The Association came into existence in late 1946, the date of the first meeting – at Pelly House – being December 6th. Of the group of local enthusiasts behind it, perhaps the most notable was Walter Spradbery. A painter and noted poster artist for London Transport, Spradbery and his wife, Dorothy d’Orsay, were central figures in the area’s cultural life, staging plays, operas, and classical concerts hi the grounds of their house, The Wilderness.
Post-war, without the myriad means and sources of entertainment and education available today, it was felt that Buckhurst Hill needed its own centre for cultural activity. Spradbery wrote of his famous series of posters depicting London in the war, “The Proud City”, that they were intended to convey “the sense that havoc is itself passing and with new days come new hopes.” The founding of the Association was itself an expression of that hope and belief in reconstruction through the community spirit engendered during the war.
Even more of an instigator of a community association than Spradbery was its first Secretary, Eric Southwell. The Communist philosophy which lay behind his belief in a meaningful and active association of the community, in all its senses, was viewed with suspicion by some of the others involved, but he had Spradbery’s support – and the combination of these two contrasting figures was instrumental in developing the Association, which in 1949 was able to elect its first President, Mr. C. Linder, J.P. (of Linder’s Fields).
Various local bodies were soon affiliating to the new Association, including political parties, the British Legion, and such groups as the Women’s Co-operative Guild, the Folk Dance Society, and the Rabbit and Poultry Club.
Classes and events initially took place in a variety of venues such as Pelly House, the Drill Hall, St. Elizabeth’s Hall, and Buckhurst Hill Hall in Queens Road. The latter was considered as a permanent base, but this was prevented by Essex Council’s plan to turn it into the branch library it still is.
Other possibilities considered for a permanent home were the Albert Road School and the British Restaurant, but the search finally alighted on Bedford House in Westbury Road, a large detached house built in the early 1900s and used as a family residence between the wars. By the outbreak of World War 2 it was standing empty, and was requisitioned as a billet for the duration, ending up empty again at the war’s end, and apparently owned by the Ministry of Health, for the January 1949 Committee minutes note that the Ministry “had now authorised the purchase of Bedford House” by Essex Council. By September 1949, after much renovation work, the Association was meeting at its new home, which Essex leased to them for a peppercorn rent.
Through the post-war years the Association developed as a lively social centre, providing a meeting -place for local groups and regularly holding fetes, concerts and fairs. The most notable of these events was the annual Forest Log Trial – similar to the Dunmow Flitch, this was the awarding of a trophy, the Forest Log, to the happiest married couple in the area, who had to have their claim tested in a trial before a judge, who was usually played by a local celebrity, often an actor such as Jack Watling or William Hartnell (the first Dr. Who) These trials were held from 1947 to 1958, and then revived briefly in 1977-78 (Whether their cessation says anything about the state of marriage in Buckhurst Hill is a question beyond the scope of these notes…).
Although it acted as a social centre, the Association always emphasised the role of adult education, particularly in the arts and crafts; the legacy, perhaps, of Walter Spradbery’s involvement. In this it differed from many other community associations, who concentrated on social and/or sporting activities and facilities. This emphasis on education was to prove crucial in the future.
One of the Association’s outstanding, and longest-serving, tutors was noted local artist Vivian Bewick, from the family of Thomas Bewick, the famous 19th century engraver of birds and animals. It was Vivian Bewick who in 1952 designed, and with his students carried out, a series of murals in Bedford House. Some are long gone, but those above the main staircase, depicting in a delightfully naive style the local area and its history, have survived. Time took its toll over the years, but in 1992 Essex Council financed their restoration, and the newly renovated murals were “unveiled” in the presence of the now elderly but delighted artist himself.
Over the years the Association grew and developed, in 1970 building its own hall attached to Bedford House. This enabled an expansion in physical classes such as Keep Fit and various kinds of dancing, including at different times Ballroom, Tap, and Belly. But the arts and crafts remained the core of its classes, and it began to hold annual summer exhibitions of students’ work, demonstrating both the range and quality produced in these fields by the Association’s members.
With the post-war expansion of education, and emphasis on its importance, Essex County Council increasingly provided advice and support, culminating in 3 part-time county staff – a Warden and two Deputy Wardens – being installed to devise and administer the education programme. The classes, however, remained financed and controlled by the Association itself, a fact which would prove vital, later, to its continued survival.
This survival came under increasing threat as the 1980s and 1990s saw local authorities all over the country being restricted financially by central government, and scaling down their commitment to, and support of, community associations. Those in Essex, as elsewhere, began having to contemplate cutting many of their activities, or even closing altogether.
In 1994 a spirited campaign of publicity and support-gathering, led by Warden Jeanne Croxon and Chairman Phyllis Eales, averted the immediate threat, with Essex Council’s decision to maintain its three staff being heavily influenced by BHCA’s position as, in effect, a small adult-education college, rather than a sports and social facility.
However, continued restructuring and funding cuts within Essex Council made it likely that this was only a temporary reprieve, and so it proved. Having been put under the line-management of the Principal of Wansfell College, once this institution was deemed surplus to requirements by Essex, the 3 staff at Bedford House were made redundant by the council. The Association itself, though, was safe, secure with a renewed peppercorn lease from Essex County Council, and able – through its own financing and control of its courses – to maintain its classes and activities, and now in a position to re-employ 2 of the wardens (now re-designated as Course Co-ordinators) to continue to administer the education programme.
In 2016, BHCA, as a fully independent, self-supporting registered charity, will celebrate 70 years of providing what is now called “life-long learning”, with the aim of continuing to do so for many more years.
Link to BHCA constitution