James Griffin 1938 -2011
Reprinted from Saffron Walden Historical Journal No 22 Autumn 2011
James Griffin was born at Radlett in Hertfordshire on 7 June 1938. He worked for Charles Griffin & Co, the long-established family publishing firm which started in Glasgow in 1820. By the time James joined, it had moved to 42 Drury Lane, London. When the firm was taken over, James started to work freelance for the publisher Arnolds. Later, with two former colleagues he established Genesis Editorial, a business that did a wide variety of editing for various companies including The Stationery Office. In 1986 he gained the Open University’s B.A. Degree in Arts. He retired in 2001. His interest in history started early, when he researched both his own family history and the history of the family’s firm Griffin & Co.
James and his wife Fiona came to Saffron Walden in 1995 and soon both of them became intimately involved with the life of the town. Fiona was an active member of the Methodist Church in Castle Street and through her James became interested in the history of Castle Street Methodists.
Shortly after he arrived in Saffron Walden, James edited a Teach-Yourself Book with James Lomas, Exploring Local History (1997), which included a chapter on uncovering the history of the old Pest House or Isolation Hospital as it was known in Saffron Walden as a working example of how to ‘do’ local history.
When in 2005 the Methodist Chapel in Castle Street was preparing to celebrate its 140th anniversary, the Minister Rev Harry Wood gave to the church 16 painted glass windows. James, together with Rosina Down the church archivist, researched and wrote a booklet about the earlier history of the Castle Street Methodists: Windows on Wesleyan Methodism – Saffron Walden 1819-2005. The booklet also provides information about the spiritual and artistic inspiration behind the images on each of the 16 painted glass panels.
It was during this time that James became a frequent visitor to the ERO Archive Access Point in Saffron Walden Library. During his visits he not only came to look for information but, like all local historians, he generously shared information and talked about new discoveries of historical material. He had eclectic interests, and often looked for the hidden, obscure and often forgotten historical details. For example, he was researching the purpose and location of white arrows that occasionally can be seen on barns and houses in the Uttlesford area. One of the arrows can be seen on Orford House in Quendon where an adjacent panel explains: ‘These and many similar arrows were painted to direct non- combatants inland across the country, avoiding main roads to facilitate the movements of troops in the event of a successful landing by the Germans on the East coast 1914-1918’. James was also in the process of discovering where the old shooting ranges were located. They were areas on which local militia and army had shooting practices during the Napoleonic times and after.
In previous years, I organised day tours of all the local Nonconformist chapels and churches. These tours were of particular interest to local and family historians as many of their ancestors belonged to the numerous Nonconformist congregations in Saffron Walden. After a whole day spent walking through the town, the group would look forward to calling at our last destination, the Methodist Chapel in Castle Street. We would be warmly greeted and given most welcome refreshments. There was always an excellent exhibition on the history of Methodism and an informative talk, usually presented by James. After each tour I would receive many complimentary letters from the participants, and all would mention how welcomed their felt in our town and amongst the congregations they visited. They often mentioned particularly the warm visit to the little chapel in Castle Street.
I also remember James’ tall figure circling the Market Place during the late-night shopping in Walden, before Christmas. He was selling his devilishly difficult quiz, based on local history, to raise money for the Talking Newspapers, another local organisation which he supported. The next morning the staff at the Library, learning from the previous year’s experience, would brace themselves for the onslaught from keen quiz fans who were trying in vain to deal with some more obscure clues provided by James.
James died on 25 June 2011. Local historians are deeply saddened by the loss of James Griffin from their community.