A history of the society
As a result of a successful Festival Week in August 1959 to commemorate the 150th anniversary of Alfred Tennyson’s birth, it was decided ‘that a Tennyson Society should be formed’ with Lord Ancaster as President, Sir Charles Tennyson as Vice-President, and an Executive Committee appointed to ‘draw up a constitution and carry out the business of the Society’.
At the first meeting of the Executive Committee held on 28th March 1960 at the Usher Gallery Lincoln, the following officers were elected: Hon. Secretary: Ven. Arthur C. Smith, Archdeacon of Lincoln; Hon. Treasurer: Mr L.A. Baker; Executive Committee: Captain F.B.ff. Shephard, Sir Francis Hill, Mrs Maitland, Mrs Tait, The Archdeacon of Lindsey, Mr. F. J. Cooper, Mr E. Scorer, Mr H.A. Wickstead, The Revd P.B.G. Binnall.
The annual subscription rate for individual members was £1.00.
The new society appears to have gone from strength to strength. By the time of the first Annual Report in 1961 there were already 80 members and a full programme of events had been organised – a visit to Bayons Manor, a memorial sermon at Somersby, and an inaugural dinner attended by about 100 members and guests with John Betjeman as speaker.
In 1962 a successful ‘Pageant Play’ based on the Idylls of the King was held beside the lake at Riseholme, although ‘an invitation to a member of the Royal Family was regretfully declined’.
Arthur Smith was shortly followed as Secretary by Mr H.W. Wood, retired English master at Lincoln School. In 1966 he was succeeded by Raymond Smith, Chief Assistant Librarian at the City Library. He ran the Society with great energy and enthusiasm until his untimely death in a road accident in 1973. In his obituary in the Tennyson Research Bulletin Sir Charles Tennyson wrote that during that time the Society developed ‘from an organisation with a largely local membership into one with many international subscribers’.
It was Ray who initiated the formation of the Publications Board, and in 1967 the first issue of the Tennyson Research Bulletin, edited by Hope Dyson, was produced. ‘The Society is indebted to Mrs Hope Dyson for her work of compilation. Reports indicate that it has been well received.’ Hope Dyson is best remembered these days as the co-author with Sir Charles Tennyson of Dear and Honoured Lady: the Correspondence of Queen Victoria and Alfred Tennyson, and The Tennysons: Background to Genius, but she was also a strong supporter of the Society in those early days and served on the Executive Committee as well as the Publications Board.
Ray was succeeded by Tom Baker, Director of Libraries, Museum and Art Gallery as Acting Secretary. Miss Elfrida Jahn, his deputy, became Secretary of the Publications Board, a position she held until her retirement in 1987 and Rosalind Boyce’s unofficial position of Assistant Secretary was made official.
Until recent times, Hon. Secretaries were connected to the library service – David Hayward and Ray Carroll – as well as Ray Smith and Tom Baker, and the Society was based at the City (now Central) Library. This tradition ended with the sad death in 2021 of Kathleen Jefferson who had served for 35 years.
Sir Charles Tennyson’s 90th birthday in 1969 was celebrated with a dinner at the Assembly Rooms in Lincoln. The speakers were the Earl of Ancaster and Sir John Betjeman. Professor Rowland Collins ‘presented a greeting from American Tennyson scholars.’ The proceedings were televised and shown on Anglia Television the next day. Sir Charles died in 1977 in his 98th year. He was much missed and with his passing the last direct link with the Poet had gone.
By 1970, ‘The Society completed its first ten years, a decade of steady growth made possible by the regular support of an enthusiastic membership’. There was a full programme of events, competitions, poetry readings and pilgrimages. It was at this time that clerical assistance was needed and the rôle was taken on by Mrs Margaret Melton on a paid basis. She retired in 1985 and was followed successively by Margaret McClelland, Stella Clarke, Kathleen Day, Michelle Poland and Annise Rogers, the title eventually becoming ‘Membership Secretary’. The subscription rate was increased to £1.10s (£1.50 in today’s money).
One of the Society’s earliest members was the ‘indefatigable’ Wilfred Hunter who for many years was an enthusiastic and diligent supporter of its activities. He made himself available for voluntary work at the Society’s office (then in dingy premises at the rear of the library) carrying out many mundane tasks such as cycling around Lincoln delivering notices and publications. He never missed a Society event and always delivered the wreath to Westminster Abbey for the memorial service. On at least one occasion he cycled all the way to the Isle of Wight to a Society weekend event.
In the 1980s, with the Society well established with over 400 personal and institutional members, many from overseas, it was time to take stock and to consider its long-term future. Various sub-committees were set up to assess the Society’s aims and objectives and to discuss ideas on how to proceed. Education was the main topic of all these committees and it was agreed that liaison with schools, colleges and universities was needed. It was unfortunate that a representative of the County Education Department, invited to an Executive Committee meeting, said that Tennyson was ‘not greatly read in schools these days’ (probably correct at the time) causing some agitation amongst the company.
It was also realised at this time that the AGM was ‘not sufficiently attractive to stand on its own and should therefore be included with some other event’ such as the Annual Lecture. This was agreed and the arrangement still stands today.
1987 was a year of changes to the management of the Society. Lady Willoughby became the Society’s President, the rôle her father Lord Ancaster had held. Kathleen Jefferson succeeded Ray Carroll as Hon. Secretary and Rosalind Boyce took over as Secretary of the Publications Board from Elfrida Jahn.
In 1998 Philip Collins, who had been Chairman of the Executive Committee for fourteen years, retired and was succeeded for a short time by Norman Page. In 1998 Marion Shaw took over from him and stayed in the rôle until her retirement in 2021. She had been a member of the Committee for several years and had edited the Bulletin from 1989 to 1999.
With Kathleen and Marion at the helm, the Society successfully progressed. In 1987 an International Conference was held at Bishop Grosseteste College (as it then was) with many distinguished speakers taking part. Successful conferences attracting delegates from all over the world were held at the University of Lincoln in 2001 and 2009. In 1992 events were organised to commemorate the centenary of the death of Alfred Tennyson, and in 2009 the bicentenary of his birth was celebrated.
In 2008 the Society’s first website was set up by Lincolnshire County Council as part of a ‘communities’ project. This continued until early 2020 when funds for its upkeep were no longer available. Tentative plans were in hand for a replacement when the pandemic began and everything stopped. Like many other organisations, the Society was in some difficulty during the pandemic. Rosalind Boyce, with Marion Shaw and Valerie Purton, looked after day to day matters as far as was possible.
In August 2021 Kathleen Jefferson died in the care home in Grantham where she had been since completing surgical treatment at Queen’s Medical Centre in Nottingham. She is very much missed and the many tributes paid to her bear witness to the esteem in which she was held.
The Society is gradually coming back to life with a new Chair, Secretary, website, email address, and many plans for the future. As it moves into the digital age, it is fitting that those from a previous age who laid the foundations for the successful Society it is today are remembered with affection and gratitude.