City of Bath Heraldic Society How we began

  Written by Michael Messer in 1998, at the time of the Society’s Golden Jubilee

In Spring 1948, in those still dark and dull days following the end of the Second World War, a blaze of colour was brought to Bath when a group of enthusiasts staged an exhibition of heraldry at the Guildhall - during the Bath Assembly, a fore-runner of today’s Bath Festival.

It was visited by Garter and Clarenceux Kings of Arms, the Duchess of Westminster, the High Sheriff of Somerset, the Lord Mayor and Lady Mayoress of Cardiff, and the Mayors of Bath and Chippenham. Looking through the visitors’ book, it is interesting to see how many people came not once but several times, such was the attraction.

After the exhibition the organisers decided to keep in contact, and out of their informal meetings The City of Bath Heraldic Society was born.

Two of the founder members were the Reverend Everhard Rowe and Peter Summers. The Revd Rowe was a former curate of Bath Abbey and later of Englishcombe, near Bath, and thence Vicar of Weston, Bath, until his retirement. Peter Summers was for some time the Bursar of Kingswood School in Bath.

The Society had a small membership, but over the years it has grown and has had a wide range of speakers and topics. At its first recorded meeting, the Minutes state that ‘emphasis was laid on talking about heraldry in a group, and learning from each other instead of exclusively from textbooks’. It was further decided that ‘members should give talks themselves and that the society should not engage expert lecturers at first’. Both principles still largely apply; the majority of speakers usually come from within the Society, with guest speakers making an appearance once or twice a year.

Since the Guildhall event of 1948 various exhibitions have been staged. In 1969 a display in Bath Reference Library marked the Investiture of the Prince of Wales, whilst in 1980 a major exhibition under the title of Heraldry Displayed was staged at the Holburne Museum. In 1984 the 500th Anniversary of the College of Arms was commemorated by another major exhibition featuring several items kindly loaned by the Chapter of the College.

Bath Heraldic Society has been innovative over the years by introducing Study Weekends, when members from Bath and other societies meet together for a series of lectures on various aspects of heraldry, occasionally combined with an appropriate site visit. The first of these weekends was conducted by Keith Lovell, Hon. F.H.S. (Fellow of the Heraldic Society), who has been a regular guest speaker to the Society ever since - and who most appropriately is to give the 50th Anniversary Lecture. Latterly Study Days have been held, and these have also been enthusiastically attended by both our own members and others from kindred societies.

The Society is often consulted by churches and members of the public, usually for the identification of coats of arms but occasionally for help in repainting them. For the Queen’s Silver Jubilee I was asked if I could paint the Royal Arms above the chancel at Kelston Church, just west of Bath. Not being good on ladders, I almost wished that I had not agreed to do it. The finished product, however, made it all worthwhile and the church was delighted. A similar request came from Farmborough Church, south of Bath; but this time the arms, being carved wood, were taken down and brought to me, making the job a lot easier.

Any reader finishing up at the Bath Magistrates Court (!) will almost certainly pass a cast-iron version of the Royal Arms on the staircase there. These were brought from another courthouse, now closed, and were restored by the Society before being placed in this new building

Since its inception the Society has met at a number of venues. It started life at the Sedan Chair Restaurant, next to the Theatre Royal, and later moved to No.10 Laura Place, meeting in a bare room with just two electric fires to keep members warm. Other venues included the Scout Headquarters in Grove Street, the Girl Guides HQ in Laura Place and Abbey Church House in Westgate Buildings.*

The collective knowledge of the Society has been shared with other societies by several members who regularly visit other groups to give talks on aspects of heraldry. Of these members Stephen Slater must hold the record, as he seems to have visited most of the heraldry societies in the country and has even lectured in Germany to an heraldic society there!

It was the late Peter Summers who set up the national survey of hatchments which culminated in a series of reference books, the last volume of which was published recently. County by county the whole country has been covered, and Catherine Constant and Stephen Slater were two of the people who contributed to the research - which often entailed climbing into organ lofts, galleries and balancing on window sills!
Members have also contributed to several books on heraldry, both with text and illustrations. Notable amongst these publications was the New Dictionary of Heraldry, edited by Stephen Friar and published in 1987.

In recent years the Society has been very lucky to acquire the artistic skills of Roland Symons whose heraldic colouring charts have proved to be extremely popular both with the Bath Heraldic Society and other groups nationwide, whilst the sale of these excellent sheets has helped the Society financially. One of Roland’s charts, showing the arms of Garter Kings of Arms over the centuries, has been turned into a most attractive postcard by the White Lion Society and is on sale at the College of Arms. At the time of writing another of the series is also to be reproduced as a coloured post card.

The Bath Heraldic Society has built up many valuable contacts with other like-minded societies nationwide - such as The Middlesex Heraldry Society, The Chilterns Heraldry Group, The Birmingham and Midlands Society for Genealogy and Heraldry, The East Midlands Heraldry Society, The Yorkshire Heraldry Society and the Lancashire Heraldry Society. Members from the last-named society have been most regular attenders at Study Weekends and we always look forward to meeting our friends from the North. Indeed, it is particularly gratifying to note that many personal friendships throughout the country have been forged through these contacts.

The Society can never be accused of being parochial for over the years our members have been introduced to heraldry on a world scale, a process which started with a lecture on Finnish heraldry given many years ago by the author of this article. In this venture I was greatly aided and abetted by Bo Tennberg who was then a serving judge in the Water Court in Vasa in Finland. Today we still keep in touch and exchange regular information and value the correspondence and material we receive from each other.

As in the case of many cities and towns, Bath has ‘twinning links’ with several municipalities abroad. These include the city of Braunschweig (Brunswick) in Germany, and there we value the friendship of Arnold Rabbow who keeps us informed on German heraldic matters and manages to visit us on occasions.
This wider outlook on heraldry continues to develop and recent contacts have been made with countries as diverse as Russia, Estonia and Zimbabwe.

Nearer to home the mysteries of Welsh heraldry have been explained to us by two of our members, the late Revd Alfred Pryse Hawkins and Anthony Jones. The former was Vicar of Saint Benet, Paul’s Wharf, the Welsh Metropolitan Church in the City of London. He was also Chaplain to the College of Arms, as the church serves as its chapel, and was more than qualified to extend his knowledge and love of heraldry to the Society on a regular basis. His fellow countryman, Anthony Jones, who regularly makes the journey from his home in South Wales to attend our meetings, has made an extensive study of the heraldry of Glamorgan and published the results of his researches in a series of excellent booklets, extending knowledge of heraldry of the Principality to even more people.

I am sure that the founder members of Bath Heraldic Society would be delighted to know that it still flourishes but above all that the original intention of learning from each other has been adhered to. I know that many members have made a wide circle of friends over the years and long may they continue to do so.

The Society continues to flourish and we look forward to the next fifty years.

* The Society now meets in the Manvers Street Baptist Church Hall

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Update: 16/08/2011