Back in 1956, there was a massive increase in the public appreciation of archaeology. The BBC had its own dedicated department, and personalities like Sir Mortimer Wheeler (a Yorkshireman from Shipley) and Dr Glyn Daniel were public figures. This enthusiasm spread downwards to every community, so it was entirely predictable that The Workers Educational Association was bombarded with requests to begin classes in the subject almost everywhere in Britain.
In Pontefract, the new class was led by Charles Vincent (Vince) Bellamy of Leeds University’s Extra-Mural Department. Amongst the most enthusiastic students was Bill Booth. Theory was fine, but the class wanted a site to excavate and research in depth, so Vince arranged to study St. John’s Priory, a Cluniac monastery which had been demolished following the Dissolution. There followed what we would now call a geophysical survey which led to a trial excavation.
The following Easter a proper dig was planned, which was so successful that the class members, together with others who had joined the dig (including the present writer) decided to form an archaeological society in Pontefract; thus was born The Pontefract and District Archaeological Society, now usually abbreviated to PontArc. Bill was elected to the first committee as Programme Secretary. As well as finding speakers, and even locating a room, the job was complicated greatly by being done entirely by letter in those pre-email days. Alongside committee work, Bill excavated on the St John’s Priory dig which eventually became the second longest running excavation in the county. Indeed, he became one of the personalities of the site.
As PontArc became more widely known, it was asked to explore other sites, whilst its keener members joined digs even further afield. Thus Bill excavated the site of the town’s new clinic, St Richard’s Priory, and even dug at Corbridge, the supply base for Hadrian’s Wall. One of his favourite anecdotes was how the famous Corbridge Treasure was discovered in ‘his’ bit – the day after he left the site!
Towards the end of the ‘60s, the younger original members were making reputations for themselves on important excavations throughout the country, all, to some extent, inspired by Bill’s tuition in excavation, and his programme of lectures. I remember his advice when I was learning to use a trowel; thirty years later he efficiently cleaned a Roman road surface under my direction, something of which he was inordinately proud, for Bill recognised the importance of encouraging younger members, and was gratified when they went on to achieve success in archaeology. Even after he relinquished the Programme Secretary post he was re-elected to committee, and indeed remained so until the present day, as Vice President and affable elder statesman – a record which is probably unbeatable.
Of course, Bill did not neglect other Society activities. For many years he was one of the volunteers who manned Pontefract’s medieval hermitage, and is prominent in a photograph of The Hermitage Team which appeared in the book commemorating fifty years of PontArc in 2007. On Cocommittee, his wisdom and empathetic approach to others was greatly appreciated. Of PontArc’s Founder Members he did more to cement the reputation and longevity of the group than anyone. His late wife’s illness, and his own gradually failing health curtailed his society work, but he kept an eye on things from the sidelines, and was greeted warmly whenever he came. His last visit was to a lecture meeting before Christmas.
Despite his prominent role in PontArc, Bill had other interests. He was a well-known member and patron of the St Giles Pantomime Society and an Honorary Member of the Vulcan Club of the RAF Association. Why Honorary? He actually did his national service in the army, but was an early member of the local RAF Club, and also a valued member of the local British Legion. He was also prominent in Pontefract Rugby Club! Bill Booth was not an academic, but his enthusiasm, energy and affability transcended everything, and he was respected widely in the local and regional community, as the above paragraph shows.
Bill died on January 20th, a fortnight before his 86th birthday. His wife, Jean’s death in 2015 was a serious blow from which he never really recovered, and his limited mobility did not help. In PontArc he leaves a thriving local group which still mounts excavations and surveys, publishing its work in monographs. Its membership includes several distinguished archaeologists on the national scene, something of which Bill was immensely proud. He leaves a daughter, Karen, son-in-law Ian, and two grandchildren Sarah and Samantha. © Pontefract & District Archaeological Society 2016. Eric Houlder, Chairman, PontArc, Past Chairman CBA(Y), Editor, Heritage Photography.
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