days we went on a number of coach outings – to the Welsh Folk Museum at St Fagan’s, Cardiff in 1982 and in succeeding years trips were made to such varied locations as York, Ironbridge, the Weald and Downland Open Air Museum and the Roman Palace at Fishbourne in Sussex, Leicester, Bath, Lincoln and Salisbury as well as Winchester, Broadlands in Romsey, Colchester, Rochester and Chatham Dockland Museum.

When Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother visited Hitchin in 1979 our Society’s camera team was out in force to make a complete colour sound film of the event.  Later the same year, I believe, saw the publication of a series of booklets entitled Old Hitchin Life.  It contained illustrated articles about local history and amongst the contributors were Tony Foster, Pat Gadd, Ron Pigram and Peter Harkness from Harkness Roses.  Three years later saw the first of a number of publications devoted to a specific subject, this one was Hitchin Market.[3] 

Shortly after our society’s foundation I wrote a newsletter entitled, please excuse the pun, With “Hine” Sight, and succeeding issues appeared, possibly bi-monthly, until they were replaced by the Hitchin Journal. The first of the ever-popular Christmas Events was staged in 1979.  We celebrated our tenth anniversary eight years later with a dinner at the Sun Hotel.  The Loyal Toast was proposed by our first President, Mr W. A. (“Jimmy”) Hill, who also proposed the toast to the guests.  A great friend of Tony, Lionel Munby, proposed the toast to the guests.  Another dinner was held in 1992 to mark our fifteenth anniversary, the venue this time being the Woodside Hall.  An after-dinner talk was given by local historian and author, Tony Rook.

[1] Members may recall that we published large extracts from Mortar in the Hitchin Journal, Volume 20 no. 1 and 2 and Volume 21 no. 1, from 2010-11.  Ed.

[2] The British Association of Industrial Editors was founded in 1949.  Its members were editors of house magazines and newspapers. It became the British Association of Communicators in Business in 1995.

[3] Later subjects included cycling, the straw plait industry and The Biggin.