Telling Stories – recording the shared and individual histories of Civic Societies

When we think about culture, we often think about the arts – music, literature, theatre and so on. But it can mean something much wider – from the way we do things to the set of values and beliefs we hold. As nations evolve, the things they do and the beliefs and values they hold change over time, providing the rich continuum that makes for the modern society we have today while also giving us a deep sense of history and tradition. Our heritage is a product, not just of the artefacts human civilisations have created over time, but also the social interactions and conventions as well as the principles and tenets that have guided them in their development and evolution.

Organisations also have their own cultures within this wider social context; this is revealed in their rules and working practices, what they stand for and the way their people interact both with each other and with their stakeholders. Organisational cultures also change over time – and sometimes more quickly than in society at large: a new leader or new management team can wield a new broom and make very sudden and, indeed, sweeping changes to the way an organisation behaves: whether these changes are always welcome is, of course, another matter.

Sometimes, both at national and organisational level, the pace of change can be forced by external factors – political pressure or a sudden downturn in finances, for example, might require an urgent response – but these responses need to take account of what has happened before; those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it, etc., (although, conversely, there’s nothing more irritating in this respect than when someone says “We tried that once and it didn’t work”!)

So what does this have to do with civic societies? Well, our civic societies often play an important role in celebrating culture and heritage in the widest sense. Many civic societies organise commemorative plaque schemes or lead guided walks, while some will also produce leaflets and other publications about the buildings, people and events associated with the history of their local community. In doing so, civic societies are telling the stories that keep local memories alive. This sort of activity can also prove a useful membership recruitment tool for your civic society because, if well-managed and executed, these activities will capture the attention and interest of people outside your society’s immediate membership. It is an essential part of what we do and long may it continue.

However, we can be so busy recording the history of our places that we may overlook another part of our social history. By this, I am referring to the history of what our civic societies have done. Committee members come and go, so it is important to ensure that the story of our civic societies is written down somewhere. I know that some societies (my own included) have traditionally deposited their papers with their local archive service. Doing this should ensure your paper (and even digital) records survive – copies of meeting minutes and annual reports and so on. Yet that’s not quite the same as telling the story of what you have done over the years. For that story to emerge, you need people to add their personal memories – but what if there’s no one left in your society who can remember the early days? Many civic societies have been going for over 50 years now and it’s not always possible to find someone who can recall how things started back then. Hopefully, your written records will be available, even if on deposit with an archive service, but that does require someone to commit time and effort, to do some research, to dig around in the archives, and to produce the narrative.

A few years ago, I visited Lincoln Civic Trust and was presented with a booklet that told the Society’s history. It was entitled “Lincoln Civic Trust – The First 50 Years” which, if nothing else, showed a certain upbeat optimism for the next fifty years. More recently, Civic Voice published a short history of the civic movement, so there is certainly a precedent here.

Wakefield Civic Society celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2014. I did think at the time that it would be a really good project to produce a history of the Society to coincide with that milestone anniversary but we were so busy organising events to celebrate the anniversary that the project never got off the ground. (There’s a lesson here, of course! Don’t plan to write the history in your anniversary year – write it beforehand and publish it in your anniversary year!) I still think, however, that such a written history is needed. I’ll try to explain why.

Civic societies are part of our social history yet they are often overlooked. Having been a committee member for over 25 years, I am aware that Wakefield looks rather different now from what it might have looked like had it not had a civic society. There are projects the Society got involved with that helped to shape the city and letters of objection written and campaigns mounted that prevented much-loved historic buildings from being demolished. But who else now remembers what the Society did and what we achieved? Some of us on the committee have been in post for longer than many of the council officials and councillors at Wakefield Council, so our collective memory goes back further than the ‘official body’. At the Society, at least some of us can remember why certain things were (and were not) done and the way they turned out and why. If nothing else, we deserve some credit for what we have achieved for Wakefield – but if we don’t tell our own story, who will? And when those of us who have been involved for a long time finally retire – who will remember what the Society did? I only know about the very earliest days of the Society myself because people who were involved in setting the Society up told me their memories or because I have read some of the earliest papers from the 1960s.

What if a civic society closes down – where is the history of the society recorded? Does closure mean that the memory of the society dies also?

Perhaps all civic societies need to make the time and effort to tell their stories, and to keep telling them, to ensure that history doesn’t forget them? If you’ve already produced a history of your society, I’d be very interested to hear from you.

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