50 Years of Fleet Language Circle
Author: Nick Keeley (13th August 2015)

The Johanna Holden Years 1970 - 1994

No FLC records exist for the first 10 years of the club and I have not met anyone who was involved at that time. From comments made when AGMs did start, it seems that the club did go through some lean times, as at the 1981 AGM Johanna Holden reported that a few years previously, when membership was low, members were not willing to serve on the committee and she had to run the club on her own. She also later referred to a time when only three people turned up to a meeting.

The first written record is of an Extraordinary General Meeting on 3 February 1977, where concern was expressed about a proposed rent increase. Options were the possibility of going down to fortnightly meetings or even closing the Circle. Fortunately it was decided to continue with weekly meetings and to increase subscription to £18 per year, which was still the annual subscription until 1998. Members also requested an Annual General Meeting each year. The first minutes of a committee meeting are dated 16 February 1977 with no mention of minutes of earlier meet. After that there were quarterly committee meetings at least up to 1988.

At the time of the 1977 EGM there were only 3 officials, Mrs Holden, Chairman, Mrs I M Cassidy, Treasurer, and Mrs M E Bantock, Secretary. There is no indication as to whether they were elected by members or nominated by the chairman. As mentioned above, Mrs Holden had been nominated Chairman for Life by the Colonel. The 1980 AGM was the first one where it mentions the election of committee members. Numbers on the committee grew to 5 or 6 in the following years.

A full-page article in The News on 21 November 1980 summed up the way the club has operated throughout its existence.

"The whole idea of the Language Circle is to provide an outlet for people to speak. There are no set subjects for discussion and people just sit around tables talking in the language of that particular group".

The Russian table, which existed in the early years, was by 1980 "resting" and does not seem to have reappeared. The club settled into having four tables, French, German, Italian and Spanish, until the Italian table ceased in 2009.

In the early years each table had a native speaker. Comments at AGMs in the 1980s indicated that these were "table leaders" and were given free membership and, later on, Christmas gifts in return for their contribution. No records of the first ten years survive but from 1976 to 1995 records show up to a dozen native speakers, with a drop to just 2 between 1978 and 1981. Although the records show up to 17 native speakers by 1992, it is not clear how many actually attended on a regular basis.

Handwritten subscription receipts (See Old Accounts book) show that in the late 1970s there were similar numbers to recent years with paying members in the mid-20s plus 8 or so native speakers

In 1983 and 1984 there was an influx of new members each September leading to 42 paying members by 1991 plus 12 native speakers.

Carol Ballard and Hazel Tucker both joined in the mid-1980s and attended the German table. They remember four native speakers on the German table, Inge, Dorothea, Hildegard and Edelgard. These were very helpful to the paying members. The French table also enjoyed a number of native speakers, including Jeanine Wertheimer and Marie Claire. Jim Bale, the last of the founding members, was still a regular attender of the French table. The German table at the time was the best attended, with 10 members on many evenings.

During the time at the Officers' Club, dress was more formal than now, a requirement to enable members to buy a drink at the bar during the mid-evening break. No coffee or tea was served.

In 1987 the Circle celebrated its 21st Anniversary Dinner at The George Hotel in Odiham, where entertainment was provided by 'Shades of Harmony', a Ladies Barbershop group. Then in June 1991 it held its 25th Anniversary Dinner at the Lismoyne Hotel. This seems to be quite a special event with entertainment provided by the Fleet June White Dancers plus an opera singer, Pat Boynton. The club had to hire a grand piano for the occasion. By this time Johanna Holden and Jim Bale were the only two founding members still at the club and a special presentation was made to Jim Bale by Mrs Holden.

Since soon after its establishment the Circle had continued to meet on Thursday evenings at the Officers' Club but at very short notice the army closed the club in November 1992 prior to selling the building. The Circle held a few meetings in the library at St Nicholas's School Library before moving into the army's Union Building in Hospital Hill, Aldershot on Friday 15 January 1993. It had previously met on Thursdays but Friday was the only evening available, which took its toll on numbers turning up to meetings.

The high level of membership in the late 1980s started to ease off after the 1993 move to the Union Buildings, when meeting had to be on Fridays, which were not popular with some members. In fact the membership halved over these few years. By 1994 meetings were back to Thursday evenings.

Johanna Holden had been a member since its establishment and Chairman for nearly 25 years. "The Language Circle was her club and she organized everything with some help from a few committee members" was how Hazel Tucker aptly summed it up. Carol Ballard also remembered that Johanna decided everything about the club and its social activities. She was also very generous, for example with gifts to the native speakers, which were probably funded from her own pocket. Sadly Johanna Holden died in late 1994.