Wollaston sign
Wollaston sign

Wollaston Heritage Society - A Brief History

Wollaston Heritage Society – 50 years – A Brief History

In 1970, a group of village stalwarts met together to acknowledge the fact that village life as they had always known it was rapidly changing, and steps needed to be taken urgently to ensure the survival of Wollaston’s heritage.  Further meetings followed and much discussion took place, from which a new, self-funding organisation known as ‘The Wollaston Society’ emerged.  Its main aims were to preserve buildings and areas of historic interest, to form collections of historic material such as documents, paintings, photographs, legends, etc., and to generally associate itself with any matter concerning Wollaston.  Mr Chris James became the first Society Chairman, Officers and Committee were appointed and an annual subscription rate of 25 pence was set for anyone wishing to become a member.  The first major event to be staged was an Exhibition of Local Arts and Crafts, held at the Parochial Hall in February 1971 and the event was enthusiastically received by villagers.  £51.95 was raised to open Society funds and requests for membership also began to flow in – the new Society was in business.  Future programmes were planned, and later that year the Society revived the Annual Street Fair which was granted by Charter from Henry III to William de Bray in 1260 AD, but had lapsed over time.  Subsequent Street Fairs were then held for the next 15 years.
Two further Society aims were 1) To publish an updated History of Wollaston, which came to fruition in 1977 with the publication of David Hall’s book, ‘Portrait of a Village’, and 2) To create a Museum, this latter aim being more in the nature of a pipe dream than actual reality.  However, in the early 1970’s the old Congregational Chapel in High Street came onto the market in a state of serious neglect, having been totally gutted by fire.  By great good fortune, Messrs Shelton, Orsborn bought the derelict property, and in a Deed of Trust dated 1974 transferred it to the infant Society for the purposes of establishing a Museum.  Great excitement prevailed, but some trepidation too, seeing that accrued funds stood at less than £500, but nevertheless plans were drawn up.  A Constitution was adopted in 1976 and the Society became a Registered Charity, then following the sad and untimely death of Chris James, Mr Paul Gilbey took on the office of Chairman and launched a Museum Appeal Fund.  Generous sums were donated by the two major industrialists of the time, Messrs. Griggs and Scott Bader, but donations also flowed in from many other sources in the village.  Early records show that Society members sold everything from wood to wellingtons in an effort to boost funds.  Finally, renovation work was begun and whilst this was still under way the Society was given the chance to purchase a small cottage across the yard which had an Improvement Notice registered against it.  Although it was a struggle to secure funds the cottage was duly bought, which in retrospect was a very wise decision.  It was a momentous day on 17th November 1979 when the Museum was officially opened by Mr Ray Griggs, and after the ceremony there were glasses of sherry all round for members and guests.  In 1980, another feature of significant interest was added to the Museum site, when a major part of the Scheduled Ancient Monument known as Beacon Hill was entrusted to the Society by Miss Dorothy Watts.
So within the first decade of its founding, the Society had been entrusted to preserve and maintain Museum premises, an old Cottage and a Scheduled Ancient Monument, and this was a huge responsibility for a young, self-funding organisation.  Fortunately, in those early years the Society was able to rely upon a large body of enthusiastic members to organise events and suchlike in order to keep the Museum financially secure, although the Cottage did not fare so well as it was used merely as a store for 25 years due to lack of funds.  Throughout the 1980s membership was high and all events were well supported.  Talks and lectures by eminent speakers were organised, coffee mornings and social evenings were held at local houses, and there were Summer outings to Castor, Fotheringhay and Boughton House amongst others.  1986 saw the final Street Fair but in 1988 a new venture was tried in the form of an ‘Old Wollaston Evening’, which proved most successful, and became an annual event for a number of years after.  A most ambitious project was launched in 1991 when, with the use of high-quality equipment, video recordings were made by some Society members covering different aspects of village life during the whole year.  Subjects covered were education, industry, farming, religion and leisure, and the end result was an incredible record of how Wollaston people lived, worked and played in 1991.  During the 1990s the two ‘Wollaston’ signs were designed and commissioned by the Society for the village and a full programme of events also took place.  Most notable amongst these was a guided tour of the Palace of Westminster by Keith Lovell and an emotive talk by Gisela Watkins on her life in Germany during the Second World War.
With the coming of the new Millennium the Society decided it needed a new image and with Charity Commission approval changed its name to the Wollaston Heritage Society. It also recognised that some of its premises were looking tired and shabby but as always lack of finance was the restricting factor.  However, fresh beginnings brought a flurry of activity with new members joining the Committee.  Fund raising memorabilia was produced in the form of table mats, coasters and china beakers, and a supplement to David Hall’s book entitled ‘Wollaston Notes 2000’ was launched that Summer.  2002 saw the first Easter Egg hunt on Beacon Hill, with Golden Jubilee celebrations and coach trips to Salisbury, Stonehenge and Easton Neston House to follow.  In July, the first Open Gardens Day took place and this popular scheme, which has now become a village institution, has since raised thousands of pounds for Museum and Society funds.  Supported by the ‘Awards For All’ scheme, a Mediaeval Pageant was staged over two days in September 2003, with members dressing in authentic costume to take part.  It was a unique event with entertainment featuring Falconry, Archery, Farrier demonstrations, a Court Jester and much more.  The Pageant raised great interest and attracted many visitors.
For a long time the neglected state of the Cottage and Museum yard had been causing concern, so in 2003 the Society took a great leap of faith and applied for a Heritage Lottery Grant.  A separate application to improve Beacon Hill was also made.  To the Society’s delight, both grants were awarded in 2004 – and it all sounds so simple but indeed it was not.  Getting so far had involved dogged determination, many hours of voluntary work and total commitment by a comparatively small group of Society members.  But what a joy it was, when in 2005 the newly named ‘Curiosity Cottage’ was opened as part of the Museum site by Geraldine Northway (nee Ross) – a member of the last family to have lived there.  Improvement to the properties was a tremendous boost and visitor numbers leapt.  Everyone wanted to see what had been done, and in 2006 a Northamptonshire Heritage Award for cottage restoration was presented to the Society at Lamport Hall.  An upstairs room in the cottage remained empty for a few years, but in 2009 it was fitted out as an Archive Room, where precious documents are stored and visitors can carry out research.  So the Museum site provides a remarkable asset to the village and community, and an educational facility for Schools and Colleges.  School children in particular find it totally fascinating to see how their grandparents used to live.  Bringing us right up to date, the Society now has its own website (www.wollastonheritage.org).
In this brief history it has not been possible to name all the wonderful people who have given of their time, talents and resources over 50 years, to accomplish what the Society has today.  From the early pioneers to today’s volunteers there are just so many of them.  They have come from all walks of life and their service has spanned different decades, but whatever and whenever their own piece of the jigsaw was put in, the future of Wollaston’s heritage is secure due to their invaluable help and commitment, and we say a huge ‘thank you’ to them all.  Our great hope is that future generations will recognise the legacy that has been left to them, and will preserve and guard it fiercely.

Wollaston Heritage Society 2020