Andrew Underwood (1934-2012)

Andrew Underwood with his Roll of Honour in 2008

Former School Master at Ampthill County Primary, Redborne and Bedford Modern Schools and local historian Andrew Underwood died aged 78 after a lifetime devoted to the study of his home town. Andrew was born on 20th May 1934 at the parental home in Bedford Street, Ampthill. In his memoires Ampthill in My Bones: Essays and Incidents Remembered (2005) he recalled that he was named after the parish church, where his mother had been christened, confirmed and married. Indeed his connections with St Andrew’s Church were long and between 1955 and 2007 he masterminded seven editions of the church’s history. Always the perfectionist he devoted much time to collecting and recording the town’s history with an eye to the future as well as to the past. Consequently he willingly shared his research with those with a genuine interest in Ampthill’s rich history, published numerous books and pamphlets, and offered encouragement whenever required.

Andrew was the only son of Frank Randall (‘Ran’) Underwood and Ena Mary (née Grimmer). In later years Ran had an electrical shop in Church Street, but he was originally apprenticed to Albert Edward Grimmer of the Flitt Motor Company. It was here that Andrew’s parents met and his mother’s maiden name was chosen as his second Christian name. Albert Grimmer had started out as a cycle maker but turned his hand to motor cars and built what is believed to be the first steam car in Bedfordshire in 1902. He also restored a crashed Bleriot monoplane and regularly flew (or as Andrew described it ‘hedge-hopped’) from Postern Piece, near Houghton House and from the Bedford Polo ground (now the Interchange retail park). The Bleriot together with another of his restorations, a Deperdussin monoplane form part of the Shuttleworth Collection at Old Warden. His grandfather’s memoirs on these events were included in Andrew’s Ampthill Full Steam Ahead (2002) and Ampthill in My Bones (2005).

Andrew’s collection began in March 1944, just before his tenth birthday with the encouragement of Gordon Tibbutt (1913-1982) the historian of Bedfordshire Nonconformity. It was Gordon who introduced Andrew to modern archive research and presentation, from note taking, typing up, filling, card indexing, to pasting up and proof reading the galley-proofs for several volumes of the Bedfordshire Historical Record Society publications. Local historian Miss George and Professor Albert Richardson also provided ample encouragement to the budding historian.

Andrew was educated at the National School in Bedford Street, Ampthill and then the Bedford Modern School (BMS), where he developed his lifelong interest in history. Afterwards, he was called up for his National Service initially with the Beds and Herts Regiment, and then with the Royal Army Service Corp where he received training as a clerk. Following basic training at Kempston and then Aldershot Andrew was posted to Japan, a six-week voyage away by troop ship. Here Andrew was engaged with the repatriation of British prisoners from the Korean War. Following his demob he trained to be a teacher at Culham College in Oxfordshire and returned to his beloved Ampthill to teach at the Ampthill County Primary School (later to become Russell School) then situated on The Sands and worked closely with many of his former teachers. Andrew taught at the school for several years before spending a year teaching at Redborne School before finally moving to Bedford Modern School in 1966, where he remained for the next 23 years. At BMS he was also to take on the duty of school archivist and this enabled him to mark the centenary of the school magazine The Eagle with the publication of Bedford Modern School of the Black and Red (1981). He also organised a BMS local studies group which undertook various tasks including indexing bound volumes of the Bedford (later Bedfordshire) Mercury which ran from 1837 to 1912. These index cards are still available to researchers at the Bedfordshire & Luton Archives & Record Service together with his meticulously catalogued collection.

Andrew’s first foray into publishing was Home Rule for Ampthill (1974) which painted a vivid picture of Ampthill’s recent history through the life of the soon to be abolished Ampthill Urban District Council. Within a few years Andrew’s painstaking research brought to life the town’s history up to the late nineteenth century in Ampthill: A Goodly Heritage (1976). Following his retirement from BMS Andrew devoted more time to historical study and produced two anthologies An Ampthill Bedside Book (1990) and Another Ampthill Bedside Book (1993). With such a wealth of history Andrew was never short of material and in 1992 decided to produce Around Ampthill a modest history of the town in the form of a 35 page ‘town trail’ (a revised edition was published in 1997). From his vast collection of old images of the town for seven years (1982-1989) he provided a regular feature in the Ampthill & Flitwick Times of ‘Ampthill Memories’ combining an old photograph with his informative captions. An earlier version had run for 41 weeks in the mid 1950s in the Ampthill News and these provided the inspiration for his three volumes of Ampthill in old picture postcards (1988, 1989, 1994). He also published a study of 17th century religious conflict on the eve of the Civil War, 17th Century Ampthill & Hugh Reeve its ‘true and lawfull Parson’ (2000).

In 1999 Andrew set up the Ampthill History Forum to help promote and encourage interest in Ampthill's rich history to residents and visitors through appropriate medium and carry on his good work. Following its establishment the Forum published Andrew’s books including an edited version of The Clock Strikes Five: memories of Ampthill House by the late Charles Mathews, A Picture Postcard Romance in Edwardian Bedfordshire (2006) based upon the courtship postcards of Arthur Peer a travelling salesman for the grocers Claridge & Berwick’s on the corner of Dunstable and Woburn Streets, as well as his own autobiography Ampthill in My Bones. In Ampthill Full Steam Ahead (2002) together with Barry Dackombe he edited an anthology of steam related items and a pamphlet on the history of The White Hart: Ampthill’s historic coaching inn (2008).

Andrew additionally supported the biennial Aragon Day Festival which commemorates the town’s connections with Katherine of Aragon, who resided in Ampthill ‘castle’ in the Great Park while her marriage to Henry VIII was annulled. Andrew was quite insistent on the spelling with a ‘k’ as those who knew him will testify. He regularly flew the flag of Aragon from the flag pole in his garden to mark the event, which started with a procession from St Andrew’s Church opposite his cottage.

As the town inevitably grew in the post-war period Andrew took it upon himself to make suggestions to the Town Council as to suitable names for the new developments. Always with an eye to historical connections many of his suggestions were adopted so that with a few exceptions Ampthill’s streets act as a mirror to its past. The Forum continues to support the Town Council in maintaining this tradition.

In 2008 Andrew’s efforts for researching, preserving and sharing Ampthill’s history was formally recognised by the Town Council when he became the second person to be listed on Ampthill’s Roll of Honour. His Aunt Lil Grimmer being the first and Andrew duly collected both their medals at a ceremony in St Andrew’s Church. In the same year Andrew received a British Association for Local History Award for personal achievement for his tireless work on Ampthill’s history which he willingly shared with residents and visitors alike thereby encouraging interest in our local history.

Andrew’s last year’s were beset with illness and increased frailty and on 12 June 2012 he died at The Limes Care Home in Henlow. Andrew never married, and is survived by his younger sister Rosemary. With a view towards the future Andrew ensured that his legacy will live on and his extensive collection of material relating to Ampthill which includes glass plate negatives, press photographs, newspaper articles, promotional leaflets, personal memories and much more was meticulously catalogued and has been deposited with the Bedfordshire & Luton Archives and Record Service and Bedford Museum. This forward thinking together with his foresight in setting up the Ampthill History Forum will help to ensure that our history is not lost and is available for the benefit of future generations.

The Times & Citizen on 5 July 2012 printed an article on Andrew on page 49. This can currently be viewed online in a digital edition of the paper. Select the edition for 5 July 2012 and go to page 49 (you need Flash enabled to view the page).

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