Our popular WHS Talks are held at the Balsam Centre, Balsam Park BA9 9HB (accessed from Memorial Hall Car Park), usually on the last Wednesday evening of the month.

Doors open 6.30pm with the talk starting at 7pm. Our 9 talks throughout the year range widely, covering local and national topics such as the Roman Villa at the Newt, life of a local vet in 20th century, restoration of Earl of Shaftesbury’s house, the Nuremburg Trials.

A brief round-up of previous talks are available if you click the “Previous Talks” button further down this page.

The programme is being constantly developed so do revisit this site, check out our Instagram or Facebook and look out for our eye-catching posters in various locations around the town advising forthcoming subjects.

Entry Charges (per person):
Members and under 18s: free
Non-members: £10.00

From time to time Special Talks are being booked. The venue for these is the Memorial Hall. Last year we heard from John Blashford-Snell, and enjoyed a live performance of Flamenco dancing. Charges for these talks differ from the standard Talks charge. Keep an eye on this site for details.

Special Talks (per person):
Members: free (donation welcomed)
Non-members: See listing for prices

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A wartime legacy hardly used during WW2

A bookshop in Alnwick, a laboratory in Bedfordshire, and a slew of merchandise that has proliferated since 2000 are all connected – by what?  By the well-known war-time phrase “Keep Calm and Carry On” – except that phrase was barely used during WW2, we learnt from Paul Hooley.

Apparently, three posters were created in 1939, in the run up to the war that was becoming inevitable, to motivate the population.  Two were used, the third one – Keep Calm and Carry On – was held back, thought by the Ministry of Information to be either too patronising or too alarming, particularly if an invasion took place.  An initial run had been printed yet most were destroyed; a rare few survived.  One of these few turned up in 2000 in Northumberland among some second-hand books being handled by a bookshop in Alnwick. The owner saw an opportunity and started reproducing the poster.  It was picked up by a journalist and caught the public imagination and the bookshop owner could barely keep up with the explosion of interest that continues to this day. As they say, the rest is history. The original phrase and assorted variations are part of common parlance now.

Subsequently, while trawling through the archives of the local press in Bedford, Mr Hooley came across a photograph taken in a secret wartime laboratory locally.  On the wall in the background was a poster – Keep Calm and Carry On.  Further evidence that some did make it out of the Ministry of Information.

This led him to look at the wartime activities of backroom “boffins” within a geographic area that included Bletchley, of Bletchley Park fame, and Bedford. It was noted that Chequers, near Aylesbury, was relatively close.  This being the country house for the use of Prime Ministers, Churchill was frequently in the area.  Nearby was a location taken over for secret research and development of innovations that gave Britain an edge in prosecuting the war successfully; it became known as Churchill’s “toy shop” with his personal protection for and interest in the work being undertaken there.  He visited often, and often unannounced.

Not all items were created by boffins.  The limpet mine resulted from a collaboration of two men, one of them a maker of caravans.  While head-scratching how to make a waterproof mine that would adhere to the hulls of ships, one sucked on an aniseed ball and suddenly realised it dissolved at a slow, steady rate.  This could be used to embed the detonator and allow the planter of the device to get away before explosion.  However, how to make it waterproof.  A flash of inspiration sent them on a shopping spree around Bedford, buying up all the condoms they could.  Needless to say, this set the area by the ears and the oral tradition circulated the tale, creating goodness knows what reputation for the two men!

Of course, many other items were invented and developed in this lovely part of England, some useful to the eventual successful prosecution of the war, but, due to the necessary secrecy to which everyone was bound, little is known about many of them.  However, this essential work carried on steadily in the spirit of the now famous poster phrase Keep Calm and Carry On.

There was much serendipity about many wartime events and exploits and it was surely serendipity that led to a single poster among dusty second-hand books to take on a second life in the 21st century and further serendipity that an archived black and white snapshot showing a rare wartime use of the poster in an area of the country noted for its resourceful creativeness during wartime should fall into Paul Hooley’s hands and lead him to put together this interesting talk on events perhaps hitherto less well known than they should be.


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