Just before Christmas, I was delighted to be contacted by the Hertford Oral History Group and Hertford Museum, with an offer to review their recent publication Peter Ruffles: Hertford Born & Bred. The book looks back over the fascinating life of one of our town’s most well known locals (and ex-Mayor), Peter Ruffles, as well as the history of his family, dating back to the 18th century.
For me, the book naturally divides itself into two parts: firstly, the ‘pre-Peter’ years, which looks at his ancestry and their movements into and around Hertford and then the life of Peter himself, from his birth in 1942, to the present day*.
The first section goes into an impressive level of detail, recounting the dates of births, deaths, christenings and marriages from the family’s historical records. Whilst the information was interesting, I personally found the quantity of these details tricky to keep up with and although a family tree is provided further into the book, I would have benefitted from one a bit earlier on.
It’s also worth noting that I came to the book with a ‘layman’s’ perspective and those with a more developed interest in local history will find plenty to sink their teeth into.
But if ‘names and dates’ aren’t your preference, fear not – this book has plenty more in store…
During the second part of the book, the focus shifts to a smaller group of people and Peter’s immediate family. Tales of his mother Gwyneth and father Ernest give the narrative a much warmer, more emotive feel. The ‘oral history’ aspect really comes to life, through memoirs and anecdotes as told by Peter and his sister Sheila.
Excerpts from personal letters are heartwarming and, in places, very funny. I really felt the intimacy of the relationships I was learning about, for example in a letter from Ernest to his new-born son:
“Now when your mummy is busy talking to her friend and leaving you in the background just give the rattle a couple of shakes and let them know how important you really are.” (p.87)
Tales of Peter’s childhood are also funny, charming and relatable. They describe a time which was quite different to that of my own childhood, yet the descriptions of family relationships and childhood activities gave it a familiar quality.
Peter says: “Michael Petitt had a pedal car, I do remember being really attracted by that, at one early stage riding in it and wanting more than my fair turn up and down his garden. I then learned to ride his bike with Mrs. Pettit encouraging me, leaning against the wall of Teddy Newsell’s house and pushing off on the bike a little bit.” (p.94)
I found the final section, which talks about Peter’s adult life as Mayor, a Freemason and an MBE awarded teacher (amongst other things!) thoroughly engaging. Stories of his legendary hiking trips with Broxbourne School and even his misreported death in 2007 made for a fascinating read and kept me turning the pages, right through to the end.
Captioned photographs of period buildings, family photographs and moments from Peter’s life are positioned throughout the book, helping to capture the imagination and bring the history and people to life.
In summary, Peter Ruffles: Hertford Born & Bred paints a full and interesting picture of a time in the history of Britain, Hertford and the Ruffles family. It cleverly captures both a ‘macro’ and ‘micro’ perspective at the same time.
The first part is full of people, places and dates, which will appeal to local history enthusiasts. The second part is more anecdotal and relatable for a wider readership. A charming and heartwarming look into the history of a town and the life of a remarkable man.
To purchase a copy of the book, please contact Hertford Museum
Learn more about the museum and Hertford Oral History Group
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Have you read Peter Ruffles: Hertford Born & Bred? What did you think? Leave a comment or tweet @hertfordarts.
*Book published in 2017