Philip G.M. Dickinson

PHILIP G. M. DICKINSON F.S.A., F.R.Hist.S., F.R.G.S. (1902-1974)

THE HUNTINGDONSHIRE HISTORIAN

Biography

Biography

 

An Appreciation by The Rt. Hon. Sir David Renton, Q.C., M.P., former President of the Huntingdonshire Local History Society
(from Records of Huntingdonshire, Vol. 1, 1977, Part 8 and reproduced by kind permission of the Huntingdonshire Local History Society and the Estate of The Rt. Hon. Sir David Renton)
There can be few men in Britain who became such a distinguished self taught antiquarian and archaeologist as did Philip Dickinson. He was born in Hampshire in 1902 and spent his childhood in Somerset. He went to Ashford Grammar School, in Kent, and became head boy. It was there he first showed interest in archaeology. Then he was due to read law at Oxford but was frustrated by being badly injured in a car accident, and trained to become a bank clerk in the Maidstone Branch of the Westminster Bank. During this time he married Miss Hillery Spooner and they remained happily married together to the end of his life.
In 1938 he came to the bank’s Huntingdon Branch and vigorously explored the evidence of our local history. In 1941 he rediscovered the ancient Huntingdon charters, which had been “lost” for many years. In 1943 he was appointed Borough archivist and remained so until the demise of the Borough of Huntingdon and Godmanchester 30 years later. His bank service took him to Haverhill from 1948 to 1959, and then to Saffron Walden where he was branch manager until his retirement in 1962. While he was away he never lost touch with Huntingdon but spent many of his weekends here pursuing his studies of local history, frequently writing about them for “The Hunts Post” and occasionally producing one of his pamphlets.
After his retirement he came to live at The Willows at Wyton, and he became Honorary County Archivist1 and County Correspondent for Huntingdonshire for the Ministry of Works (which was made part of the Department of the Environment in 1970). In 1962 he revived the Huntingdonshire Local History Society and in 1963 was elected as its chairman, a post which he held until he died in 1974. If he had not revived the Society, it might still be dormant. His enthusiasm, immense knowledge, vitality and sense of humour quickly put the Society on its feet again. He led our members in excursions to our local villages and sometimes much further afield. He stimulated an interest in our local history of which in Huntingdonshire we have so rich a heritage. In 1965 he started our Society’s own publication under the title, Records of Huntingdonshire. He wrote altogether more than 50 guide books to towns and churches in East Anglia, including Historic Huntingdon (1944), Ramsey Church and Abbey (1949) and The Borough of Huntingdon and Godmanchester (1969).
Throughout his many writings his style was always crisp and factual. Rarely did he theorise or express opinions but when he did so it was gently to resolve a doubt or tersely to explode a fallacy, for example, when writing of Bodsey House near Ramsey: “The apparently ineradicable tradition in the locality that an underground passage runs from the House to the Abbey is sheer nonsense.”
One of his last publications was his “Survey of Huntingdon 1572”, and his Introduction to it and notes upon it are among his most important contributions to local historical research. The detailed survey made by “probably a Borough Official” listed every street, house, close, drain, and field, and the owner of every property is given. Unfortunately no accompanying map survived, if there ever was one, but Mr. Dickinson overcame that little difficulty by remarkably good fortune. During the 1939-45 war as a spare time job he examined wastepaper collected for pulping in case it contained anything that ought to be preserved. In doing so he found a detailed map of Huntingdon of 1752. It was in a bad state but he put it aside and years later found that it provided a key to the Survey of 1572 for boundaries changed scarcely at all in those 180 years, and many remain to this day. The Survey several times mentions “Oxmore”.
His knowledge was deep and wide and he had very quick powers of observation and analysis and a prodigious memory. He thus became an expert in many specialised parts of historical research. To single out one part from the rest might not seem proper but his knowledge of church archaeology was probably his strongest point.
In our Society we treasure the memory of his enthusiasm which got us all together, his encouragement of other people, and the selfless effort with which he made our excursions so interesting. But we were not the only people who had reason to admire and enjoy his talents for he was in constant demand for giving talks to schools, colleges, and all kinds of adult groups.
He was an ardent and discriminating collector of old documents, drawings, maps, guides and books relating to local history. When he died he left the large collection of his own drawings and plans of historic buildings to the Department of the Environment and he left his collection of local history guides to towns through the UK, to the Public Library in Huntingdon. To our Society he left a varied and interesting collection of historical items relating to Hunts., which will form the basis of the Huntingdon Museum, when we have one2. Meanwhile, part of the collection has been displayed in the showcase which our Society and his other friends have placed in the Public Library3. Also he left our Society a monetary bequest which we have used to acquire a slide projector and screen.
Mrs. Dickinson shared his interests and gave him most devoted support and practical help in his work. She and their two daughters and grandchildren deserve to be proud of his wonderful contributions to our knowledge of the past and of the splendid records he made of them.
We must keep alive the spirit which he kindled. We must do our best to carry on his work.
1 More likely this was a poorly paid rather than an honorary position.
2 The collection of museum items has since been dispersed.  For an illustrated description of the collection and the rationale for this see Records of Huntingdonshire, Vol. 4 No. 2, 2009, pp.55-63.
3 The showcase is now in the Ramsey Rural Museum. An atlas cabinet, known as the Dickinson Cabinet, stands outside the entrance of Huntingdonshire Archives in the Local Studies area of the Library.

"He taught us to know our county"
(extracted from The Society’s Foundation 1957 by Philip Saunders in Records of Huntingdonshire, Vol. 4 No. 2, 2006-07, and reproduced by kind permission of the Huntingdonshire Local History Society)
The genteel world of the Cambridgeshire and Huntingdonshire Archaeological Society did not impact upon the common man or woman of Huntingdonshire. There is evidence of the increasing popularity of local history increasingly finding its way into the newspapers, as in the original serialised versions of F.W. Bird’s Memorials of Godmanchester (1911), and no doubt the appearance of the “Victoria County History” found some readers, but it seems to have been a need for inexpensive escapism and social bonding at a time of national emergency that prompted the formation of the precursor organisation to the Huntingdonshire Local History Society. This was ‘The Wayfarers’ Association’, apparently the brainchild of energetic Westminster Bank employee P.G.M. Dickinson, who had arrived in Huntingdon on the eve of the War and elbowed his way into the historical establishment of the Cambs & Hunts. Its activities reflect the era – healthy rambling, rural romanticism and patriotic examination of the heritage. Excursions were mainly on foot or bicycle, beginning 21 June 1942 with a walk to Great Stukeley from Market Hill Huntingdon. Thanks to Dickinson’s undoubted personal magnetism and energy, demonstrated in more than 50 articles in the period in the “Hunts Post”, the club was immensely successful, some of his historical rambles attracting up to 80 followers and of course in the post-war enabled to go further afield by public transport. When in 1947 his job took him away to Haverhill the “Hunts Post” could justly announce the news under the heading “He taught us to know our county”. He continued from Suffolk to be a guiding light for the Association, but with rising levels of private car ownership its membership dwindled and in 1963 was wound up.”

Pen Portrait of Philip G. M. Dickinson
(unknown newspaper, 1955)
This week’s ceremonies at Huntingdon draw attention to the fact that the borough has, during 750 years of incorporation, collected a unique array of charters. By one of those twists of circumstance, the man who has done more than any living person to guard this tangible heritage is neither a native nor a resident of the borough.
Mr. Philip G. M. Dickinson, Borough Archivist of Huntingdon, is Somerset-born, and since 1948 his banking career has entailed his residence at Haverhill, Suffolk. For ten years before that, he was on the staff of the Huntingdon branch of Westminster Bank and the studies he made then have made him the foremost authority on borough history.
But he did more than study the borough’s history; he helped to make it. In 1941, in the cellars of a law firm’s offices in the town’s main street, he uncovered the borough charters which had been lost – or at least “mislaid” – for over a century.
It was his discovery which established, once and for all, that Huntingdon has an earlier claim to borough status than its rival across the river, Godmanchester. Both received their first charters from King John, the county town in 1205 and Godmanchester in 1212. Strangely it was Mr. Dickinson who discovered Godmanchester’s other 20 charters – the King John one had always been well cared for – so he was levelling the issue when he brought Huntingdon’s collection to light again.
Following his early intention to become an archivist, Mr. Dickinson studied drawing, Medieval French and Latin during his education at schools in Somerset and Kent. But he had to give up his ambition and enter banking. However, a lengthy convalescence after a serious accident enabled him to carry on with his studies. He became a member of the Kent Archaeological Society in 1919. He was subsequently elected a Fellow of the Royal Archaeological Society and of the Royal Historical Society – the latter honour for his studies of Huntingdon and District. The crowning honour, his election as a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries, came in 1946, and resulted from his work on the charters of the two boroughs. He is also a member of the Society of Archivists, the Council of the Suffolk Institute of Archaeology and of the Cambs. Local History Council.
Despite his residence away from the county, Mr. Dickinson still finds means to join the outings of the Huntingdon Wayfarers, which with the late Mr. M. Barbanel he founded in 1941. Stamps are another of his hobbies and he was in at the birth of the Hunts. Philatelic Society. He is married and has two daughters.

Philip G.M. Dickinson