A Village Discovers its History

Kathleen Burk looks at the recent history weekend organised at Long Wittenham, a village of less than a thousand residents on the River Thames in south Oxfordshire.

One evening in early April 1983, the Committee of the Wittenham Women's Institute, pressed to come up with a project to promote the image of the WI in the community, decided to sponsor a local history project. The idea was not particularly unusual, since WIs have often collected field names or reminiscences, and have frequently produced scrapbooks or short village histories. Further, the parish of Long Wittenham itself is rich in historical evidence, both archaeological and documentary; nevertheless, very little had been written on the parish, and that which had was largely to do with the archaeology or the church. But finally, a not unimportant element in persuading the WI to embark on the project was the fact that I am a professional historian as well as being the WI president, and I was willing to direct the research.

In fact, I profess a different field entirely, and in truth the project lacked the benefit of a trained local history tutor. The real importance of my role was to give encouragement and direction – which can be provided by anyone with sufficient enthusiasm. With an enthusiasm born of ignorance, then, the initial project grew ever more ambitious over the year; this was a tendency which a more knowledgable leader might well have felt obliged to dampen early on. Although sponsored by the WI, the project rapidly grew beyond its bounds, and non-members – men as well as women -took an active part. The outcome was an overwhelmingly successful pageant, exhibition and booklet, a strong sense of accomplishment, and a newly constituted Long Wittenham Local History Group independent of the WI.

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