A mission to record town’s past

STEVENAGE has been celebrating its 60th anniversary and John Amess is among those who have witnessed the development of the new town over the years. However, not everybody is as aware of the town s history as John. The 74-year-old from Headingly Close sa

STEVENAGE has been celebrating its 60th anniversary and John Amess is among those who have witnessed the development of the new town over the years.

However, not everybody is as aware of the town's history as John.

The 74-year-old from Headingly Close said: "There's a tale I often tell from about 10 years ago.

"My wife and I were at a wedding in Southampton and I was chatting to the guy next to me about hobbies. He told me he was a keen golfer. The guy then asked me 'What are your hobbies?' and I said 'Stevenage history'. He then said, 'But Stevenage doesn't have any history', but I said 'Yes it does, it actually predates Roman times!'

Preconceptions about an area may be common but John has never failed in his quest to uncover the truth which has led to him publishing four books on local history.

The Stevenage Society for Local History member arrived in the town from Kent when the new town was in its earlier stages. He recalls: "We thought of ourselves as pioneers in those days."

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He set up home in Stevenage in 1957.

"Housing was in very short supply in London and when we first got moved it was hard enough to get a job, let alone a house as well. So, the offer of a job and a house was hard to resist!" he said.

He now sees himself as having Stevenage in his bones. "We're almost accepted as 'Old Towners' now!".

However he can still view the town objectively: "Looking at it as an outsider the Old Town is very much a village. They do see themselves as a separate community."

John spent 32 years working at British Aerospace in the engineering drawing office, starting at the company in its English Electric days. However he has always had a passion for the past.

He said: "I've always been interested in history, but I started getting really interested in Stevenage history in the 1970s."

The hungry historian joined the Stevenage Society for Local History in 1972 and started work on several projects that led to the ideas for his books.

He said: "Working on the broader history led me to specialise in the work I do now. While researching these other projects I discovered Mission 179 which is about the two American aircraft that collided over the Friends Green near Weston in 1944."

Mission 179 involved gathering information from Stevenage Museum to American National Archives, veterans associations and museums.

John has produced four titles so far - Stevenage at War, HMS Deodar (Royal Navy Patrol Service Minesweeper Trawler T124), Mission 179 and Call Out the Engine (The Stevenage Fire Service).

Each book took around four years to write and meant John corresponding with international as well as local sources.

John said: "A couple of months before Christmas a young lad came to see me because he found a piece of the aircraft that crashed. I took photos and sent them through to Boeing in Seattle, USA, and they identified for me what the piece was."

Each involved gathering research to interviewing sources.

"At the moment I am working with the daughter of the first commander of HMS Deodar who's writing a biography on her father," he said.

While John is struggling to keep up with the correspondence of existing projects he already has another in the pipeline.

He said: "I am writing a lot at the moment about Captain Robert Redhill who was a captain of one of the ships at the battle of Trafalgar and is buried in St Nicholas Church."

The Stevenage Society for Local History aims to promote and encourage interest in the town and surrounding areas by arranging exhibitions and talks, researching and encouraging the conservation of historic features and supporting the work of the towns museum.

The society is long established in the town; however younger members who are interested in the subject are scarce at the moment.

John said: "When I first started most of them were in their 30s or 40s, now we've all aged and reached our 60s and 70s. It's hard to attract the young people, but then I think that's the same in any society in the town."

However, the historian shows no signs of stopping, as he proves history is ageless.

"The thing I have enjoyed more than anything else with the last two books in particular is receiving letters from people who were involved or from the sons and daughters of the people involved," he said.