Our Group was featured in the Autumn 2016 Newsletter of the Suffolk Local History Council

[This comprehensive article was written by Members of our Committee — but a very few changes to the original text (indicated with square brackets and ellipses) have been made here, to link you to immediate and fuller information that is available on this website, or when details are no longer accurate so might confuse.  The opportunity has also been taken, as this article is now on this website, to add links to relevant webpages.

[Incidentally, we have an almost complete set of SLHC's half-yearly Newsletter, from 1993 to date, which is held in our Help Centre.]



A small but vibrant group, we are based on the east coast of Suffolk, surrounded by Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty.  Our membership covers the area from Felixstowe in the south to Lowestoft in the north, [but Alde Valley comprises just the area on our Map. Our Help] Centre is housed in Leiston, a small market town lying geographically in the middle of our area, between Aldeburgh and Saxmundham; the latter is where the group met originally.  We are lucky to have our current premises in [Leiston's] Old Council Offices, thanks to our local Town Council.  We also have regular monthly talks, an annual Open Day, and undertake research projects.  We organise occasional visits to local museums, and produce a quarterly newsletter, all of which helps our members keep in touch with each other.



During 2006/2007 the Saxmundham branch of the Suffolk Family History Society became increasingly aware that it was in danger of closing.  The membership consisted of a companionable group of people; family historians who had formed friendships over the years.  Many were anxious to continue meeting as a viable family history group, should the threat of closure become a reality.

A meeting was held on 25th February 2008 when our founding members, including Barry Skelcher, Nigel Turner, Cilla McFarlane, Ray Green, Di and Henry Mann and others, discussed the formation of a steering committee with the aim of establishing a new family history group independent of the Suffolk Family History Society.  At a further meeting on 8th April 2008 the name of our group was decided upon and the election of officers and committee members took place.  

Our first committee meeting was held on 16th April 2008.  As the instigator and driving force of the group, Barry Skelcher took up his position as our Chairman.  Others present at this meeting were Nigel Turner, Ray Green, Terry Davies (Membership Secretary), John Martin (later to become Treasurer …), Rona Newson (Programme Secretary), and Di Mann who had designed the official logo to be used by the AVSFHG.

On 19th May 2008 the Saxmundham branch of the Suffolk Family History Society was disbanded at the AGM held on that day.  The AVSFHG had already commenced our regular meetings with speakers attending to give talks of interest to family historians, in addition to broader-based subjects.  From small beginnings the group grew steadily.  We embarked on various projects, such as recording MI's (Memorial Inscriptions), holding an annual Family History Open Day Exhibition and, in 2014, two members of the group published a successful Memorial Book for Leiston's WWI commemorations — see below.

We still value the sociable friendly atmosphere within the group, which we trust will continue to be of benefit to the local community and especially to be of support to fellow family historians.



Our quarterly newsletter is just what it says — a newsletter.  It doesn't pretend to be a learned journal.  It communicates information about … forthcoming events, additions to our research archives and matters of local or family-historical interest.  It carries reports of meetings, previews of future talks, and dates to note.  News from the Suffolk Record Office and its programme of events are usually featured, as are any letters the Group has received requesting help or information in their family history research.  Members are encouraged to submit articles of general interest, and we publish the occasional book review.  We are members of the [Family History Federation], and frequently reproduce their news items.  A significant part of the newsletter's content is given over to updates on new records from sites such as Ancestry, Findmypast, the National Archives, the Society of Genealogists and many others.

       [Illustrated are our two-page first issue in 2008, and an example page from Newsletter No.30 (which you can download via our Downloads page.] 

The newsletter is circulated to all members, normally by blind-copied email, but it is posted to the very few members who do not have email, or prefer to receive it in hard copy.  It is also sent to contributors, people mentioned in the current edition, and regular organisations such as the Suffolk Record Office, the Federation of Family History Societies, the Suffolk Local History Council – and of course the British Library!

And if you want to come and see what we're all about, the newsletter tells you how and where to find us, and gives contact details of committee members.  [Of course, as you're already here, this website does that even better!]



Our monthly talks cover a range of subjects of interest to family, and, increasingly in recent months, local historians.  [For recent events, please see our News-blog page, for upcoming events our Events page.]  Usually held on the third Monday of each month in [or near] Leiston ..., two of our best attended talks were given by Sue Pearce of the Nelson Museum in Great Yarmouth.  Not only did we learn about the life (and loves) of Lord Nelson, and growth of his navy, but we were treated to a skit performed by two of the museum's volunteers.  We followed this up with a Group visit to the Nelson Museum in the summer.

In 2012 the late Phil Hadwen gave a fascinating talk on Edith Cavill (who grew up in Norfolk), and who was delighted when Jane and Pat Hudson came forward from the audience to show him a piece of lace embroidered by Edith, belonging to their family.

Also very popular were Sheila Harrison's history of Leiston Abbey, a local attraction, and Stephen Govier on the world famous Hoxne Treasure, both given by very experienced lecturers.  For a special Halloween talk, Sheila Wright enthralled us with ghoulish stories from Suffolk that she had researched.

Despite having moved to a larger venue in 2013, we were again in danger of running out of chairs for these talks!  Some talks attract mainly Group members, others many members of the general public, and at only £1 entrance fee for members (£3 for visitors), we consider it a bargain!

Of more particular interest to family historians, perhaps, was Judith Gant from Ipswich Registrars on "Registration through the Ages".  [In 2016 we] had a speaker from Findmypast, and Belinda Moore, whose book "Sax Stories" is a collection of interviews with local Saxmundham personalities, including a member of our own committee!

To date, our most popular talk has been on personal recollections of the Minsmere RSPB Reserve by Charles Cuthbert, which attracted 79 visitors.  As a trial, we held this in the village of Kelsale in the afternoon to see if members would like our talks in the wintertime to be held in the daylight.  Due to the success of this talk, we will be holding our future winter talks in the daytime, and in other outlying villages, in order to give more people an opportunity to attend.

[Recent talks have attracted an audience of up to ninety.  During the Covid-19 epidemic, and since, we have been holding our talks over Zoom — details here.]



This has become a regular feature of our calendar, and [is usually held in February or March — see our Events pages around the turn of the year for more details].  We have been lucky to be able to hold it in recent years in the lovely Long Shop Museum in Leiston.  This is a small but very special museum housed in the original buildings of Garretts Works, a company that manufactured steam engines.  We benefit as the museum is keen to build links with the local community; we also participated in the WWI commemorations led by the Long Shop Museum (see more below). 

Stalls and exhibits at our Open Day vary from year to year, and have included old postcards of Leiston, family trees, and a member who specialises in dating old photographs that the public bring into show her.

In 2016 we had a wonderful display of their family tree by Di and Henry Mann, two of our committee members, featuring an ancestor who was hanged for carrying out a robbery!  We also have family history volunteers on hand with computers, to help anyone with any queries that they have about researching their own past.

... The group [sometimes participates] in the Westleton Wild Flower Festival [in July/August], with a stall displaying some gems from our archives and experts on hand to help.



With the anniversary marking the 100 years since the beginning of World War I, it was suggested that the Alde Valley Suffolk Family History Group should produce a Memorial Book commemorating the servicemen of Leiston who lost their lives during the war.

Two committee members collaborated on the project and decided that the book would feature those men whose names appear on the wall of the WWI Memorial Chapel in Leiston Cemetery.  The long process of researching the lives of these 122 men began.

A simple format, recording the details of each soldier, including their connection with Leiston, military service, death and any commemorative memorial in Britain or overseas, formed the layout of the pages, which were designed to reflect the style of the period following the war.

We attended meetings of the "Leiston in the Great War" committee at the Long Shop Museum ... and thus had an input into the exhibition, parade and other commemorations that took place in the town, financing for which was successfully applied for from the Heritage Lottery Fund.  Our Memorial Book was published in June 2014 and within weeks all copies had been sold!  A rewarding conclusion for the part our group played in Leiston's WWI commemorations.



[This] website contains a wealth of information, covering our activities, reports on monthly talks, photographs, and contact details for the Committee.  There are the opening hours of our Help Centre, details of local Church Records (of which we hold copies), links to GENUKI Suffolk and the Federation of Family History Societies as well as the Suffolk Record Office.

We have received enquiries for help with research through our website from family historians located in different parts of the UK and even abroad.  Although we do not provide a formal research service, members are often willing to help out where they can.  [This has changed since the beginning of 2020 — see our «Contact Us» page for our «Research Request Form».]

[Also, since 2018, you can follow us at facebook.com/groups/avsfhg!]



The [Help] Centre is open on the first and third [Saturdays] of each month, 10am-12:00 noon.  Anyone may attend, it is free of charge to use, and committee members will be on hand to help with any enquiries.  We have local information, including graveyard catalogues for Benhall, Saxmundham, Leiston, Eastbridge, Aldringham and Sutton, and details on local war memorials.  We ... acquired a large number of CDs and microfiches of local interest, [and] a new laptop computer and … printer, in addition to the computer and laptop we already own. 

[Other major acquisitions since include almost 100 Leiston Grammar School team photos and — dating back to 1929 — 15 whole-school panoramic pictures (results of a project: see below), plus almost 300 25" Ordnance Survey flat maps of Suffolk, many from 1904 or 1926/27 read about the maps here.]

You can find us upstairs in the Old Council Offices in Main Street, Leiston, IP16 4ER (opposite the Long Shop Museum).



… Projects have been carried out by members of the AVSFHG, [which are listed on "Our Church Records" webpage.]  All these records are available for consultation at our [Help] Centre.

It was the Town Clerk who led us to a project to research in 2014 – an old family Bible, dated 1838, originally belonging to the Lambert family of Leiston, which the current owners wished to return to them.  They had requested help from the Clerk, who in turn passed the Bible on to the Group.  Despite our best endeavours, we were unable to make contact with the two descendants of the Lambert family that we traced.  However, the Bible was eventually handed over at a small informal ceremony to a friend of the family, who had many happy childhood memories associated with the Lamberts, and who was keen to take custody of it.

Another ... project involved a poem, written in pencil, by Percy Callear, a WWI soldier who survived the war.  It was written from the Nasrieh Military Hospital in Cairo in 1915.  Jesse Sylvester, the grandmother of Bill Sylvester (the current custodian of the poem), was the wife of a local GP and she was leader of Leiston-cum-Sizewell Urban District Council (as it then was) three times.  John Peters, one of our committee members, was pleased to be able to fill in the gaps in the family tree for Bill.  Ultimately, Bill tracked down a son of Callear's daughter who now lives in France, and the poem has been restored to Percy Callear's descendants.

The Group is ... undertaking a project to capture name plaques above properties that appeared around the start of the 1900s.  Many are located at the top of houses in brickwork, sandstone or cement and often include a date.  In some records these were used as the addresses instead of road names and numbers, which can be confusing for the researcher.  So the aim is to record the names that appear on buildings, enter them on a database, and then research the history behind them.  First of all this will be tried on houses in Leiston as it is known there are quite a number, with the aim of finding as much history [as possible] behind the names, such as families, builders, landowners, developers or a celebratory event in time, such as a Jubilee or battle in the Boer War.

[A special feature results from our 2018/19 project to preserve the Leiston Grammar School sports team photographs, of which there are over 80, from the period 1929 to 1968.  The digitised photos, catalogue, etc will be available to view at the 2019 Open Day, and copies will be provided to any interested alumni or members of their families.  (Subsequently, they will continue to be available at our fortnightly Saturday morning Help Centre sessions at the Old Council Offices, immediately opposite the Long Shop.)  You can read here about what led up to our project — the original photographs have now been deposited with the Suffolk Record Office.]



The group formed in April 2008 with 10 members and by September of that year the numbers had risen to 22.  There was a gradual increase year on year so that by the time Roger Baskett took over the role of Membership Secretary at the AGM of 2013, the membership then totalled 43.  Two years later this stood at 58, but 2015 saw a dramatic rise and we finished the year with 82 paid-up members.  The reason for this was mainly due to moving our monthly evening meetings to Leiston (where attendances doubled) and visitors were encouraged to join.  [In 2019 and 2020, membership touched 100.  During the pandemic, 2020 memberships were extended through 2021, but more than 70 additional members took advantage of our Zoom option, which is to continue post-COVID in the form of "hybrid" physical meetings streamed over Zoom.]

Annual membership fees are £10 for Household Membership and £6 for Individual.  This includes receiving the quarterly Newsletter and reduced entry to our monthly talks.


Contributors to this piece: Maggie Strutt, Di Mann, Angela Skelcher, John Last, Roger Baskett in Autumn 2016.  
[Amendments by Steve Stocks in October 2018, February 2019, February and December 2020, and October 2021]