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Leicester French Circle

A History of the Leicester French Circle
by Kathleen E Bassett, BA.

The Early Years 1899 - 1914
On September 11th 1899, a group of Leicester businessmen met at Dover Street school and decided to form a society for the mutual study of French - with reading, conversation, and debate.

The idea had been mooted by Mr J Wardley and two of his friends when discussing their interest in French over a pint of beer in a local pub.

A President, Vice-President and Secretary were elected at this first meeting but the rest of the Committee were to be elected later. A room at Dover Street was to be booked for Mondays, 7.45 - 9.45pm at a cost of 3/6d per week. A subscription of 5/- per member per session was agreed. A Mr Huber (perhaps French?) was to be preceptor of the society. The first President was Mr Wardley who remained in office for 22 years, until he left Leicester in 1921.

The first meeting of members took place on Monday September 18th when it was decided that each member should have a copy of the book to be read during the first part of the meeting.

Two more members were elected to the Committee on October 25th, but one place was left open, in case it was decided to invite a lady member later.

The first list of members has 20 names, including 2 ladies, all paying 5/- plus 1/- for the book being read. There are 8 more names, crossed out, as they didn't pay their subscription. There are no further minutes until the next season but a list of expenses shows a deficit of 6/7d. The expenses were mainly rent, but include an advert (4/2d), a dictionary (2/8d), and refreshments at a soirée (in a special room, with music) 15/6d. £1-1-6d was received for a concert, but again there was a loss (17/6d).

The next year, 1900, the meeting night was changed to Wednesday, and the meeting place to Winn's Oriental Cafe, at 8 or 8.30 to 10.30pm. The book chosen for the first session was Le Maître des Forges. The rent seems to have been 2/6d per meeting but the number of members less (14 plus 2 paying half-price). A programme of discussions for 1900 lists "Should bachelors be taxed?", "Monarchy or Republic", "Conscription", "Bicycle Tax", "Bank Holidays", "Free State Education". Some dates had a name beside them but no subject.

In February 1902 Mr Stibbe proposed that all members should pay 2/- towards a fund to set up a permanent library. This would give them the right to use the library as long as they remained members of the Circle. This was agreed and also that the general funds should be used to buy books.

A business meeting in September 1902 appointed a new Secretary Mr C Stibbe. There was a vote on whether to have journals or books for reading - the books won and Le Roi des Montagnes was decided on. Subjects of discussion for each week till Christmas were decided. In 1904 the Circle ran a Whist Drive, with prizes and catering for 81 people.

Well known Leicester names like Wathes, Stibbe and Tarratt (Secretary in 1905) appear among the members. The preceptor or instructor disappears from the list of officers. M Challifour's name appears in 1905 as an Hon Member (French Nationals were made Hon Members) and in 1907 he became Vice-President. There are 3 Hon Members on the 1907 list. The membership was still around 20 but in 1907-8 membership increased to about 36, including 7 women, one of whom, Miss Elsie Muston continued as a member for many years, almost till her death at over 90. In March 1907 it had been agreed that ladies should be admitted (although there had been some women's names on the list in 1900 and later). In 1908 there was another increase in membership to 47 with a number of French names.

In 1904 they apparently changed over from reading books to periodicals. Les Annales was tried but changed in 1905 to La Chronique. In 1908-9 the books forming the library were sold and the money used to buy a Gasc's dictionary for the use of members(12/6d). It was left to the Committee to decide whether to have newspapers or novels for the use of members.
The Minute book (1910) when the Secretary was Mr LLoyd Wilson, begins with a long list of members' names and addresses - 47 names plus 10 more crossed out (people who may have left during the year). The balance sheet for 1910 contained the expenses of a play, of a ladies' night, of a men's night, and a Christmas Party, but finished the season with £2-8-0 in hand. Two ladies were elected to the Committee this year, including Miss Muston.

It was decided to have a general meeting after the last meeting of the session, so one was held on April 29th. There it was agreed that the minutes of each weekly meeting should be read out at the following meeting. When elections were taking place it was agreed that the Committee be left to invite "French-speaking people of repute to be Honorary Vice-Presidents". A Treasurer was appointed for the first time (the Secretary had been doing both jobs till then). Plans were made for a summer outing to Sibbertoft.

At the September meeting the book "Lettres de mon Moulin" was agreed for reading. The Secretary said that the members were on such good terms with one another and so unanimous in their opinions, that resolutions were not necessary and the minutes were of an informal nature.

In October, the Secretary said he had arranged for members of the Nottingham Circle to come to Leicester (with a return visit the following February). Refreshments were to be served free to everyone. Mr George Tarratt, who had been Secretary for five years, was to be presented with a watch.

Press cuttings in French from the Midland Free Press about meetings in March and April 1911 included reports of a talk by Mlle Bishop of Folkestone about Les sports d'Hiver de Grindlewald, illustrated by photographs, and of a talk at the École Berlitz on Alfred de Musset, to which French Circle members were invited. A joint picnic at Normanton for Nottingham and Leicester Circles was announced for June. The last meeting for the session was a musical evening, with songs and violin solos provided by the Hewitt family. The membership for 1911 was 94 (up from 47). A lady, Miss Achard, was elected as Vice-President. The subscription was increased to 7/6d per session per member, plus 2/6d admission for new members.

The year 1911 marked the first mention of a meeting at the Turkey Cafe (not the Oriental Cafe) at 10/- per week. The Leicester Library had recently been taking the magazine L'Illustration and arrangements were made for the Circle to buy copies from the Library.

During the next few years membership was well over 100, with up to 20 Honorary members. Several joint meetings with Nottingham Anglo-French Club were held.

A resolution was passed that any member wishing to leave the club must put it in writing to the Secretary before September 30th, otherwise he or she would be liable for a subscription for the current year. A vote was taken about having summer meetings but did not have much support. However several picnics were arranged. In addition to lectures, which the Secretary had to arrange, there were whist drives, musical evenings, a social reunion (at the beginning of the session), concerts and a Ball at the Constitutional Club. In 1913 a Rambling Club was formed with a separate committee to organise it. Six outings took place that summer.

The Library was re-formed with gifts of books from members, and 20/- from club funds, to be spent at Clarke and Satchells. A bookcase was bought to be kept in the Clubroom. The librarian would be there on Wednesday and Saturday evenings so that members could borrow books. Steps were taken to buy a lantern for the Club.

The Director of Education, Mr Brockington, was invited to be an Honorary Vice-President but declined. It was suggested that Sir Samuel Faire should also be invited but as there was no reason to suppose that he had any special qualification for the office the matter was dropped.

At the 1914 AGM an important resolution was passed - that in future all members would have to give an assurance that they would speak only French at meetings. A fine of one penny was to be paid for a breach of this regulation. All members were to be informed that their membership would not be renewed except under these conditions.

1914 - 1918 The First World War Years
The outbreak of the First World War caused changes to the membership, as some members, including the Secretary were called up or volunteered, but a good number of Belgian refugees were welcomed to the Circle as Honorary members.

At the AGM in 1915, 61 French or Belgians had registered as members, and others came from time to time. Many helped with talks. Money was collected for the Belgian Refugee Fund and a small souvenir was sent to those members on active service.

Attendance at meetings was good, almost more than the room could hold, and in addition, informal meetings were held every Monday. The Committee was to meet every Wednesday at 7.45pm, before the main meeting, to interview new members. The club room was now being kept open all day, and the newspaper Indépendance Belge was to be provided daily. The Cercle Belge asked to be allowed to use the clubroom on Saturdays and occasionally at other times.

In February 1916 complaints were received that some members (especially one lady) talked during lectures. The President had mentioned this ill-mannered conduct, with no effect, so the Secretary was asked to write to her, saying she would be asked to resign if there was no improvement. A Belgian member had made insulting remarks about another Belgian. Both attended the meeting and made statements (one for ten minutes). By a show of hands the man accused was asked to resign, and his name was removed from the books.

The AGM that year gave the membership as 114 paying, and 72 honorary members, despite 9 resignations and 6 being struck off for non-payment of the previous year's subscription. Attendances at meetings were high, and also at the Monday meetings which were usually debates. An extra lecture on Alphonse Daudet, by a Robert de Smal from Birmingham took place in the Town Hall (the Guildhall?) and was very successful. The Clubroom was lent each week to the Belgian Relief Committee. Despite spending more money on out of town speakers and lantern lectures, the finances were in good state, with a balance of £21-19-9d at the end of the year. The library was much used and the Rambling Club was very successful.

Among the Vice-Presidents in 1917 was Alderman Jonathan North (the Mayor) and B B Stanyon, President of the Chamber of Commerce. It was proposed and agreed that the Circle should be affiliated to the Chamber of Commerce, with the President as the representative.

In 1918 membership was still 101 but honorary members down to 38, 18 members were still serving in the Forces and two had lost their lives. The next year most Belgian members had been repatriated but membership was 108.

1920 - 1939 The Interwar Years
As 1920 was the 21st anniversary of the founding, all sorts of suggestions were made to celebrate it, including a mass meeting with the President of the Anglo-French Society presiding (the Circle had just affiliated to this). Local businesses likely to be interested in trade with France were to be approached, but there was no report of what actually happened, and no mention in the balance sheet of the "mass meeting".

Efforts were made at this time to find a larger room, accessible to members during the day, where French periodicals could be displayed and books available (the bookcase was not big enough now), but nothing was available which was better than the Turkey Cafe!

In 1921 Mrs Muschamp joined the Committee and soon became Secretary. Minutes were then in French and extremely difficult to read. As Mr Wardley, who had been President for a number of years, was leaving Leicester, Mr Muschamp was elected President. Mrs Muschamp was Swiss. Her husband was English and was a lecturer at the Polytechnic.

A Ball at the Oriental Cafe this year was a great success. What was described as one of the best lectures ever was given by M Cammaerts at the Museum. This meeting resulted in a lot of new members with a total of 198 on the books (198 who had paid or should pay and 24 honorary members). However the following year saw a decrease. It was also reported that the library was not much used and that rambles had not been well supported.

In 1922 it was decided to affiliate to the Alliance Française, and from then on at least two speakers came from there each year and were greatly appreciated. The Alliance Secretary, Mlle Salmon, came each year and only charged her fare, while other speakers cost £3. A Press reporter came whenever an interesting speaker was expected. Honorary members often spoke so there was no difficulty in filling the programme. However, the poor Secretary also had to arrange a programme for the Monday meetings, where attendance was going down - so it was agreed that those attending on Mondays should arrange their own programme.

A Committee meeting at the YMCA Cafe discussed hiring rooms at the YMCA, and in 1924 a move was made, though some people disapproved. However, the YMCA could not provide rooms in 1926, so the Circle went back to the Turkey Cafe for most meetings, but to the University for important speakers (room offered free provided students could come). Some meetings were also held at the Museum.

A Soirée Dramatique had been introduced in 1923, and scenes from Molière were presented the following year, with help from University staff and students. The Monday informal sessions stopped in 1923 as too few came and those who did were too shy to speak French. 24 or 25 meetings took place each year and included a "soirée intime" and a whist drive to help people to get to know one another.

In 1926-27, 18 meetings were held at the Turkey Cafe, 4 at the University and the Whist drive and Dance at the Victoria Rooms. That year a Professeur Kojal came from Strasbourg and there were 6 Alliance speakers, including M le Comte Fleury.

During the summer of 1927 some members met weekly at the Aylestone Boathouse for a coffee and a chat in French. This activity was continued for many years. At the AGM of the Alliance Française in 1927 in Cardiff, Leicester was proposed as the venue for the following year. At once Mrs Muschamp approached the Chamber of Commerce for their support, who then wrote to the French Ambassador inviting him to come in May. The invitation was accepted for May 17th-18th. Plans were discussed at the AGM in April 1928 but there is no account of what actually took place. However we are fortunate to have many press cuttings collected and stuck into a notebook by Miss Margaret Harding, librarian of the Circle and later Secretary to Sir Frank Whittle, pioneer of jet engines. From these it is obvious that there was a great deal of interest and support shown. Flags and bunting were displayed at the station and there was a crowd to welcome the guests, who were received by the President Mr Muschamp, Mr E Walker, President of the Chamber of Commerce, Mr Harry Purt, the Mayor, Ald J Thomas and Mr Jones, the Station Master. Unfortunately the chief guest, M Doumer, President of the French Senate had to attend a cabinet meeting and could not come, but many members of the French Chamber of Commerce did come, as well as M Fleuriau the French Ambassador (described in one newspaper report as a noble figure with classical features and a flowing beard, who had spent most of his political career in London and had done more than any other statesman to cement l'Entente Cordiale).

The visitors went then to the British United works where they were guided by Mr Charles Bennion himself. They were amazed to see the size of the building and the number of workers. After lunch the party went to Wolsey Abbey Meadow Mills, where all the products of the firm's 73 mills, including woollen and art silk were dyed and finished. There their guide was Mr Ernest Walker, Chairman and Managing Director of the firm, Mr Alec Tyler and Mr Bredward (Directors). They were interested in the process of making silk stockings and the dainty feminine lingerie, and praised the Wolsey girls in their neat white and red uniforms. The Ambassador blew a kiss to the girls in one department and received 700 in return. Hundreds of girls stood up and cheered. On the Friday evening there was the official reception in a gaily decorated De Montfort Hall. About 600 guests enjoyed a concert at which Mme Louart, famous actress and singer from the Opéra Comique, who had come specially with the party, performed. After the concert there was dancing till midnight. The official party took supper with the Mayor and Mayoress. During the evening, after the address of welcome, prizes were presented to 5 scholars who had been successful in the French essay competition, arranged by the French Circle and the Chamber of Commerce.

On the Saturday morning the Ambassador was present at the Mayor's Rooms at the Museum to open the Assemblée Générale of the Alliance. The distinguished guests went then to lay a wreath at the War Memorial in Victoria Park. A business conference followed, organised by the Chamber of Commerce, discussing particularly tariffs which were said to be crippling Leicester trade with France.

At the official lunch at the Museum, the Secretary of the Alliance in London, Mlle Yvonne Salmon, was presented with the Légion d'Honneur, as was also Sir Theodore Morrison, KCSI, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Durham. The Palmes Académiques were conferred on the Mayor, Mr E Walker, and Mr P A H Muschamp. Mrs Muschamp and Mr H Purt, of the Chamber of Commerce also each received a medal from the Alliance for the secretarial work each had done in connection with the visit.

After lunch the guests had a motor tour of Groby, Bradgate Park, Breedon, and on to Melbourne Hall in Derbyshire. They visited Melbourne church, and on the way home had tea with Mr G Crawford Johnson at Willesley Park. In the evening there was a full-dress banquet at the Grand Hotel, less formal and with some amusing speeches and in addition, appreciation by the Ambassador of the City and its cleanliness. Sir Samuel Faire, Honorary Vice-President, regretting that he could not speak in French, told how he had been in the Hôtel de Ville in Paris, on an official visit, on the day the Franco-Prussian War broke out. Through one mishap after another they got nothing to eat until 1am.

Descriptions of the dresses worn by the ladies at this and other events are interesting. When the guests arrived at the station on Friday all the Englishmen wore top-hats - the only one without was the French Ambassador, in a bowler hat.

At the AGM the following year the Secretary gave the figures for attendance at the various events of the "French Days". At the Reception at De Montfort Hall there were 550, for Lunch at the Museum - 205, and for dinner at the Grand - 85. Members and friends gave hospitality for 32 people.

About this time, (March 1929) a new French department lecturer was appointed, Dr Whittle, who spoke to the Circle several times, and organised plays both at the University and at the Circle. A play was also put on by Mr Muschamp's pupils at the Technical College, and also a Molière play by French players. This was not well supported and made a loss.

Members who went to the Assemblée Générale of the Alliance reported that Leicester was the only Circle having a speaker at each meeting, and the only one having weekly meetings.

There were many discussions over the next few years about where to meet. The University could be used, especially for talks with projections (talks with slides were now very popular), but people found it not central enough.

In 1931 there had to be some changes in Honorary Vice-Presidents, as Sir Samuel Faire had died, Dr Rattray was leaving Leicester, and Mr Harrison was retiring on health grounds. Dr Whittle took the chair at the AGM and later became a Vice-President. Co-operation with the Modern Languages Association was suggested, and it was agreed that MLA members could come to French Circle meetings by paying 1/- per meeting. At a later date a debate with the MLA on "Monarchy versus Republic" was very successful.

The new President of the Alliance Française (in London) M Cartier, was invited to a dinner to which Honorary Vice-Presidents, Heads of schools, members of the Chamber of Commerce and those who put up delegates to the "French Days" were invited, also Colonel Martin and the Director of Education, Mr Brockington. This was very successful, and was held at the Grand Hotel, with an orchestra, with M Cartier apparently paying all the expenses.

Secretarial reports at the AGM often tell of mishaps and changes of programme, as, alas, often happens today. In 1930, for example, a musical evening had very few members present because of a bad fog. A speaker from the Alliance for whom a dinner had been arranged did not turn up. Fortunately a French member replaced him. Another speaker had to go back to France, so the speaker who had not turned up before said he would be delighted to come and offered to provide champagne for the dinner. Half an hour before the meeting came a telegram saying that he couldn't come, as trains were disrupted by fog. The President and Secretary (Mr and Mrs Muschamp) read a little comedy, and made the dinner afterwards as lively and cheerful as possible.

From 1932 there was good press coverage, as Suzanne Harrison, responsible for the women's page in the Leicester Evening Mail, became a member and wrote reports of meetings and put advertisements in. That year, in order to improve the Circle and make it more sociable, a Reception Committee was set up to introduce new members to others and establish links. However at the meeting in September a letter was received suggesting that the Circle was moribund and needed a new President (Mr Muschamp had been President for 10 years).

In May 1933, the Assemblée Générale took place in Derby, and 6 members attended. Members from Nottingham, Kettering and Northampton came to the dinner in Leicester in November. To help conversation, coffee was served at small tables and music for dancing was played from 10pm till 11pm.

At the Circle AGM in 1934, the best attendances for 5 years were reported. Plays by the Comédiens de Paris, one by the University and a dinner in November to which members from Nottingham, Kettering and Northampton came, had all been successful. However, Mr Yealey, who had written the letter the previous year trying to get Mr Muschamp deposed (and was accused by some of underhand conduct) put forward a proposal that the President could only hold office for 3 years. Members praised Mr Muschamp, who had improved the Circle by introducing more "bonhomie" into his role as President and the motion was defeated.

At a Committee meeting soon after this, both President and Secretary said they should give way to younger members, with "new ideas and the spirit of enterprise".

In 1935, the dinner at the Grand was in honour of M Cartier, Alliance President, and his wife. Later that year there was another dinner in honour of M Fleuriau, the former French Ambassador (presumably the one who had come in 1928), who was now on the Alliance list of speakers. The Chamber of Commerce sent 3 representatives to this dinner, and their Vice-President, Mr Reginald Corah, offered hospitality for M Fleuriau. At the 1935 meeting, a Miss Ashton-Jones agreed to take the chair on condition that the meeting was in English. The President complained that it had become the custom for members to talk in English before and after the talk, and that we should remember we were a Cercle Français, and that even those not so fluent should try to speak in French.

Reports about the library vary from year to year. One year a gift of modern novels from the Alliance improved the circulation of books. A new bookcase was bought in 1931. In 1937 there was a gift from the Alliance of 10,000F to be spent on books chosen from a catalogue.

At AGMs in 1935 and 1936 various suggestions were made for President but none accepted, so Mr Muschamp was re-elected. In 1938 it was agreed that Committee members should take the chair in turn for the first half of the season, and other members in the second half. At the 1939 AGM, Mr Muschamp said that this had allowed him more time for other duties (ARP Warden).

Difficulties with rooms disrupted things in 1938, as the Turkey Cafe refused the usual room and offered only the basement. A room at the Royal Hotel was found at 7/6d per week, but soon after refused it, so meetings were held at the Tower Restaurant. The library could not be kept at the Tower Restaurant, and the Royal Hotel said that rent would have to be paid for it. A move was then made to the Memorial Hall, New Walk.

In 1938 also Mrs Muschamp resigned as Secretary, saying that she could not produce the kind of programme that some people seemed to want, so a new Secretary was elected.

In 1937 it was decided to invite the MP for Leicester, Harold Nicholson, to be guest of honour at the dinner which took place in November. He said he would come and speak later on but, when the war broke out in 1939, it seemed unlikely that he would. However, after Christmas, in 1940, he did come, and spoke in excellent French, about l'Entente Franco-Brittanique.

1939 - 1945 The Second World War Years
At a Committee meeting on September 14th 1939, it was decided, in view of the blackout and people not wanting to come out at night to postpone the first meeting indefinitely. However another Committee meeting on Oct 25th decided to try meeting on Nov 22nd, and to go ahead with the dinner on December 6th. The annual subscription was reduced to 7/6d because of the interruption of programme. It was proposed later to meet fortnightly, but this was defeated. A whist drive was held to raise money to send gifts to French soldiers who had formerly been in Leicester.

At the AGM in 1940 it was announced that the Secretary had been called up, so the Assistant Secretary took over the work. Most talks that year dealt with aspects of France at war. Membership was down but the Alliance did not ask for a subscription, only a donation. The exchange of local speakers with Nottingham and Derby was suggested. Members of the armed forces could join for half-fee. The Annual Dinner did take place, and the guest of honour was M le Comte Emmanuel de Skeffington. Later that year (October 31st) the Grand Hotel offered a room for £5-5-0d for the year, and it was decided to meet at 6pm because of air raid alarms. The report on the rest of that season, 1940-41, is of good meetings, with many new members, though many were also lost because of the blackout, ARP duties, etc. Socks, gloves or balaclavas were knitted by members, to be sent to the Alliance for forwarding to French Forces. The library was kept in a case and brought to the weekly meetings. Books were to be lent to the French group of the Royal Army Pay Corps, which was based in Leicester. Members of the Leicestershire Committee of Refugees were invited to meetings. A Capitaine de Gaulle, of the Free French Forces spoke about his adventures in Flanders.

The following year the Grand Hotel only had a room at £1-1-0d per meeting so it was decided to book only till Christmas in case funds were not sufficient. The Alliance gave a grant towards the rent. The French group from the Pay Corps did a play-reading one evening, talked about their experiences in Leicester another time, while a member of the Free French Forces also spoke. Membership this season, 1941-42 was 80, which included 36 new members. A letter was received from two French refugees, thanking the Circle for their welcome and for maintaining links between La France Libre and England.

In the summer of 1942 Mr Attenborough (father of Richard and David) invited the Circle to the University Hall and Gardens for tea and a concert. M Foulquies made a speech and someone from the Amis des Volontaires Français organised the concert. On 14th July, 200 people celebrated July 14th at the University.

At the 1943 AGM, the treasurer reported a loss due to the high cost of the room, and a reduction in membership (64). A Committee of young people (under 35s) was suggested so that the programme would include subjects which interested them. When 20-30 young people did meet, they said that they wanted separate meetings with play readings, excursions into the country, access to the library, and a grant from the Circle to buy records.

A Mr Jarvis thought there should be more contact with the schools. He had an interview with the Director of Education, Mr Magnay, who agreed that school students coming to the Circle should be paid for. At first only 15 wanted to join, and the Director thought that it was not worth while doing anything, but Mr Jarvis persisted, saw the County Director, and finally it was agreed that the fee for young people up to 18 should be 5/-. A room was to be booked for their meeting and the library available. By the 1944 AGM, young people were paid for by the Education Committee, could come to the main meetings and also had their own meetings. It was at this time that Eric Orton, then a 6th Form student at the Alderman Newton Boys' School, joined the Circle.

The attendances in 1943-44 were 40 to 50, despite the blackout and transport difficulties. No summer meetings took place. The Grand Hotel decided not to let a room to the Circle, so for a time the meetings were held at the Technical College but it was reported at the AGM that attendances were not so good, (room up a long cold staircase) and a move was made to Granville Hall. Mr Muschamp was not present at the AGM in 1945 and soon afterwards he resigned the Presidency (after 23 years). He nominated Mr Harris, who took over for a few months but then had to move to London.

In 1945 the Liberation of France was celebrated by an event at the Victory Hotel, with speeches, food and drink, and dancing. A message was sent to General de Gaulle. As there were difficulties with access to the library, it was decided to give the books to the City Library. The bookcase was given to Mr Muschamp in recognition of his service to the Circle. Harold Nicholson accepted the office of Hon. Vice-President, but Lord Hazelrigg declined, as did the County Director of Education, Mr Brockington. In October Mr Simons took over the Secretaryship.

The Post-War Years, the 1950s and 1960s
The Secretary's Report in 1946 commented on an increase in attendance since the move to Granville Hall. There were many new members and also 87 (on the books) from the schools. Mrs Muschamp took over as President for a time.

Unfortunately the next minute book covering 1946-1956 is missing, but the account book and membership lists show that membership went up from 40 plus to 50 plus in the fifties, and to 74 in 1953. I became a member in 1947 when I gave up teaching to have my second child. Soon afterwards I took part in Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme (Molière) produced by Adrien Favre of the University. Eric Orton who was then a student at the University also took part. M Favre stirred things up considerably, and there were many changes on the Committee. In 1949 I became Treasurer, M Favre President, and we moved to Edward Wood Hall, now the Fraser Noble Hall. Finances were not too good in 1954-55, and loans were made by Mrs Miller and Professor Sykes. The subscription went up from 10/6d to 12/6d and then to 17/6d in 1956. During this period, a number of films were shown at the Vaughan College, in conjunction with the Film Society. A play produced jointly with the MLA made a loss (also shared), but the films seemed to make a profit. The number of school members (most of whom did not often come), reduced gradually from over 50 to 8 in 1954, but was often about 18.

In 1956 the Circle moved to Vaughan College, where Dr John Hampton of the University French Department became Secretary. The room was not very satisfactory but there seemed no more suitable one available. The Secretary reported in 1958 some unfortunate experiences with film projectors in previous years, so there were no films that year. A number a sketches were performed thanks to Adrien Favre.

Students who had spent a year in France were invited to give their "Impressions de France" and this always proved a most interesting evening and continued for many years.

In 1958 it was decided to move to the Belmont Hotel, and also to ask visitors to pay a small fee, as finances were again low. One or two new activities were introduced - a visit to London to see the Comédie Française Players and a dinner, which was well attended. The card for membership and programme which we still use, was devised in 1959 by M Favre's brother. Attendance was increasing - in 1960 the Secretary reported that we had almost too many for the room. Monthly conversation groups in the summer months were suggested and took place for several years. In 1961 Mrs Vestergaard came onto the Committee and became Acting Vice-President together with Eric Orton, when Mr F C A Cammaerts, DSO, Légion d'Honneur, Principal of Scraptoft College, who became President in 1962, found he was unable to attend regularly. That year Mr Luckman shared the Secretaryship with Dr Hampton, and took over from him in 1964.

As the room at the Belmont was not available for 3 of our dates, it was arranged that we should have joint meetings with Leicester University French Society on those dates. The following year meetings were at the Midland Hotel, but in 1964-65 we had to move back to the Vaughan College.

In 1964, Mrs Vestergaard took over the Presidency. Vice-Presidents that year were Dr Hampton, Eric Orton, Dr Sullivan and Mr Hope. Mr Luckman continued as Secretary till 1967, when I took over; Mr Orton became President, and Mrs Ginvert Treasurer. At this time also the Lord Mayor became Honorary President, together with the Mayor of Strasbourg.

In 1968, in order to encourage the French Assistants to come to the French Circle, a sherry party was held so that we could get to know them. This continued for some time, and then changed to coffee at the Haymarket, and recently because of the small number of assistants coming (1997 onwards), we have either gone to meet them at their meeting with the language adviser, or simply sent them a letter inviting them to the Circle. In most years we have had very few at our meetings, but sometimes have one or two faithful ones who have become very friendly with members. In 1968 also we revived the custom of inviting students who had spent a year in France to give us their "Impressions de France"
The subscription was again increased because of financial problems, (to 25/-) and we also received a grant of £20 from the Education Committee.

The 1970s
The highlight of the programme in 1969-70 was a talk by the Comtesse de Maigret, of Moët and Chandon, followed by a tasting of their champagne. We had two translators of Asterix and a speaker from Sud-Aviation. Contact was made with French families connected with the local pipeline installation, some of whom came to a skittles evening we organised. The following year we helped to entertain French cyclists who had come for the World Cycling Championships, and also students from our twin town of Strasbourg.

Cooperation continued with the University, and a member of their French Society was invited onto our Committee. Members went to see Le Misanthrope performed, the film La Kermesse Héroïque and also a talk on films. Two attempts were made to organise Saturday schools at Vaughan College (1971-72), but the first was poorly attended and the second cancelled.

In 1974 the French Circle provided a team against Strasbourg in the Twin Town Quiz which Strasbourg won. That year Miss Gwen Rose was presented with the Médaille de Bronze by the Alliance Française, which Mr Orton and I had already received. Since then Mrs Ginvert, Mrs Haynes, Mrs Evans and Mr Jacobs have received this award. In 1975 I was presented with the higher award of the Grand Diplôme d'Honneur. Since then both Mr Orton and myself have been named "Chevalier dans l'Ordre des Palmes Académiques".

The grant of £20 from the Education Committee had continued for some years but stopped in 1974. However, after letters and an interview, we were given a grant of £30 by the newly formed Arts Association. Thanks to the grant we finished the 1976-77 season with a small profit, but we still decided to put up the subscription from £2-50 to £3-50. The grant continued till 1984 when it was decided that we were financially sound.
That year the French Circle affiliated to the new International Association (later the City of Leicester Twinning Association). In 1978, an official delegation came from Strasbourg and our members helped with translations. Our Honorary President, M Pierre Pflimlin, Mayor of Strasbourg, met members over a cup of tea at the Grand Hotel. Later that year Mr Orton and his wife went with an official delegation to Strasbourg, where they were royally entertained.

In 1977 we had our first Quiz against Derby, which has continued ever since, one year in Derby and the next in Leicester. Two years later we tried to include Leamington in the Quiz, but due to a mix-up in dates it did not happen, and hasn't been tried since.

In 1979, for our 80th anniversary we hosted the Assemblée Générale of the Alliance Française. Twenty-five of our members went to a Reception at the Art Gallery, 20 to the dinner and 15 to the lunch at the University. Our President, Mr Orton, received the Grand Diplôme d'Honneur at the Vin d'honneur which we gave to delegates before the lunch.

1980 to 1999
In 1981, 5 French Circle members went to Strasbourg as part of a planeload from Leicester and were hosted by members of L'Association France-Grande Bretagne. Other members hosted folksingers and dancers from Strasbourg who had come on the plane's return flight. When a Bakers' choir came, and the University Orchestra came in 1985 members again provided hospitality and helped out with interpreting. In 1991 another small group went to Strasbourg, hosted partly by France-Grande Bretagne and partly by Strasbourg Acceuil.

In 1983 I went with Muriel Ginvert to the Centenary Celebrations of the Alliance Française in Paris, with receptions in the Hôtel de Ville and the Elysée Palace with President Mitterand. In the same year Kaye Almey, the Mercury Women's Editor, joined the Committee and became Press Secratary.

As regards speakers, we have found it more and more difficult to find local speakers so most now come from the Alliance list.

For many years now the school students have not been paid for by the Education Committee, but we always send a letter and our programme to the Head of French at all schools with 6th forms, and we usually have one or two student members.

Summer activities for some ten years have consisted of a dinner (soon after the end of the programme), a Cheese and Wine at the home of a member and an evening of pétanque at Ashby Folville.

When Mme Trautmann, then Mayor of Strasbourg came with an official party, French Circle members had tea with her in the Lord Mayor's Parlour.

The library which was mentioned so many times in the minutes over the years was started again about ten years ago. The Alliance in Paris sent us parcels of books for several years running, several members gave us books from their shelves, and we are now buying books, especially shortened, slightly simplified versions of popular novels. We are fortunate to be able to leave the books in a cupboard in our meeting room at St James the Greater, where we have been meeting now for over 25 years (since 1972). The Vaughan College had decided they had so many classes that they could not find room for us. We were fortunate to find the small hall at St James, with a friendly atmosphere and a kitchen we can use to make tea or coffee, and we are not chased out at 9.30pm.

For many years we enjoyed a Soirée Amicale, with games, competitions and a buffet as the last meeting before Christmas, but more recently we have invited Derby for the Quiz on that date, and have some other sociable gatherings in the alternate years. For some years we invited Jan Rosol to sing folk songs, accompanying himself on his guitar, but there does not seem to be any replacement for him.

In the 1970s we had more contact with the Education Committee (apart from the grant they gave us) as the Director, Mr Fairbanks, became one of our Honorary Vice-Presidents, and the Modern Languages Advisor David Smith spoke to us and was a member of our Quiz team at Derby one year.

In 1991 we had a rather special dinner, to celebrate 25 years in office of our President, our Secretary and our Treasurer, Mrs Ginvert. Mrs Ginvert gave up the Treasurership soon afterwards and is now our Membership Secretary.

The following year, a Strasbourg company played Mowgli at the Haymarket. The Circle invited the cast to dinner at Southfields College.

Meetings have continued each season fortnightly with 6 before and 6 after Christmas, with attendances ranging from 30 to 60, usually with interesting speakers mainly from the Alliance. The composition of members varies from year to year but always we have a good combination of young and not so young, though never as many young as we would hope for - and never as many native French-speakers as we would like. There are always some, but more would help us to keep on speaking French after the talks. From time to time in the minutes the President or Secretary has complained that too many members speak English, and at one time members were to be fined if they did not speak French. We don't know how long this continued.

Mr Orton and I have now served 32 years. Over the 100 years, 4 Presidents have covered 89 of those years (Mr Wardley 22 years, Mr Muschamp 23 years, M Favre 12 years, and Mr Orton 32 years). On the whole, secretaries have not lasted so long, except for Mrs Muschamp and myself, and Dr Hampton.

I hope I have given you an idea of how the French Circle has developed over the 100 years. I wish the Circle every success in its continuation over the next 100 years and more.


The Circle celebrated its 100th birthday in 1999, and Kathleen Bassett, our Secretary at that time, compiled a history of the Circle, gleaned from minutes going back to the turn of the 19th century. The history was published as a booklet, and the text is reproduced below.

All our Circle archives are now held by the
Leicestershire Records Office, Long Street, Wigston

Kathleen Bassett died at home on New Year's Day 2009 at the age of 93, after serving the French Circle for 62 years, and this history is dedicated to her memory