History of Chelmsford u3a

Before we start on the History of the Chelmsford u3a, perhaps we should give a brief account of what the u3a actually is and what are its aims.

The u3a, or University of the Third Age, takes its name from - University – taking the original meaning of ‘universal’, or open to all. Third Age – a time when, at last, you are able to follow interests, free from the responsibility of bringing up a family, and/or paid employment.

The aims of the u3a are enjoyment, pleasure and satisfaction in learning, in its widest sense, and socializing. An opportunity to meet people, share in, and learn from, each other’s interests. Each contributing knowledge, experience and skills learnt throughout life. This is the basic tenet of the u3a, having members pass on their skills to other people. Our hope is that new members will be prepared to do this once they have settled in, forming new groups. In this way the Chelmsford u3a can continue to expand both it’s membership, and it’s interest groups.

Each branch organises its own activities. There are no entry qualifications. No certificates or diplomas are awarded, and there are no examinations. There is no distinction between those who teach, and those who learn. Group convenors are members, and often belong to other groups.

Subscriptions are kept to a minimum, currently £16 per year per person. This includes membership of the u3a Trust, a monthly newsletter, hire of the hall for the monthly meeting, and administration. No charge is made for attendance at groups, but some of the groups may necessitate charges, for example the Theatre Group, or a group hiring a hall, or a coach outing. Some groups are held in members’ homes.

The first branch was started in France in 1972. The first branch in Britain started in Cambridge ten years later in 1982. The first groups in Basildon, Billericay, and Brentwood started in 1989.

The idea for a Chelmsford u3a was originally suggested at a meeting of the Essex Pre-Retirement Association. Jean Pitt, Vice-principal of Chelmsford Adult Education Centre, also ran some of the pre-Retirement courses around Essex , which were offered to local companies. Jo Benson, who was also a tutor and an enthusiastic member of Basildon and Billericay u3a, offered her help in trying to set up a group in Chelmsford . It transpired that at least three attempts had been made previously by various organisations, but there was insufficient response from the public.

This time delegates from past Pre-Retirement courses were contacted and about 25 people attended a meeting at the Essex County Council offices. This initial response encouraged a launch meeting being organised at ‘The Health Education Council’ premises at the old ‘Chelmsford & Essex’ hospital in New London Road . Notification was sent to the Essex Chronicle and the Mayor of Chelmsford agreed to attend and open the meeting. BBC Essex Radio also promoted the meeting.

From the many enquiries, it became obvious a few days before that the Lecture Room at the C&E would not be large enough, so arrangements were made to transfer the meeting to Christ Church main hall further up New London Road , which could accommodate about 100 people. The date was the 26th January 1993.

On the afternoon of the meeting, (which was very wet), Maurice Flude, the Principal of Chelmsford Adult Education Centre, stood outside the original venue directing people up the road to the larger venue. About 100 people did turn up, despite the weather. The Mayor opened the meeting, and then Jo Benson and Jean Pitt explained the aims and objectives of the British u3a, based on the French model.

A committee was set up that afternoon and the volunteers met soon after to elect the officers. Jean Pitt became Chairman with Michael Pitt as Vice-chairman. Peter Russell became Treasurer with Hilda Russell as Secretary, and Gina Fost became Facilitator and Co-ordinator of the Interest Groups. Di Angel and Bob Husband were also on the original committee.

The first monthly meeting was held on Tuesday 16th February 1993 at Chelmsford Adult College in Beeches Road , when the first groups were formed. The groups formed were, Art, Bridge, Craft, Gardening, History, Language, Literature/Writing, Theatre, Walking/Rambling. There were already 76 paid up members. This really was an amazing start from nothing.

(It is worth noting that the annual subscription then was £10, so it has actually become cheaper over the years.)

The following monthly meetings were held at Trinity Methodist Hall, opposite the County Hotel. As the membership grew larger the monthly meetings were moved to the AEEU Hall in Primrose Hill, and then to The Old Chelmsfordians Sports & Social Club in Rainsford Road. We outgrew that venue and then moved to hold our meetings in the Great Baddow Millennium Community Centre

By 1998 it was decided to try and form some new u3as in other areas as numbers were still increasing. Some experienced members from Chelmsford u3a who lived further afield volunteered to set them up. Hence Baddow & Galleywood, Witham and Braintree , and Maldon evolved.

In 2008 we moved our meetings to a new location, the Marconi Club. We continued to grow and prosper at our new location. The name of the venue changed in 2017 when it became Hamptons Sports and Leisure.

The venue was sold in late 2019, and the new owners decided to configure the building for a different type of community use. This new configuration did not best meet our needs, so we began a search for different premises to hold our monthly meetings. The committee found an ideal location, The Church of Our Saviour in Chelmer Village.

Sadly, covid intervened, and at the time of writing (April 2021) we have yet to meet in our new venue. We all look forward to doing so.

Many of our previous Chairs and committee members remain active within the current membership. We are indebted to all those people who have worked long and hard to leave a vibrant organisation and strong legacy, that continues to provide a wonderful opportunity for the people of Chelmsford as they enter the third age in their life.