The Society owes its foundation to the life-long vision of Maurice Cockin, a prominent local resident who lived at Leyden House on Thames Bank, Mortlake. Cockin’s dream came true on 25 November 1955 when a public meeting at East Sheen Library gave its overwhelming support to the formation of The Borough of Barnes History Society. Cockin (image C212) was elected as its first chairman, a post he held until ill-health forced him to step down in 1958; he died in 1961.
The first lecture was held on 9 January 1956. The absorption of Barnes into the Greater London Borough of Richmond upon Thames in 1964, precipitated a name change to the Barnes & Mortlake History Society on 17 March 1965.
Early BMHS meetings were held at Cockin’s ‘beloved Leyden House’, before migrating to Watney’s Staff Canteen at the corner of Sheen Lane and Mortlake High Street. Maisie Brown (pictured below), who has been a member for more than fifty years, recalls that ‘Mrs Watney had a soft spot for the Society and served coffee and cakes after the meetings.’ Subsequent lecture locations have included All Saints in East Sheen, St Osmund’s in Barnes, Sheen Comprehensive School, Sheen Lane Centre and latterly St Mary’s Barnes.
The Society has had eleven chairmen during its lifespan, six men and five women. Prior to 2001, tenures of ten years or more were not uncommon: Richard Jeffree (1968-81), Leslie Freeman (1981-91) and Maisie Brown (1991-2001) all proved to be gluttons for punishment.
A significant chapter in the Society’s history closed in 2011 with the death of our last surviving founder member and insatiable local historian, Mary Grimwade, at the age of 94. Other notable members from that era include Leslie Paton and Raymond Gill, both of whom bequeathed substantial collections of watercolours, drawings, prints and photographs to the Richmond Borough Art Collection at the Orleans House Gallery.
The 7th Earl Spencer was the Society’s first president, an informed choice that recognised the family’s longstanding links dating back almost 300 years as Lords of the Manor of Wimbledon, which embraced Mortlake. Successive Earls have continued to maintain this link with the Society. On our 50th anniversary in 2005, the present Earl mused that his grandfather, the 7th Earl, never really fitted the stereotype of an aristocrat and ‘would have been happier as a custodian of a museum’, given his love of history.
Lectures have always been at the heart of what we do, embracing the whole gamut of local history over more than six decades. In the early years, the lost rural settings of our locale, the ‘big houses’ in Sheen, stagecoaches traversing the Upper Richmond Road and the glamour that surrounded polo meetings at Barn Elms were still within living memory for some. As late as 1975, lectures were still being advertised as illustrated talks with lantern slides. Today, it is rare for a lecturer to take to the lectern without the ubiquitous power point presentation delivered by laptop computer.
The newsletter has always been a coveted aspect of membership. Newsletter editors have rivalled chairmen for their longevity, ultimately going above and beyond in the case of the late Murray Hedgcock who occupied this post for almost two decades. Murray had the satisfaction of producing the 200th anniversary issue in March 2012 and presiding over the newsletter’s conversion to full colour images throughout, a far cry from its early ‘roneo’ duplicated counterparts. Now, members have the option of receiving the newsletter electronically, but a strong predilection remains for ‘hard copy’.
The Society has been blessed with a prodigious number of authors during its lifetime: our first publication – Mortlake Parish Register (1599-1678) – appeared in 1958; many more have followed, among them the landmark 2012 publication Barnes & Mortlake Past, edited by Maisie Brown.
History societies by their very nature can be slow to move with the times and the Society did not embrace the internet until 2007. Nonetheless, under the stewardship of webmaster David Deaton we wasted no time in making up for a late start. David shepherded the Society through the digital age over some 15 years and today’s website owes much to his earlier endeavours. Chief among these was the monumental task of digitising the Society’s extensive picture archive and making it available to all on our website.
The onset of Covid-19 pandemic in 2020 stretched our resources and forced the Society to embrace new ways of doing things, not least delivering our lectures electronically through Zoom and YouTube which appealed to many of our less active members. The Society continues to explore ways of building on this experience and looks forward to live-streaming of our lectures in due course.
1955-58: Maurice Cochin
1958-66: Fred Mattingley
1966-68: Mrs J C Wardley
1968-81: Richard Jeffree
1981-91: Leslie Freeman
1991-01: Maisie Brown
2001-04: Mike Smith
2004-06: Sue Boyd
2006-08: Mike Smith
2008-11: Jean Porter
2011-15: Eleanor Stanier
2015- Paul Rawkins