General history

The important bit!

The General History Group meets monthly on the third Monday of each month at 2 pm.  We normally meet at Townsend House, Minehead.  Please remember to check the Calendar in case of any late changes to schedule.

Our group is led by Jane Sperring, and she may be contacted at 01984 631054, or by email at

Follow this link to see all available General History presentations. 

Update – 2022

In April we heard all about the Foundling Hospital that opened in 1741 and finally closed in the 1950s. When children were admitted they were given a number and a new name and then sent into the countryside to a wet nurse for the first 5 years of their lives. They then returned to the hospital and a very draconian life. When they were a bit older they would be apprenticed out and we heard some of the individual stories of the children; some of which were tragic and others which were successful. After refreshments we had a mini-talk on Hot Air Balloons and Turnpikes. Did you know that the first “flyers” were a sheep, a duck and a cockerel! We also heard about the Turnpike Trusts which started in the 17th century as a means to improve road travel. Next month we are going to be hearing about Camels and then our mini talks will be on the theme of the 17th century. These will include talks on The Glorious Revolution, William Byrd, 17th century Watchet and the Life of Ordinary Women. 

In March we heard about the Klondike Gold Rush and the part that women played in it. Our mini talks after refreshments included The Workhouse at Williton, the West Somerset Mineral Railway, Canals and Le Tunnel.  In April we will hear about Foundling Hospitals and after the final short talks on transport will hear about items from the 17th century. In May we are going to be hearing all about Camels – which came from the Transport theme!

Earlier news…

A few of us who hadn’t been affected by the weekend storms did get to Townsend House in February and enjoyed a talk from Pam on the history of photography. We were astonished to discover that as early as 5th century BCE the Chinese had been thinking about pin hole cameras and the box camera idea was first thought about in 1685! Once photography became popular other employment grew up for painting backdrops and making furniture solely for photographic studios. We shared memories of Instamatic cameras and Polaroid cameras and mourned the loss of printed photos in the 21st century.

After refreshments we heard about the early Atlantic voyagers from Scandinavians, and particular about the voyage of St Brendan. 

In January we learnt all about Edward Jenner, the “Father of vaccination” He realised that dairy maids who’d had cowpox didn’t get smallpox and developed a vaccine from the blood of people who’d had cowpox. The vaccine was put in via a cut in the body. So we wondered when syringes started to be used, and will learn the answer in February.  After refreshments we heard about “Pamela” which was published in 1742, The War of Jenkins Ear, the Signatories of the American Declaration of Independence and Samuel Whitbread who started his own brewery in 1742.

Our meeting in February  (21st) will consist of a talk on the history of photography and cinematography. Then after refreshments – and chat! – various people will share short talks on the theme of transport – of which some of the subjects will be Le Tunnel, Early Transatlantic travel, canals, hot air balloons, and turnpikes.  No doubt this theme of mini-talks will continue through to the following month of March when our main talk will be about Post War Germany. 


We had a fascinating afternoon in November with lots of mini-talks based around the year 1742. We learned that there are only 55 miles between Russia and Alaska and that the sea is only 60 metres deep there We listened to part of Handel’s Messiah as it was first performed in Dublin in 1742 and learned that William Pulteney, 1st Earl of Bath, hasn’t anything to do with the bridge of that name in Bath!

In October our main talk was about the people interned on the Isle of Man during WW1 and WW2 (see photo, right). This stimulated conversation and the sharing of a personal memory of a husband from one member.
In November we have several mini-talks from group members about the year 1742. We are not meeting in December, but on 17 January 2022 the main talk, before tea, will be on Jenner, and after tea and conversation, members will contribute mini-talks on the theme of transport.

In September we are hadour first real live meeting at Townsend House.  At that meeting Anne  talked about the Russian Revolution, and after tea and biscuits we all shared a short 5/10 minute talk on ‘An artefact/s we’ve seen in a Museum, that has sparked our imagination’.  

In August, we visited Minehead museum to see the new model of the pier and also to catch up with one another in person over a cream tea.  In July, we had a fascinating insight into two Victorian orphanages given by John.  In June, we had a number of short presentations on buildings, including one on Townsend House, by Diana Martin.

In May, we had a talk about Stephen and Matilda presented by John Konrad; and David Temple told us about the Kent village of Lamorbey moving from rural idyll to suburban sprawl in a century.  Our first exchange with another u3a group – in April–  went very well when John Prevett from East Suffolk u3a telling us all about the Cato Street Conspiracy. Fascinating to find that the plan was to capture the Bank of England and the Tower of London to bring down the government! 

In March 2021 we enjoyed a fascinating variety of short talks from some of our group members. We heard about the Mass Trespass of 1932 that gives us the freedom to roam (see photo, left), the honeybee pandemic, the Peasants’ Revolt of 1549, Universal Basic Income, Napoleon on St Helena and his funeral as witnessed by one of his guards, the Lancashire Fusiliers’ and Aphra Behn, who was one of the first English women to earn her living by writing.

On Monday 15 February Jan gave a presentation on William Marshall, who was a 12th-century knight. (Follow the link to see the presentation and notes)

At our January online meeting, the history of Ordnance Survey maps provoked quite a discussion, with a few members showing us some of the old maps they possess. 

We have now got into the way of having our usual meetings but on Zoom.  What has been lovely is that other U3A members have joined us for some of these talks.  We welcome any u3a members to our Zoom meetings, which you can access by emailing me (see above). 

I have been in conversation with history convenors from other u3as recently, with an idea of perhaps sharing talks, either by email or on Zoom.  We are hoping to try out this idea soon, so watch this space!


December   John Batt presented ‘The genealogy of the Christmas song‘; and Anne Feakes gave a presentation on ‘Yule‘.  Follow the links for a tour of Christmas music from the earliest times to this years Number One! and an overview of how far (or not) we have moved on from Pagan celebrations.

November   John Konrad presented a Zoom talk on ‘The Battle of Waterloo’. 

October   Di Martin presented a Zoom talk ‘A short history of Korea’, followed by some lively discussion

We have been keeping in touch with one another by email.  Members studied happenings in 1875, which included girls’ education, King Priam’s treasure, Kilvert’s diary, and the birth of the U3A, by John Batt.  Our topic is now ‘August‘, as it is usually rather a nondescript month.  So far we have heard about the Warsaw uprising which was a major World War 2 operation on the Eastern Front.  Also we have heard about the revised Chimney Sweeps Act which prohibited the employment of climbing boys as chimney sweeps.  For fun we have also had a history quiz.

May    John Batt kindly mailed us the presentation about his father, Frank, which he was going to share in April.  The central part is a straight transcription of Frank Batt’s 1941 war-time diary.  John has found that the entries posed many questions and the story emerging needed an explanation or a historical context.  He researched as much as possible to collate information and explain what his father’s war experience was like.  He acquired his father’s official Army Service records and merged them with his wartime stories that they recollected.  John linked all this together with the aim of providing a permanent record for the family of Frank’s World War 2 service.  It was a fascinating account and, as one of group said: ‘Whilst mundane in its diary recordings, it is a real snapshot of the experiences of war, travel, hunger, illness, discomfort, not knowing and danger.’  I set a challenge to the group to find out something about 1873 and so far we have heard about King Priam’s Treasure, A Girl Student at Cambridge and Frank Kilvert.  Jane

The March meeting took place with 5 people – and Pam Bartlett talked about John Muir.  He was a 19th Century naturalist, and she called him the 19th Century David Attenborough.  He had a lot to do with establishing the first National Parks in the USA.


We wound up 2019 discussing Christmas traditions around the world – some of which seemed quite bizarre to us! – and enjoyed mince pies and shortcake with our tea.

In September we heard part 1 of Alan’s talk on watermills and shared our opinions of the best and worst inventions.

When we met in August, John gave a talk about youth services in Somerset, after which there was the now traditional annual cream tea. Thanks to everyone who helped with that.

In July our first talk was by Gill: a well-researched insight into the life and times of Henry I, including the tragedy associated with the White Ship disaster in 1120, when Henry lost his only legitimate son and heir.  The second talk, by Pam, introduced us to ‘Wicked Ladies’: women adept at riding horses, handling guns, and with a penchant for disguising themselves in men’s attire to become notorious highwaymen.  A life of quiet domesticity was not for those women!

At the May group meeting, Jane gave a fascinating talk about copper mining in the Bronze Age.  The Great Orme is known as the Stonehenge of copper mining and comprises more than five miles of tunnels spreading across nine different levels and reaching a depth of 230 feet.  Mining began around 4,000 years ago.  Stone tools were used to mine malachite ore and refine it into copper.

The final guests to arrive at our dinner party were the notorious Mata Hari, and three ordinary members from one family.  The grand dinner party is very eclectic, to say the least!  And the conversation buzzed!

In April, Clive’s talk on ‘Taking the cure’ provided an enlightening insight into the use of spa waters over the centuries.  We learned about some very unusual treatments such as cold baths to treat deafness and wearing a cap filled with snow to treat raging madness…  Thank you to Di for hosting us in our hour of need (we found ourselves locked out of Townsend House!).  And, appropriately, it was Di who won the raffle.

Our ‘dinner party guest’ feature has proved to be both informative and fun. This time there were invitations for Paul Robeson, Lord Baden-Powell and seven failed Prime Ministers – the latter, we decided, best left to dine in a room on their own!

In March Alan concluded the second part of his fascinating talk about windmills.  It was a revelation to hear about the wide and varied industries that utilised windmills as an integral part in production.  This was followed by stimulating ‘dinner party conversations’ with three members advocating their favourite historical figures, explaining why they’d chosen that individual.  The scene was wonderfully set listening to music by William Byrd, the 16th–century composer.  We also heard about Socrates, Hildegard of Bingen and Sir John Forster.  These ‘snippets’ will continue as time permits at future meetings and should prove interesting. One thing is certain: judging by what we’ve heard so far, the final guest list will be extremely varied!

Starting off our February topics, Alan recounted the history of windmills from their very early days, with some excellent pictures to illustrate his talk.  Then Di talked about John Hanning Speke, who was the first explorer to reach Lake Victoria.  Fascinating.

 We kicked off the New Year with presentations from both Dave Scott and Di Martin.  Dave gave a fascinating insight into the medieval hunting forest.  It was with great disappointment that we all now view Robin Hood in a completely different light!  Di gave a wonderful description of Exmoor in wartime, and the part played in looking after evacuees, people, treasures, rabbits and herbs.  To say nothing of the warm welcome that the American army received − in some cases too warm, by the evidence left behind!

General History - tea and chat. November 2018

General History – tea and chat. November 2018

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