Her death at the age of 72 has robbed the town of a tireless campaigner who spent the last 40 years encouraging the community to understand and appreciate local history, and to recognise the need to preserve and exhibit the best of Chipping Barnet’s historic legacy.
She was the inspiration behind the imaginative plans for the archaeological investigation that is about to be undertaken by military historians from Huddersfield University in a renewed attempt to determine the precise site of the Battle of Barnet of 1471.
Dr Gear had been active in both the museum and local history societies since the 1970s.
She was the voluntary archivist and de facto director of Barnet Museum; secretary to the Barnet Museum and Local History Society; secretary of the Hertfordshire Archive for Local History; a committee member of the Hertfordshire Association for Local History; and author of numerous books on local history, including works on Barnet Union Workhouse and East Barnet village.
Dr Gear was awarded the British Empire Medal in the Queen’s 2014 Birthday Honours in recognition of her work safeguarding the museum and her support for local history projects. She is survived by her husband Michael and their sons Nick, Tim and Chris.
When Barnet Council withdrew funding in 2010, it was her astute leadership and dogged determination that ensured Barnet Museum survived, and subsequently prospered despite a lack of council co-operation that she was continuing to fight until her death.
In the final months of her life, while undergoing hospital treatment, she was still battling to persuade the council to agree a long-term lease for the museum, and to approve a rear extension and disabled access, a plan the council is still opposing nine months after it was first submitted.
Mike Noronha, deputy archivist, paid tribute to her commitment and indomitable spirit in defending the museum and its work. “She was our friend, our inspiration, a talisman. We thought she was indestructible.”
Her ability to enthuse the museum’s volunteers and supporters came to the fore in 2010 when the council withdrew its annual grant of £3,044, and decided to close the council-owned Church Farm House Museum at Hendon, where the curator was made redundant.
She set to work to defend Barnet Museum, which was an established history society and charity, and had already ensured that all its exhibits were owned separately in a trust.
Tenancy of the museum building and garden in Wood Street, next to the former town hall, was granted originally by the former Barnet Urban District Council in 1937, but in 2013, without informing the museum’s volunteers, ownership of the building was registered in the name of Barnet Council.
Despite a petition that attracted 10,000 signatures, Dr Gear was effectively given an ultimatum: Barnet Council was insisting that if the museum continued, it had to be run at zero cost to the council tax payer.
The argument put forward by councillors was that there were some of the best museums in the world just half an hour’s tube journey from Barnet, so there was no need for Chipping Barnet to have its own collection.
She was our friend, our inspiration, a talisman
We thought she was indestructible
After the withdrawal of the council grant, the museum began its own fund-raising and now meets half its running costs, with the other half matched by donations from the Hadley Trust.
When the Church Farmhouse Museum closed and its artefacts were sold by auction, Dr Gear managed to rescue some items of interest to Barnet. Mr Noronha said it was an example of her willingness to spend her own time and money preserving the town’s heritage.
Since the stand-off in 2010 the museum has faced endless prevarication over the council’s refusal to approve a lease on its Wood Street building. The latest proposal is that the museum would be given a lease in return for a market rent of £30,000 a year, which the council says it would cover with a grant.
However, Dr Gear and her colleagues had refused to accept this offer, insisting that the council should approve a long-term lease of at least 25 years for a peppercorn rent, a process that could be set in motion by a community transfer.
Without a guaranteed lease, the museum fears it might not succeed in its application to the Heritage Lottery Fund for financial assistance towards the cost of exhibiting and promoting any finds from the forthcoming archaeological investigation into the site of the Battle of Barnet.
Complications over the failure to obtain a lease have been compounded by an ongoing dispute over the council’s refusal to give planning permission for a rear extension and disabled access.
Initially this was rejected on the grounds that it would encroach on the museum’s garden, which was deemed to be a public open space.
Not only is the council’s planning department refusing to back down or discuss its concerns, but has since come up with another objection, arguing that the extension is too large and inappropriate
The application has though been approved by the area planning committee, and now awaits a final decision at the full planning committee on 28 October.
In recent years the project that most excited Dr Gear was the plan for an archaeological investigation of the Battle of Barnet site.
When the Heritage Lottery Fund refused the initial application made in the name of Huddersfield University, Dr Gear enlisted the support of the Hadley Trust, which made a £50,000 donation to ensure that there could be a full survey and investigation with metal detectors of land in and around Wrotham Park, which the celebrated military archaeologist Dr Glenn Foard believes might have been the site of the battlefield.
Dr Gear was leading the Battle of Barnet of Project and had put her name to a renewed application to the Heritage Lottery Fund.
As the Barnet Society’s representative on the project team, I know from personal experience how infectious her enthusiasm could be.
Whenever we went to meetings, she usually had one of the latest possible finds in her handbag, perhaps an early cannon ball or piece of lead shot that had been brought into the museum.
Dr Gear did all she could to encourage local historians and also children to visit the museum and get involved in its work. Carla Herrmann, one of the museum’s many volunteers, described Dr Gear’s skill in engaging all comers:
“Wednesday afternoons at the museum were like the inside of a beehive, all centred and buzzing around the queen bee who tirelessly, cheerfully and effortlessly dealt with everyone, volunteers and public alike. She was the museum personified.”
Dr Gear secured an MA in social and industrial history at Middlesex University and completed her PhD in the history of education at London University.
Her published works include The Diary of Benjamin Woodcock, Master of the Barnet Union Workhouse, Sixty Years of Local History, Community Life in Hertfordshire and East Barnet Village.