In March 1948, local teacher and councillor Ivor Waters booked a room in the Tudor Cafe in Beaufort Square, Chepstow, and wrote to the Chepstow Weekly Argus proposing that a local historical society be set up.
At a meeting on 12th March 1948, the Chepstow Society was born. Ivor Waters became its first General Secretary, with Barney O’Neill as Chairman and Lord Raglan as President.
The main item of business at those early meetings was to set up a town museum. By the end of June 1948, the Urban District Council agreed that the room over the Town Arch could be used for the museum, and soon afterwards the room began to be cleared and a collection of exhibits started to be assembled. On 9th April 1949, the museum was formally opened by Lord Raglan, and the first objective of the Society had been achieved.
Ivor Waters (1907-1992) was an assiduous local historian as well as a poet, and in the first year of the Society’s existence he produced several publications on its behalf, including “Chepstow Lords and Commons” and “A Chepstow and Tintern Anthology”. Most were illustrated by Thomas Birbeck, who also drew the Society’s logo of Marten’s Tower at the castle, still used today.
Between the 1950s and 1970s, the Society produced over 40 booklets covering different aspects of the history and character of Chepstow and the surrounding area. Most were written by Ivor Waters, and some were collected into hardback anthologies, including “The Town of Chepstow”, “Chepstow Notebook” and “Chepstow Miscellany”. Highly regarded by local historians and now out of print, many are now collectors’ items.
In the early years of the Society, its activities expanded dramatically. A meeting room was set up at 12a Lower Church Street, visits were arranged to places of interest, and several sections were set up, including Arts and Crafts, Music, Rambling, and Natural History. Funds were raised by dances, jumble sales, and concerts.
In 1951, the Society organised the town’s Festival of Britain Exhibition, with a wide range of displays reflecting the town’s history and activities, and a souvenir programme. The Society also arranged the town’s first open air art show, in 1952.
“Ivanhoe” was a film made in 1913 around the Castle and other nearby locations, with many local people involved. The Society acquired a copy of the film, but it was dangerously flammable and could only be shown after it was eventually transferred to new film stock.
The Urban District Council agreed that the Museum should be transferred into the former Board School building on Bridge Street. Its displays were extended, and it was reopened there in 1969. However, the costs of maintaining the building grew and in 1976 the Museum became the responsibility of the District Council. Much of the archive material and stock of publications held by the Society was transferred around the same time, forming the basis of the local history collection now held in the town’s library. In 1983, the Museum moved to the former Cottage Hospital building at Gwy House, further down Bridge Street, where it remains.
The role of the Society changed over the years as other specialist groups formed in the town, and the Society increasingly concentrated on its core functions of protecting the town’s amenity and environment, and providing talks and excursions. By the mid-1970s, Ivor Waters stood down from his involvement, and leading roles in the Society were taken by Trevor Evans and Eric Heath, with Henry Hodges becoming Secretary in the late 1980s.
A programme of publications has continued unabated since the Society published its first Town Trail booklet in 1975. Since the 1990s, the Society has also been responsible for preparing plaques around the town highlighting features of historic interest.
The Society has maintained a regular programme of monthly meetings in the Drill Hall, open to the public as well as its members, and covering a wide variety of local and historical topics. It also continues to respond to the local authorities on planning applications and on other matters of local concern.
As Henry Hodges wrote on the occasion of the Society’s 50th anniversary in 1998: “There will always be people in this ancient town ready to protect its history, architecture and unique environment. Those people are the future of the Chepstow Society”.