A Brief History of Hornsey Historical Society

There had been talk of the need for a local history society in Hornsey as long ago as 1909 but despite early efforts nothing was achieved until 1971. On 29th April that year, in response to a poster designed and distributed by Margaret Gellay, a young local teacher, about fifty people attended a meeting in Hornsey Library.

Early days

A provisional committee was formed. Haringey’s Archivist, Ian Murray, was elected Chairman and Margaret Gellay took on the role of Secretary as well as Treasurer. Ten more people agreed to serve, five from the long established Edmonton Hundred Historical Society. Fifty eight people joined the fledgling Society that evening including Joan Schwitzer who joined the committee, started an Oral History group and became the author and editor of many of our publications.

Leading women

Joan became Chairman in 1974, serving until 1985, then as our President from 1992 until 2002. In 2006 she accepted the unprecedented nomination as Honorary Life Associate of HHS in recognition of her unique contribution to the Society.

The other founding member of particular note was Bridget Cherry OBE, then a young architectural historian, who went on to become General Editor of The Buildings of England books by Nicolas Pevsner. Bridget became our Vice President in 1988, a role in which she still serves. She is the author of Ivy-Mantled Tower A History of the Church and Churchyard of St Mary Hornsey, Middlesex, published by HHS in 2015.

New roles

In 1973 four new posts were added to the list of officers: a Meetings Secretary, Membership Secretary, Conservation Officer and Assistant Conservation Officer. By 1976 membership totalled 145. The time had come to appoint a President. Professor Ralph Pugh, retired editor of the Victoria County Histories, accepted the post which he held until his death in 1983. He was succeeded by Professor Geoffrey Dickens, followed by Joan Schwitzer in 1992. Ken Gay, Chairman from 1986 to 1991, then became President until his death in 2015.

A tireless servant

Ken Gay worked tirelessly for the Society for many years. He was Chair of the Publications Committee for 34 years and the Society’s impressive publications record owes much to his involvement. He was the expert on the history of Muswell Hill and he had an encyclopedic knowledge of the Hornsey area. In 2011 his efforts were recognized by a Lifetime Achievement Award by the British Association of Local History.

Our current President is Peter Barber OBE FSA, former Head of Maps at the British Library, who is a longstanding member and supporter of the Society.

Initially, members were kept up to date with the Society’s activities by means of a monthly newsletter, replaced in 1973 by the Bulletin which was at first sent out quarterly. In 1976, Edwin Monk’s Memories of Hornsey, still in print, was the first book to be published. Monthly lectures were held in Hornsey Library.

A home is needed

By the late 1970s the growing stock of books and archival material presented an acute storage problem. Clearly the Society needed a home for these and for committee meetings which were being held in members’ homes. Haringey Council owned a derelict property next to Holy Innocents’ Church in Tottenham Lane, which had once been an infants’ school.

The building had served as a run-down bus shelter and public toilet. The suggestion was raised that it should be converted to a home for the Society. Haringey Council agreed, plans were drawn up, the conversion carried out and The Old Schoolhouse was formally opened as HHS headquarters on 18th October 1981. (see section on the history of The Old Schoolhouse) The monthly lectures are now held at the Union Church hall on Ferme Park Road.

Anniversary celebrations

HHS celebrated its 40th anniversary on Saturday 21st May 2011 with a garden party at North Bank, Muswell Hill, attended by members, friends, representatives of other local history societies, plus the Mayor of Haringey and the local MP. We were delighted to welcome Margarey Fabian-Peacock (née Gellay) as our chief guest and honorary member of the Society. Over a hundred prints from the North Middlesex Photographic Society (NMPS) collection were chosen for a celebratory publication, A Vision of Middlesex by Janet Owen and John Hinshelwood.

HHS is looking forward to its next big celebration – fifty years of the Society in 2021!

Further reading:

Joan Schwitzer, Making History Together, Hornsey Historical Society, 1998

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