LEICESTER WYVERN PROBUS CLUB – THE FIRST TEN YEARS
The Wyvern Probus Club owes its existence to its first President, Don Iliffe, and also to the help that was generously given by the Leicester Probus Club in those early days, and in particular by Brian Thomson, the Leicester Probus President at the time. Don Iliffe, a telephone engineer, was on the management board of what was then Post Office Telephones in Nottingham, and when he retired, he became a member of Nottingham Probus. Finding the journey to Nottingham for regular Probus lunches becoming irksome and inconvenient, he applied to join the Leicester Probus Club in 1986 but discovered that it was full and had a long waiting list at the time. This inspired him to investigate the possibilities for another Probus Club in Leicester and, after discussion with Brian Thompson, and other officers of the Leicester Probus Club, he began to canvass his friends for possible membership of a new club. As I was at the time a near neighbour and a friend, I was included in the list. He went even further and enquired whether I would be willing to accept the post of Speaker Finder should the new club be formed, a post which I eventually held for a number of years.
In March of 1987, around 30 of us met in the Card Room of the Leicestershire Golf Club and solemnly resolved to form ourselves into a Probus Club. There was much discussion as to names, and at one point ‘Evington Probus Club’ was mooted, but rejected as being too parochial and probably not an attractive enough name for potential members from outside that small area. I don’t remember who suggested ‘Wyvern’, but it was generally accepted as being very apt with its connection to the coat of arms of the City and clearly differentiated us from the existing Leicester Probus Club. We hammered out a constitution, based on the constitution of the Leicester Probus Club and decided that we would hold our lunchtime meetings at the Leicestershire Golf Club on the last Wednesday of every month (with the exception of December) and in order to maintain contact between our two clubs we agreed to hold joint meetings with Leicester Probus Club every January, with each club taking it in turns to host the occasion. We were now duly launched as the Leicester Wyvern Probus Club and tribute must be paid to the generosity of the Leicester Probus Club for their donation of the ribbon of office and the medallion worn by our President since our inauguration. We were now able to operate as a club with all of the officers in place but at that point we had no funds, and I also duly found myself as Speaker Finder with no speakers to start with. Fortuitously, I was working on a biography of Thomas Cook, the fist travel agent, at the time and decided that I would be able to provide a talk on that subject at our first luncheon, which at least bought me a month to find more speakers! During that first year, Don Iliffe presided over us in style, making sure that we became an established and successful organization. In the early 1990s he and his wife, Pat, moved to Inverness to be their son and family. Sadly, Don died there a few years later.
By far the most distinguished President in those early years was John Burrows, and it was not until we read his obituary in the Daily Telegraph in September 2008 that we were able to discover that John had been one of the Bletchley Park code-breakers during the war, working in the Japanese section, using the experience he had gained in the Far East where he was evacuated from Singapore just before it fell. After the war John became a schools inspector and was later appointed Chief Inspector of Schools, a post he held until his retirement in 1973 when he was appointed CBE. A very erudite President, he always introduced his speakers with an apt quotation from William Shakespeare. He was immediately followed by Tom Whyte who had served in the Navy during the war and always had an amusing story from the Senior Service to give us when introducing a speaker. One of these concerned a naval vessel entering a Mediterranean port with an Admiral on board, requesting that arrangements be made for the ‘Admiral’s woman’. Quickly realizing their mistake, a second signal was sent which asked, ‘Please insert washer between Admiral and woman’!
Undoubtedly, the most colourful presidency during those early years was that of Arthur Kirkby, a Doctor of Divinity and mathematician from Edinburgh. He had the unique distinction of introducing the haggis as part of our luncheon fare at the February meeting during his Presidency, hard on the heels of Burns’ Night. Few of us had ever sampled such fare and Arthur not only arranged for it to be served at our lunch, but also gave the full Burns’ Address to a Haggis. The dish was duly brought out from the kitchen of the golf club on a platter or ‘trencher’ and Arthur began the Address. When he reached the point where the haggis would normally be attacked, Arthur reached out his hand and we should have heard the words:
And cut ye up with ready slight,
Trenching your gushing entrails bright.
But instead, he froze in silent horror until he exclaimed, ‘Och, they’ve forgotten the knife!’ and proceedings had to be halted until a suitable implement was produced from the kitchen and the haggis duly dismembered. Most of us then enjoyed the dish! To my knowledge, we’ve not repeated that particular menu.
Arthur served our club very well and for some years produced a regular newsletter which he printed on his old-fashioned duplicator until illness prevented him from producing any more. It kept us all up to date with news of members who might be ill and also included some of Arthur’s own doggerel, which he sometimes published under the name of Shakespeare McGonagall, this combining the best and worst of English (or Scottish) versifying. After he left the Presidency, he was always ready to give a vote of thanks to the speaker and on one occasion when our regular speaker was a clergyman who had recently been on a pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela declared that, in fact, he had not heard a single word of the speech – not so surprising as he always steadfastly refused to wear a hearing aid!
A highly distinguished member in those first years was well-known to us all. Charles Palmer was a former President of Leicestershire Cricket Club. However, he never became President of Wyvern Probus, but undoubtedly would have made a very good one had he done so. He was also very adept at the vote of thanks and on one occasion, when we had a cricketer as our guest speaker, Charles recounted the story of a brilliant bowler of many years ago who put his shoulder out while delivering the ball at Grace Road. He collapsed to the ground writhing in agony and was rushed to Leicester Royal Infirmary where a sister and two nurses proceeded to put his shoulder back in place (without anesthetic of course). He screamed throughout the whole proceedings and was rebuked by the sister who informed him that, just upstairs, a woman had given birth and had never made anywhere near as much fuss. His reply was, ‘Well, tell her to put that back where it came from and see what she says’.
There is no doubt the Wyvern Probus has changed much over the quarter of a century that it has been in existence. Times have changed, but I am sure the foundations laid in those early years have ensured that our club has prospered and still offers that fellowship to all members for which it was intended to provide. Many people, all the office holders, committee members and all the ordinary members, as well as all those mentioned here have contributed so much over the years to ensure that as we celebrate our 25th Annual General Meeting we can continue to thrive and welcome new members.