Founding chairman of Dorking & District U3A Jim Docking recalls the early days
It began with a flourish on 13 March 1991 with some 250 third-agers attending an open meeting in the main hall of the Christian Centre and overflowing into the entrance hall with standing room only! I recall it as an occasion of great excitement and optimism, the culmination of months of preparation by a wonderful team of people brought together by Betty Wright who, as a member of Reigate U3A, wanted to see a similar organisation in this area.
During the previous autumn, a steering committee of 11 people had been formed to prepare for the inaugural meeting, with Betty as vice-chairman and myself as chairman. Our most important task was to elicit the willingness of a number of people to convene study and interest groups. Another was to decide which hall to use for the inaugural meeting and subsequent monthly meetings. Tony Allnutt did some research on hiring charges and capacity, and in the end we chose the Christian Centre, mainly because it was central and about the right size.
We also spent much time discussing ways of advertising the new venture. Notices were placed in parish magazines, shop windows and libraries. Leaflets with information and application forms were placed in key centres, but the supply soon ran out following a letter from us in the Dorking Advertiser, which attracted a great deal of interest.
The launch was addressed by the late Dr Len Lamerton of Banstead U3A. He told us how the U3A movement had begun in France in 1972 following a successful summer school in Toulouse for retired people. What then became the Université du Troisième Age spread rapidly throughout continental Europe, but its introduction into this country 10 years later broke new ground. Across the Channel, U3As were based on courses that relied on local universities providing both the facilities and tuition. By contrast, the British model had at its core small study groups run by volunteers, meeting largely in members’ homes, and this is the pattern that has prevailed here so successfully.
The opening address was followed by group conveners in turn explaining what they planned to do and encouraging us to join their groups. A number of people in the hall came up afterwards to express willingness to start other groups, and by July we had 29 up and running. Some of the leaders are sadly no longer with us, but several of the original groups are still going strong (a few with the same convener), though the titles may have changed (eg, Novel Reading became Reading for Pleasure). By the summer of 1995 we had 48 groups, including some parallel ones.
The first monthly meeting took place in May. The speaker was the late Roger Gaunt, whose talk was entitled ‘Four Poets from the Seaboard’ and centred on the works of John Betjeman, Charles Causley, Philip Larkin and RS Thomas. Other meetings in the first year covered trends in marriage and divorce, family history, the history of Ranmore, London sights, badgers, the Citizens’ Advice Bureau and the work of the Samaritans.
A newsletter was issued from the start, though the first one was simply two sides of A4 giving details of monthly meetings and study groups. By the second issue we had an editor, Marilyn Hodson, and Tony Allnutt got together an army of volunteers to distribute copies. When Marilyn moved out of the area in the summer Peggy Wielgusiewicz took over and her husband, Janusz, organised the distribution.
Just a month after its launch our membership – which cost £5 a year in those days – had passed 100; by July it was 160, by January 1992 it had reached 210, and by March 250. The rapid growth was not without its problems since some groups were soon oversubscribed and had either opened a waiting list or moved to the spacious and comfortable sitting room of Canterbury Court, thanks to the willingness of the warden, Denise Lloyd.
By July 1991 Angela Cooke and Betty Wright were organising day outings. The first was to the Watts Gallery at Compton and Loseley Park, and this was followed in October by a conducted tour of the Houses of Parliament. Both these trips have since been repeated.
During the summer of 1991, the steering committee arranged affiliation with the Third Age Trust, while Ken Kelsey proved invaluable in drafting our first constitution, which was adopted at the first AGM on 13 November 1991. On this occasion we also elected a committee to replace the steering group. Soon after we successfully registered for charity status, enabling us to receive interest from our savings account tax free.
Twenty-five years on, our pattern of activities remains much the same. However, in addition to monthly meetings, study groups and day outings we have since added holidays, organised by Angela Cooke, and our members now have access to the theatre trips organised by Bookham U3A, regional study days and various summer schools.