On Monday, 15th November 1875 a group of earnest young men of the Norwood district met in a hall on Gypsy Hill (formerly a Wesleyan Chapel) and inaugurated a society to which they gave the name 'Upper Norwood Athenaeum'. The object of the Society was to meet each Monday evening of the winter months to improve their minds by discussions, impromptu speeches, recitations, readings, music, etc.. The Society flourished and by early 1877 it had some 60 members.
At the weekly meeting on 27th March 1877 it was resolved, that in order to keep members together during the summer months, to form a club for the purpose of organising Saturday afternoon rambles to the then beautiful countryside nearby. The objectives of the new Club were to promote healthy exercise, and at the same time, to give a cultural background to the Club by including visits to place of archaeological and historical interest. Gradually the two branches of the Society came together, thus establishing the Upper Norwood Athenaeum as we know it today.
At first members came from the Norwood area and were, in the main, learned men with backgrounds in architecture and history. Gradually, members came from further afield - first from South London and then, during the 1920s, from North and East London. Nowadays members come from many parts of South East England and occupy many and varied professions. It is worth noting that for many years membership was confined to men: however at the Annual General Meeting on 2nd October 1920 a motion was duly passed that ladies should be admitted to the Society on the same terms as men.
The aim of the Society, as recorded in its early days, was
to study matters of antiquarian or historical interest by visiting places of that nature on Saturdays.
In 1877 the intention was that Rambles should be on foot from a destination reached by train. The Ramble would be a half-day outing followed by an evening meal and the presentation of a paper by the leader on the places visited. It was not until 1947 that the coach became the regular means of transport. This along with the development of the motorway system in the 1960's meant that places further away, such as Bath, Warwick and Coventry, could be visited quite easily in a day. From the beginning of the Society its first priority was to nourish the brain, but it was also considered to be important to nourish the body! Luncheon, or an early evening meal, would normally be taken at the end of a Ramble at a hotel or inn. Nowadays Afternoon Tea has become quite a tradition within the Society, with venues ranging from National Trust properties, trains or even on a narrow boat and provided by organisations such as church groups, village societies and Women's Institutes. Whatever the Ramble, Afternoon Tea is always eagerly anticipated and much enjoyed.
Over the 135 years of its existence members of the Society have been witness to remarkable changes in industry, transport and communications. Some have withstood the turbulence of military conflicts both at home and abroad. Many have seen advances in education which is no longer just for the privileged few and, all have seen the changes in social mores, for better or worse. The fortunes of the Society have fluctuated over the years, especially during the World Wars and the Great Depression, but it has always 'come out on the other side'. It is hoped that the Society will continue to flourish, through yet another period of austerity and on into the next millennium. However it seems that some things do not change - particularly the desire to visit and learn about places of interest, be it historical or otherwise, and the building of friendships while doing so.