By David Seaton
On 5th May 2015, Huntingdon Writers’ Group celebrated its 30th anniversary. Current and former members enjoyed an evening at the Dolphin Hotel in St Ives as they looked back at thirty years of nostalgia. The evening brought back memories of when the group met in Room 64 at Huntingdonshire Regional College. But how many people know that there has actually been a long history of Huntingdon writer groups and the forming of the current group in 1985 simply carried on a line of writer groups bound by similar constitutional requirements?
Arguably the most influential era of group history belonged to the 78th Huntingdon Writers’ Group. It was formed in 1628 by Oliver Cromwell shortly after he became MP for Huntingdon.
Meetings were held in the school where Cromwell was educated in his early years. The remains of the school today houses the Cromwell museum in the centre of Huntingdon.
At the first AGM, Cromwell was elected chairman, his wife Elizabeth became secretary and James Subs, a parliamentary advisor to Cromwell, took on the job of tax collector. To enable Cromwell to pursue his parliamentary duties, he issued a decree that meetings were to be held on the first Tuesday of every month, a ruling that is still evident today. James Subs’ task was to collect a tax from any member writing, or reading a piece of work. Cromwell moved to St Ives in 1631, but continued as chairman. However, the group was disbanded in 1653 at the end of the Civil War when Cromwell became Lord Protector.
The most documented period of group history came six years later when civil servant Samuel Pepys revived the 78th group. Pepys, who spent some of his education at the same Huntingdon school as Cromwell, was elected secretary and immediately became absorbed by group matters. Such was his interest that after two months he began taking notes of everything that happened during meetings. But he soon fell out with the group’s tax collector who continually demanded money for his notes. Enraged by this, Pepys complained to a sympathetic parliament and the tax was abolished and replaced by a levy which all members had to pay to gain admission to group meetings. However, Parliament did allow new members free admission on their first visit.
Pepys later shared his work with group members. This practice was approved by Parliament and became a popular addition to the group’s constitution. Today, members still enjoy this practice through monthly newsletters. As for Pepys, writing about group matters inspired him to write a daily account of life in the 17th century. Written in shorthand, it was not until 1825 that these writings were deciphered and, of course, became known as Samuel Pepys Diary. The 78th Group ended in 1672 shortly after Pepys, now a naval administrator, left the group to become Secretary to the Admiralty.
Records before Cromwell, although sketchy, still reveal some interesting facts. In 1534, Henry Vlll sent the 75th Group’s committee to the Tower of London. They had unwisely asked Henry Vlll’s first wife Catherine of Aragon to be a speaker at Buckden Palace where the group occasionally held meetings. Henry Vlll had sent Catherine to the Palace to live following the annulment of their marriage in 1533. The Palace today is known as Buckden Towers and the grounds are still open to the public.
During Catherine’s talk to the group, she read a poem she had written called ‘Henry Vlll I Am.’ News quickly reached the King and he was not impressed. He imprisoned Catherine in Kimbolton Castle and sanctioned the dissolution of the Writers’ Group. But he did not destroy the poem. By order of the king, it was displayed outside the Tower of London as a deterrent to other writers who dared to mock the monarchy. The poem was later turned into a song and was released as a single by 60s group Herman’s Hermits.
As for the forming of the early constitution, this can be traced back one million years to the Stone Age. The Second Writers’ Group used to meet every week at Rock 64 in an area that years later became the foundations for the Huntingdonshire Regional College.
Members arrived at meetings with a slab of stone and a chisel like tool to write with. Wilma Flint, a local cook, became secretary and became known as Cooking Wilma. Don Stone, a feared hunter became chairman and became known as Hunting Don. The group laterbecame known as Hunting Don’s Writers Group. Members often held competitions and Hunting Don ruled that no entries exceeded a maximum word count of two. Although thisrule was set in stone, the word count for competitions has over time progressively increased. Today, competitions often have a word count of 1000.
For many years, historians believed the Stone Age Group was the first Huntingdon writers’ group to inhabit the Earth, But huge footprint patterns excavated and deciphered during an archaeological dig in Huntingdon in 1837 changed their opinions. Now it is widely accepted that the first writers’ group was formed when Huntingdonshire was ruled by dinosaurs
However, committee members Tyran Saurus, Stego Saurus, and founder member Chairman Theo Saurus found it hard to control the group. Members refusing to attend were eaten and those attending were also eaten. That was basically it. The First Writers’ group ended abruptly 65 million ago when the Earth was hit by an asteroid which wiped out all the dinosaurs. Print interpretations of Theo Saurus’ work were subsequently recognised by British physician and lexicographer Peter Mark Roget in his book published in 1852 aptly titled Roget’s Thesaurus . Today, Theo’s work continues to be recognised.
Of course, other writers groups through the ages have also made influential contributions to the constitution. How many members know that if it was not for Sir Francis Drake, the current group would not now be holding meetings at the Indoor Bowls Club in Huntingdon?
But then that’s another story.
© 2016 by David Seaton.