Village Hall Talks at Wootton-By-Woodstock

The project was conceived to raise funds to renovate the village hall in Wootton-by-Woodstock, which was built almost entirely from timber over eighty years ago. Few who have attended the talks would disagree that the evenings have been an engaging mixture of serious insight and comedic observation and we think we are catering for the current thirst for live events in smaller venues.

The Richard Van Emden Talk

The Richard Vann Emden Talk

Richard is one of the world’s leading historians of the First World War and he gave a fascinating talk on June 27th about boy soldiers in the conflict. He came to Wootton the day before the centenary of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo, which helped trigger the conflict, and so the timing was highly appropriate.

During the course of an immensely informative and yet melancholy evening, he gave us startling details of how boys as young as twelve were motivated to bluff their way into a war of unimaginable horror. Despite the minimum age for front line service being 19, thousands of young boys were able to enlist successfully in the Army during the war, particularly in the period before the introduction of conscription in 1916. Many of them even stood on tiptoes and inflated their small chests as part of their determination to enter military service – and yet how the authorities allowed this to happen was largely a mystery until Richard, who has written 16 books on the war, embarked on his painstaking research.

As an illustration, he told us the story of Sidney Lewis – thought to be the youngest British soldier to fight in the war at just twelve years of age, but his identity had remained a secret for almost a century until the chance discovery of faded documents revealed his extraordinary story and his courage at the Battle of the Somme. On holiday from school, Sidney had decided to take his chance and signed up for the army in London, lying to the recruitment officer about his age and pretending he was several years older. “How a 12-year-old got into the British Army is really beyond belief,” Richard told us..

But Sidney was not alone - about 250,000 underage soldiers fought for Britain in the First World War. Richard has tracked down personal testimonies, as well as unpublished diaries and letters, which he used to illustrate for us extraordinary stories of heroism and sacrifice. Perhaps more than any group, it was young boys (children, really) who were caught up in the wave of patriotism and who wanted to fight for King and country.

Another example was Dick Trafford who – before his sixteenth birthday – had been gassed and wounded three times and went over the top with an eardrum burst during the heat of battle. Others, like Frank Lindley, seeking to avenge his dead brother, went into battle on the first day of the Somme when he was just sixteen. But it wasn’t only working class boys who were ushered into the forces – Richard told us of one young middle-class boy who, barely 16, became an officer in charge of a company of 250 men.

At the time, stories of young boys being recruited far below the minimum age, were buried in censorship and government control. As the presentation of a birth certificate was not required, many lied about their age, in some cases with the connivance of recruiting sergeants, who were paid a bounty per recruit. For example, said Richard, if a doctor were uncertain about a boy’s age, a sergeant would tell him to return after taking a walk around the block, by which time – miraculously - he had aged a couple of years.

Encouragement to enlist came from newspapers extolling the heroic actions of under-age soldiers, and also from members of local communities who actively encouraged and sometimes even pressured young boys to enlist. In some cases, boys from poor families enlisted with parental support because it was one less mouth to feed – in others, they gave false names and, despite mounting pressure to prevent it, this practice persisted.

Although many tenacious questions were asked in parliament, notably by the Nottinghamshire Liberal MP, Sir Arthur Markham, the most practical solution - the compulsory presentation of a birth certificate on enlistment - was never adopted. Parents could request their sons were withdrawn from the front, added Richard, but this solution was often only possible with the co-operation of their sons, and only after encountering extensive red tape.

In a truly melancholy interlude, Richard read out some heart-wrenching letters in which the father of a boy, killed in battle aged only 17 and his only child, wrote with amazing deference to Lord Kitchener, saying that the boy was merely a child and that he should never have been allowed to join the Army. Elsewhere, the sister of a boy at the front wrote to him, urging him to come home before he was badly injured. Richard’s next image was this letter, returned to the girl, with the stark words “Killed in Action” written on the same envelope
Large-scale under-age enlistment largely disappeared with the introduction of conscription. A policy was adopted, said Richard, in which those already in the army and under-age were withdrawn from front-line service and sent to French military bases, where they undertook further training or other duties until they reached the age of 19. However, given the desperate need of troops in the wake of the German offensive in March 1916, those aged 18 were still included in drafts to the front.

Boy soldiers suffered fates similar to their older companions in the front-line, said Richard. Some, unable to cope with the stresses of battle, succeeded in getting themselves discharged or removed from the front through declaring their real age. But many were killed in action or died of wounds, often under aliases, so that their families never discovered their fate, while others were promoted or commissioned and won medals for bravery. Through painstaking research and dealing with material chronologically, Richard has estimated numbers and percentages of young boys involved in the war. He told us it was hard to arrive at an exact figure, given the deliberate falsification of ages - and, in some cases, names - upon enlistment. But extensive studies suggest that in certain units, as many as 12 per cent of soldiers in the First World War were under-age. .

And the fate of Sidney Lewis? His distraught mother had no idea where her son — one of eight children — had gone. She only found out a year later when a soldier, home on leave, mentioned that Sidney was fighting in the Somme with the 106th Machine Gun Company. Horrified, she wrote to the War Office to demand Sidney be sent home, attaching his birth certificate showing he was only 13. The response was swift and he came back, unscathed, but when he was old enough he re-enlisted in the Army and served in Austria following the Armistice in November 1918. He later became a police officer and, after retiring, ran a public house.

Over 120 people attended Richard's talk and Ann Day baked a cake to celebrate our 65th event.

“What a moving and truly memorable evening. With our modern perspective, it is impossible to imagine how such young boys were allowed to enlist and fight in the war and face almost certain death. Richard, in his wonderful talk, put everything into context and detailed all the factors coming into play and yet the agony of the parents is still unimaginable. A wonderful event – Ian Key, Stratford-upon-Avon

Harry Bucknall

Friday July 18th 2014

Harry is a travel writer and former Army officer who, two years ago completed a 1,400-mile trip on foot between St Paul's Cathedral, in London, and St Peter’s Basilica, in Rome.. Harry is not particularly religious but admits to “spiritual wanderings” and embarked on the journey as an adventure.

He has now written about his epic walk in his latest book, called Like A Tramp, Like A Pilgrim, which is due to be published the day before Harry appears in Wootton.

However, some well-known people have seen an early copy and are full of praise:

Martin Sheen, Hollywood actor: "My congratulations to Harry Bucknall. I thoroughly enjoyed Like a Tramp Like a Pilgrim. It's a wonderful book."

John Julius Norwich: "Harry Bucknall is my sort of pilgrim. This is one of the happiest books I have read for a very long time. I loved it."

Alan Titchmarsh: “A remarkable story from a remarkable man.”

Harry decided to embark on the journey because he felt that many writers had written about the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela, in Spain, but far fewer have described the pilgrimage to Rome, which is not only longer but much harder.

During the trek, which lasted for 94 days, Harry endured temperatures of 40C and completed an average of 15-20 milks a day, setting out at 5.30am to avoid the hottest part of the day. He set off in May and his route took him through northern France, Switzerland, and over the Apennine Mountains in Italy. He often walked with friendly strangers all along the way, including a group of young Polish priests making their own pilgrimage. “But what was incredible was the human kindness you met along the way.”

This latest book follows the success of his previous work, called In the Dolphin’s Wake, which he wrote after serving in the Coldstream Guards for 12 years, spending time in Bosnia and finishing as a major. In it, he traced his journey across the Ionian and Aegean Seas, in Greece, covering over 6,000 miles and visiting 36 islands.

The book won widespread acclaim, including praise from Sir Patrick Fermor, the late master of travel writing. Again, it ventured into the realm of spirituality, giving a detailed account of life with the monks in Patmos - where St John the Divine received the Book of Revelations – and also featuring descriptions of monastic obedience on Mount Athos, where all mirrors had been removed because the monks told him that they found beauty only in God, not themselves.

If you are interested in attending this talk or would like to reserve a ticket please Contact us

Mark Avery

Friday September 19th 2014

Mark is one of the country’s leading conservationists and worked as the RSPB’s charismatic Director of Conservation for 13 years. He has been at the heart of all major conservation battles of recent years – from wind-farms to the persecution of birds of prey by landowners.

Mark’s new book, called A Message from Martha, traces the extinction of the North American passenger pigeon, with September 1st marking the centenary of the death of the last surviving bird, called Martha, in 1914. The extinction is truly shocking because the passenger pigeon went from being one of the most prolific species in the world to extinction through hunting and habitat destruction – all within 50 years.

The bird had lived in vast migratory flocks, with one in 1866 in southern Ontario once estimated to be one mile wide and 300 miles long, taking 14 hours to pass, and holding in excess of 3.5 billion birds. And this figure would probably represent only a fraction of the entire population at the time.

Estimates suggest there were up to five billion passenger pigeons in North America when Europeans first arrived. A large reduction in numbers occurred through deforestation and also when pigeon meat was commercialized as a cheap food for both slaves and the poor of the 19th Century – resulting in hunting on an almost mechanized scale.

A slow decline between 1800 and 1870 was followed by a catastrophic decline between 1870 and 1890 – and Martha was the world's last passenger pigeon when she died on September 1, 1914, at Cincinnati Zoo.

Mark’s last book, called Fighting for Birds - 25 Years in Nature Conservation, won widespread acclaim and it is seen as the Bible for saving wildlife, with Bill Oddie claiming it was required reading by anybody interested in conservation. British Wildlife magazine said the book showed how every conservation battle had been a fight every inch of the way, whilst Countryfile magazine described Mark as a “troublemaker – but in a nice way”.

If you are interested in attending this talk or would like to reserve a ticket please Contact us

David Hone

Friday October 24th 2014 (Sixth Birthday Evening)

David has an international reputation as a palaeontologist specialising in dinosaurs and pterosaurs. He broadcasts widely and teaches a range of courses at Queen Mary’s College, London, focusing on evolution, ecology, vertebrate diversity and global change biology.

He has also written a number of scientific papers, naming a number of new dinosaurs. These include Zhuchengtyrannus magnus– a Tyrannosaurus-sized carnivore from China; Limusaurus inextricabilis Anchiornis huxleyi - a bird-like feathered dinosaur close to the origin of birds; and Linhenykus monodactylus - a small bird-like dinosaur with just one finger on each hand.

David also has a blog on palaeontology (hosted by The Guardian) called “Lost Worlds” and he has also been writing the blog “Archosaur Musings” for over five years, where he talks about dinosaurs, pterosaurs and science in the media.

He also helped launch a new site focused on pterosaurs – “Pterosaur.Net” which has it’s own blog, as well as a series of essays on various aspects of the biology of these animals. However his biggest project is called “Ask A Biologist” which he set up in 2006, when he recruited a number of international researchers to answer the public’s questions and, so far, they have replied to nearly 7,000 biology-related queries. He is also currently writing a book on dinosaurs for the Sigma series of science titles for the Bloomsbury Press.

David has also written for the National Geographic magazine and the BBC Walking with Dinosaurs website. He has appeared on many television networks, including the Discovery Channel, commenting on dinosaur stories, He has also appeared on television in China, where he lived for three years whilst carrying out research.

If you are interested in attending this talk or would like to reserve a ticket please Contact us

Lucy Hughes-Hallett

Friday November 14th 2014

Lucy is a cultural historian and author of The Pike, the smash-hit biography of the debauched Italian poet, daredevil and fascist Gabriele D’Annuzio, which won universal and unequivocal praise from reviewers and was garlanded with awards.

Last year, the book won the Samuel Johnson Prize and it was also given the 2013 Costa Book Award for biography, the Duff Cooper Prize, as well as being shortlisted for the Paddy Power Political biography of the Year. The Pike recounts how, in September 1919, D’Annunzio, a successful poet and occasional politician, declared himself Commandante of the city of Fiume in modern-day Croatia.

His intention was to establish a utopia based on his fascist and artistic ideals - and it proved the dramatic pinnacle to an outrageous career. D’Annunzio became a national hero and his evolution from idealist romantic to radical right-wing revolutionary is seen as a political parable. His ideological journey, culminating in the failure of the Fiume project, reflects the political turbulence of early 20th-century Europe and the emergence of fascism.

In The Pike, Lucy addresses the cult of nationalism and the origins of political extremism – and at the centre of the book stands the charismatic D’Annunzio - a figure as deplorable as he is fascinating.


Sunday Times - Hughes-Hallett has a great talent for encapsulating an era or an attitude …The fact that almost 700 pages flew by bears testimony to how pleasurable and readable those pages were.

Francis Wheen, Daily Mail - This is a magnificent portrait of a preposterous character … D’Annunzio was deplorable, brilliant, ludicrous, tragic but above all irresistible, as hundreds of women could testify. His biographer has done him full justice.

Daily Telegraph - Hughes-Hallett chooses not to judge, taking the position that disapproval is not an interesting response. Instead she teases apart the man from his self-made myth… She is never seduced by her subject, repeatedly reminding us of his fundamental lack of empathy, something elegantly encapsulated by the cover image itself: D’Annunzio mirrored, frozen in self-admiration.

Lucy is also the author of Cleopatra: Histories, Dreams and Distortions, which won both the Fawcett Prize and the Emily Toth Award. She also wrote the highly-praised Heroes: Saviours, Traitors and Supermen. Lucy has written book reviews for all the major newspapers, in particular The Sunday Times. She is a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature.

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December 2014

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Richard Ovenden

Friday January 9th 2015

Richard was appointed as the 25th Bodley’s Librarian, in Oxford, last February, having worked at the library since 2003. As executive head of the Bodleian Libraries, he is the steward of more than 11 million printed items, in addition to 50,000 e-journals and a vast quantity of other material.

Richard has been at the forefront of the Bodleian’s efforts to acquire the personal archive of William Fox Talbot – considered the godfather of photography - in order to preserve one of the world’s most important collections and to encourage research in and around it at Oxford University.

The Bodleian’s appeal to raise £2.2 million to purchase the archive was launched in December 2012 and a large grant of £1.2 million from the National Heritage Memorial Fund gave the appeal a vital boost. With a recent gift of £200,000 from the Art Fund, along with donations from numerous other individuals and charitable trusts, the Bodleian has managed to secure almost £1.9 million towards the purchase of the archive.

In spring 2014, sixteen images by leading contemporary photographers were donated for sale at Sotheby’s to support the campaign. They included Hiroshi Sugimoto, the New-York based Japanese photographer and architect; Miles Aldridge and John Swannell, the fashion photographers; Nadav Kander, London based photographer, artist and director, known for his portraiture and landscapes; Candida Ho?fer, internationally-renowned photographer from Germany; Massimo Vitali, Italian photographer; and Martin Parr, award-winning British documentary photographer, film-maker and photojournalist.

Richard has worked as a professional librarian since 1985 and served on the staff of Durham University Library, the House of Lords Library, the National Library of Scotland (as Deputy Head of the Rare Books Section), the University of Edinburgh, as Director of Collections, and since 2003 at the Bodleian Libraries - first as Keeper of Special Collections and then, from 2011, as Deputy Librarian.

On his appointment as Bodley’s Librarian, Richard emphasied that the Bodleian stands at the heart of the university, working in partnership with all of the academic disciplines and supporting international scholars, as well as the people of Oxford and throughout the world who access the Bodleian digitally or visit its exhibitions.

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John Lloyd & John Mitchinson Talk, Summer 2009

Local Links

The Oxford Photography Festival 2014

The Woodstock Bookshop

The Killingworth Castle

Adrian Arbib Photography

Wootton Stores - The Village Shop

Robin Laurance Photography

Ashmolean Museum

The Bodleian Library - Exhibitions and Events

U3A - Woodstock University Of The Third Age

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