John Packett, a Middlesbrough man by birth, was living in Essex at the time when he joined the Cleveland and Teesside Local History Society in 1994. He remained a member until he died in 2004.
Shortly after his death, our Treasurer, Julie Tweedy, received a letter from his solicitor saying that Mr. Packett had bequeathed the sum of £5,000 to the Society in his will. A cheque for £5,000 duly arrived in the autumn of 2004. The Treasurer wrote to the solicitor asking him to express our appreciation to the family, only to be told that Mr. Packett had no family. In addition, there was no suggestion in the will as to how the Society might like to spend his bequest.
During his ten years as a member of C.T.L.H.S. John Packett would occasionally phone our Secretary, Geoff Braddy. In these conversations, Mr. Packett would sometimes reminisce about Middlesbrough and ask whether certain things were still there or whether things had moved on. He would also sometimes comment on items in the Society’s Newsletter. However, the most noticeable thread in these conversations was “Cleveland History”, the Society’s Bulletin. He invariably commented on the latest edition, and always said how much he enjoyed reading the articles, whether or not they were about his home town. He retained a great affection for the Teesside area and the Bulletin was something that he always looked forward to.
At first the Committee were undecided how to spend the bequest, although there was a strong feeling that we should not simply allow it to be absorbed into the Society’s general income, where its origin would soon be forgotten. After discussions, a list of suggestions was drawn up.
In January 2005 the Committee voted 10 to 1 in favour of establishing a prize essay competition. It was felt that such a competition would encourage people to write researched essays that would be suitable to publish in Mr. Packett’s beloved Bulletin. With a first prize of £200, Mr. Packett’s bequest would last for many years. After further discussions and consultations about the exact nature of the competition, it was announced to members in January 2006 and the prize was first awarded in the spring of 2007.
Since that time, the prize has been awarded every other year, so that potential entrants have more than a year for their research. For the 2015 award, the Committee decided to increase the prize to £250. The judges have the option of awarding a prize of £50 for an essay that shows potential.
The competition has always been open to members and non-members alike, although it is closed to professional historians. On each occasion, the prize has only attracted a small number of entries. Typically only half a dozen people register an interest in taking part, and often a couple of them fall by the wayside. This is partly due to the closure of the Leeds University Adult Education Centre in Harrow Road, Middlesbrough, which for many years nurtured amateur local historical research and which is sadly missed.
I like to think that John Packett would have been delighted that his bequest might still be encouraging people to “take the plunge” into historical research and writing.
Chairman, Cleveland & Teesside Local History Society