1. Friends with Oignies for over 50 years
This year, we begin a new half century of amitié between our two towns in April, when families from 'Les Amis de Buxton', our counterpart association, will be travelling to Buxton to join their host families, the members of ‘The Friends of Oignies'.
Every year the ‘Friends of Oignies’ and ‘Les Amis de Buxton’ meet up, alternating between the two towns, for a few days of fun and friendship; the principal event in the Twinning Calendar.
Friends of Oignies is open to residents of Buxton and the High Peak, who are interested in maintaining historical and cultural links with our twin town in France, whilst having fun and socialising with all our friends and amis both English and French. With a current membership of around 80 adults and children, we are fully self-supporting financially, raising funds via an annual membership subscription and at various events throughout the year.
The Friends of Oignies and Les Amis de Buxton at Shrigley Hall, April 2017
2. The Town of Oignies
Situated in the département of Pas de Calais 19km from the impressive cathedral city of Lille, Oignies (pronounced wanee) is a typical northern French town with a history stretching back beyond its coal mining heritage to early Christian times. Arras and Boulogne are also within striking distance. Paris and Brussels can be reached within two hours, and London in three. Being just off the A1, France’s busiest autoroute and an important link between north and south, Oignies can be said to be ideally situated both geographically and economically.
There has been a settlement at Ongniacume (as Oignies was known at the time) since the earliest centuries of the Christian era, and the current version of the name can be traced back to 1184. The town thrived during the middle ages and became a municipality during the French revolution, when the Chateau de Oignies was built. It was in the grounds of the chateau that the first coal in the whole region was discovered in 1842, and shortly afterwards a large mine was constructed, followed by another in the next century.
During the 20th century Oignies flourished as a coal mining town. The population swelled with men and their families arriving from near and far to work in the mines, particularly from Poland. As the coal industry declined towards the end of the century, the last pit to close in the region was shaft number 9 at the Oignies colliery in 1990. Thus Oignies was the location of the very first and the very last of the coal to be mined in the Pas de Calais.
The Polish heritage in Oignies has outlasted the coal industry however, as can be seen by the significant number of Polish surnames in the town today, with many local families proudly maintaining their ancestral links.
Oignies today is undergoing a period of industrial change, but evidence of its mining heritage can be seen everywhere. The last pithead area has been transformed into a vibrant music venue, recording studio and meeting place, as well as a mining visitor centre. The former 'terril' or slag heap (!) is now covered in vegetation and is a lovely place to walk up for a good view overlooking wooded parkland and a lake. The town today is marked by new industrial and economic infrastructure, and many of the old mining cottages have been restored and converted into new accommodation.
The people of Oignies, numbering 10,000 inhabitants, are extremely friendly and embrace the values of the twinning association wholeheartedly. Two of their most celebrated sons are the Olympic athletes Michel Jazy, 1500m silver medallist in the 1960 Olympics, and hurdler Guy Drut, who won silver in 1972 followed by gold in the 1976 Olympics. Both athletes were miners’ sons born in the same street. Oignies has been twinned with Buxton since 1968, and several of the founding members - both French and English - talk warmly of the friendships established between the two communities, which have strengthened and multiplied over the years.
3. Buxton, Oignies and the Darkest Hours of WWII
Unlike most twinnings, which are usually based on general compatibility in terms of population size, culture, tourism, etcetera, Buxton and Oignies have a profound historical link forged during some of the darkest days of the Second World War, in May 1940.
The remains of 18 English soldiers, 6 of whom were from Buxton and served with the Sherwood Foresters, are interred in the cemetery at Oignies. These soldiers died in action, fighting to hold back the advancing German army, which allowed more time for the evacuation of British troops from the Dunkirk Beaches.
Between 25th and 27th May, 1940 British, French and Moroccan troops held out against the advancing German army at key canal crossings at Oignies. A crucial 72 hours afforded time for the Allies to fall back to Dunkirk. The French lost 35 and the British 18 on the field of battle.
On 28th May 1940, after sustaining heavy losses German troops entered Oignies, As the SS advanced, they picked up civilian refugees and used them as a human shield to prevent the French soldiers from shooting on the advancing enemy. The Germans burned 380 houses and shot 80 citizens in revenge for the resistance.
After the war, on 13th July 1947, Oignies became the first ‘Ville Martyr’ (Martyred Town) when French President Vincent Auriol visited Oignies, along with future President François Mitterrand. During the visit a mausoleum was unveiled, in memory of the May 28th tragedy.
Graves of the fallen English Troops in Oignies
4. Old Soldiers and the Origins of the Twinning
In May 1965 three English members of the British Legion - Cyril Roberts, Ted Parker and Laurence Blake - travelled to Oignies both to pay their respects at the graves of their six Sherwood Forester comrades from Buxton, and to renew acquaintance with the scene of their service in 1940.
These three, who came to be known as ‘The Three Musketeers’, were officially entertained at Oignies Town Hall and took part in the annual commemoration ceremony held on the 28th May, when the local people of Oignies attend their cemetery to pay homage and lay wreaths at the Mausoleum, which was built in memory of the 80 citizens massacred by the German army during World War 2.
Inspired by the visit of the 'The Three Musketeers', relations grew between the two towns, and a regular correspondence developed, in particular between Musketeer Cyril Roberts and M. Albert Boitrel, the Town Clerk of Oignies and the President of ‘L’Harmonie de Oignies’ the town’s municipal orchestra. In June 1965, M. Boitrel noticed, on the envelope of a letter received from Buxton, an advertisement for the annual Buxton Festival of Music. This led to L’Harmonie de Oignies travelling to Buxton the following year to perform in the festival, and as a result, the foundations for the Buxton-Oignies Town Twinning were firmly established.
Musical links continue to this day. For the twinning visit to Buxton in 2017, the entire 53 piece Harmonie de Oignies travelled with the other Amis de Buxton, and entertained the assembled company with an entertaining and varied programme during the ‘Soirée Dansante’ (Dinner-dance) at Shrigley Hall. The Fairfield Band in Buxton is represented the Kitchen and Flanagan Families, active members of the Twinning, who also play during the services of remembrance in Buxton and Oignies.
1967: le comité de jumelage offre un accueil très chaleureux aux visiteurs de Buxton.
La cérémonie de commémoration pour les soldats morts au combat.
After the orchestra’s visit to Buxton in 1966, relations continued to flourish. During April 1967 a party of 80 from Buxton made a reciprocal visit to France, and the ‘Friends of Oignies’ came into existence. In September of the same year ‘Les Amis de Buxton’ was founded in Oignies.
On 7th April 1968 Oignies and Buxton were officially twinned when the Twinning Charter, a joint undertaking to maintain permanent links between the Towns, was signed by the mayors of Oignies and Buxton.
5. Anecdotes and Historical Trivia
Emile Vendeville, who was the mayor of Oignies at the foundation of the Twinning served for a total of twenty-five years. He was a hero of the French Resistance, and was awarded the Croix de Guerre. The octagonal meeting room at the Hartington Gardens Retirement Centre in Buxton was dedicated to his memory, and named the Vendeville room.
In the early seventies a Youth Exchange was set up between Buxton and Oignies. This was very popular for a number of years. However, as older members went off to College and local schools organised their own trips abroad, the exchange was eventually closed down.
Four young people from Oignies have come to Buxton to work as French Assistants in our Secondary schools. First was Michelle Lemaire at Buxton Girls' School in 1975. Then Isabelle Larivière, daughter of the then town clerk, came to the Community School, followed by her brother, Thierry, to St. Thomas More School. Later Veronique Bernard came to the Community School.
In 1977 the widow of the town clerk, Albert Boitrel, presented a cup in his memory, to be contested between Buxton and Oignies in some form of sport. This started as football in the early years, but has evolved into a range of games, from darts, skittles and boules to the water sports held on nearby Tittsworth Reservoir during the 2011 visit. The current holders of the Albert Boitrel Trophy are Buxton, but our amis français will be aiming to change that during our 2018 visit to Oignies.
La Coupe Albert Boitrel
There have been two Buxton-Oignies marriages:
Keith Roberts, son of Cyril, one of the three musketeers, (three ex soldiers who played a key role in the foundation of the twinning), married a girl from Carvin near to Oignies.
During one of the Youth Exchanges, Nadine from Oignies met Charlie Weston. Their friendship developed into a romance followed by marriage. Nadine, sadly now a widow, still lives in Buxton today.
Finally, three anecdotes from the coach to Oignies:
Derek, who drove the coach to Oignies one year, was ‘volunteered’ to play in the Buxton v Oignies football match. Unfortunately, he sprained his ankle, but still managed to drive back… to a severe rollicking from his boss.
Another year, well before the days of GPS, the coach driver neglected to take a map; not a problem apparently, as he knew the route to Oignies very well. However, due to a ferry strike in Calais, the coach was re-routed to Bologne. Our intrepid driver took a wrong turn leaving the unfamiliar port, and the party found itself on the autoroute heading for Paris!
On another occasion a young traveller returning to Buxton lost his passport down the back of a seat on the coach. After a few nervous moments, immigration allowed him back into the UK as they didn't consider that a nine year old boy, with red hair and freckles, posed any significant threat to national security.
6. Articles of Association
THE FRIENDS OF OIGNIES ASSOCIATION, BUXTON
ARTICLES OF ASSOCIATION
1. The Association shall be called the Friends of Oignies and its objects shall be to support generally the idea of friendship and understanding between peoples of all countries by promoting in particular an even closer relationship of the two communities of Buxton and Oignies, and encouraging friendship and exchange visits between groups and individuals from both towns.
2 . Membership shall be open to all interested in the objects of the Association. The annual subscription shall be fixed at each Annual General Meeting for the insuing year and be payable within two months of the beginning of the financial year.
3. The management of the Association shall be vested in a general committee consisting of the President (The Mayor of the Borough of High Peak to be invited), Chairman, Honorary Secretary, Honorary Treasurer, Honorary Publicity Officer, Honorary Social Secretary, and five committee members, all of whom shall be elected annually. The general committee shall have the power to co-opt not more than four extra members to serve until the next Annual General Meeting.
4. The financial year shall end on August 31st.
5. The Annual General Meeting shall be held within two calendar months after the close of the financial year for the purpose of:
1) Receiving the Chairman’s and Treasurer’s reports, and the presentation of a duly prepared statement of accounts
for the preceding year.
2) The election of three scrutineers.
3) The election of Officers and Committee.
4) The election of Accountant.
5) Amendments to Articles.
6) The fixing of the annual subscription.
7) To transact any other business.
6. Not less than fourteen days notice of the Annual General Meeting shall be given, in writing, to members, and the business to be transacted shall be set out in the notice convening the meeting.
7. Nominations of Officers and Committee, duly seconded, shall be submitted, in writing, to the Honorary Secretary, not less than seven days prior to the Annual General Meeting. Nominators must ensure that nominees have indicated consent to serve.
8. All monies, outside administration expenses shall be used solely to build and maintain a special fund which shall be available for providing in the name of the Friends of Oignies, official hospitality and/or assistance to organised visiting parties considered to be arranged to further the object of the Association from either of the towns of Oignies and Buxton
9. A special general meeting shall only be called on a requisition signed by not less than 20% of the paid up members of the Association.
10. In the event of the Association being disbanded any remaining funds shall be placed at the disposal of the appropriate committee of the town council at Oignies, to be used for the upkeep and maintenance of the graves of the British servicemen in the town cemetery.