Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few. Those famous words might well be applied to Kingston Chamber of Commerce, which celebrates its centenary this week. For in its first 100 years, quietly and usually unsung, it has done much to make the royal borough the sought-after place it is today.

Kingston Chamber of Commerce was born on May 9, 1904, its birth induced by a vortex of change that had been turning local trade on its head for the previous two decades.

For close on 700 years, life altered little for the traders of Kingston. Customers came from miles around to buy in the Market Place (established in about 1170) and in the shops that soon built up around it.

Many of these places remained virtually unchanged for centuries. They were small, dark and plain, each supplying its own specialist goods, and observing a code of honour not to poach on neighbouring traders' territory.

The arrival of the railway shattered this simplicity. It brought a new and moneyed class of resident, eager to display its wealth in opulent standards of home and dress.

The dim little caverns that served for shops in Kingston held scant allure for these new migrants. Instead, they went by rail to London to spend at the enticing new department stores and co-operatives that were opening there.

Reluctantly, Kingston's shopkeepers began modernising their properties and wooing back lost customers. But the ousting of old shopping patterns, based on long and trusting relationships between retailers and their customers, had unwelcome effects.

The result was Kingston and District Traders' Association, founded in 1871 "for the protection of tradesmen from robbery, fraud and deposition and for affording greater facilities to its members in the recovery of debts due to them at as little outlay and trouble as possible."

Each year continued to bring new challenges. When the new chamber was finally born in 1904, Kingston's townscape was about to be torn apart for a new tramways system, and motor vehicles were beginning to replace horses. Indeed, the chamber recognised the need for car parks and the widening of Kingston Bridge years before they became a reality.

The new group was initially called Kingston Chamber of Trade. But in 1907 it amalgamated with the traders' association, and the following year was renamed Kingston and District Chamber of Commerce.

It began with 62 members. They included the Mayor, Henry Minnitt, whose fashionable grocery shop on Kingston Hill is now a branch of Oddbins; Valentine Knapp, proprietor of the Surrey Comet; Leonard Bentall, who was soon to transform his father's modest drapery shop into a major department store; David Atkins, baker, confectioner and restaurateur; John Austin, owner of Austin's jam factory; and several shopkeepers specialising in items as diverse as meat, pianos, boats, furniture and tobacco.

The first president was Alfred Homersham, whose plumbing and hardware business, Jones and Homersham, survived in Kingston until recent years.

It was realised from the outset that it was not enough for traders to make their businesses attractive and sell the right goods at the right prices. They must also concern themselves with the appearance and amenities of the town.

Thus, though the chamber cannot be directly credited in its first 50 years with the widening of Kingston Bridge (in 1913); much improved street cleaning and riverside maintenance; the rebuilding of Kingston station (in 1934); and countless other amenities, it was undoubtedly its determined pressure over the years that brought them about.

But it can claim credit for, among many other things, Christmas street lighting and shopping festivities, introduced in 1904; the transfer of the disruptive weekly cattle market from the Market Place to Fairfield in 1925; persuading Southern Railway to let trains to and from Kingston stop at Raynes Park, as from September 1925; the first covered public car park, built in 1925; the provision of public seating in the town centre and the transformation of Kingston Churchyard from eyesore to oasis in 1934.

None of these things, save Christmas shopping festivities, were achieved quickly. They needed years of prodigious effort, reasoned argument and sustained pressure on Kingston Council and other bodies to become a reality.

But the chamber did not always get its way. For example, in May 1934 it passed a unanimous resolution "that this chamber is strongly in favour of the establishment of a municipal aerodrome for this district, and urges the local authorities concerned to take steps, at the earliest possible moment, as are necessary to acquire an appropriate site for such a purpose."

Copies were sent to the Minister for Air, the local MP, and the councils of Malden, Surbiton, Esher and Kingston. But the aerodrome never materialised.

In the same year, the chamber called for the creation of a riverside walk behind the west side of Market Place. The bid seemed a failure at the time, but it did eventually happen more than 60 years later, when all the original promulgators were dead!

1907 was important because that year the chamber not only merged with Kingston Traders' Association, but acquired its first permanent offices at 37 Market Place at annual rent and rates of around £36. It also appointed Thomas Baxter as assistant secretary (the secretary was an honorary position) at an annual salary of £90.

By then membership had increased to 104, plus 103 subscribers to the chamber's debt collection department.

In its first three years, the chamber had managed to get cars banned from using the Barge Walk between Kingston Bridge and Hampton Court, where they had ruined the pleasure of pedestrians.

It had also persuaded London and South Western Railway to lay on cheap trains from Woking and Malden to Kingston's Saturday market, induced Kingston Council to erect long-needed signposts in the town, and was optimistic that its drive to get Kingston Bridge widened would soon succeed.

Meanwhile, it continued to campaign against the "menace" of trading stamps and the practice of donating goods to church bazaars and sales of work.

This, it said, inflicted "great hardship" on small shops, and manufacturers and wholesalers were implored to give cash rather than kind to worthy causes.

It also sent a resolution to the Home Secretary, opposing the sale of sweets in cinemas and theatres after shop closing hours. His reply has not survived.

Car parking is an issue that has engaged the Chamber since its earliest days. In a mainly horse-drawn age, it was among the first to recognise that cars would become universal, and a town that did not provide for motorists would suffer trading decline. As early as the 1930s, it forecast that 8,000 town centre parking spaces would be needed in the future, and it was right. That is the number we have today!

This feature merely skims the surface of the Chamber's immense achievements in its first half-century. And what made those achievements even more extraordinary is that they were effected by so few people.

Only a small fraction of businesses in the royal borough bothered to join, and many of those that did were inactive. The rest merely took advantage of each hard-won amenity or improvement, and complained about any shortcomings. Thus in its first 50 years, the chamber's membership was mostly around 200, and never reached more than 400.

Each year it issued rebukes to free-loading firms, as in its annual report for 1925: "To sit in your armchairs in the evening on our meeting nights, and then criticise what we do, or leave undone, is not cricketit is an insurance to have the chamber in existence, and you should pay your premium for this insurance before expecting to receive the benefits."

However, it should be noted that the Surrey Comet and Bentalls, both present at the first meeting, have remained active supporters ever since!

When the Chamber was born Kingston boasted many industries as well as shops. They included tanning, brewing, jam-making, the manufacture of soap, candles and metal polish, boat, yacht and launch building, cabinet making, a large gasworks and a municipal power station.

The Comet summed the role of the new Chamber in its leader column: "In whatever the attractions of the town consist the river, the parks, the market, its schools and even its amusements, its salubrity and sanitary condition in all such things it will be the business of the Chamber to concern itselfit may be objected that it is the duty of the public authorities to conserve and maintain all these things, and that therefore there should be no need for an association of traders to concern themselves with them. But we cannot accept this dictum. It may be laid down as an axiom that the keener and more general the interest in public affairs, the more efficient is local self-government likely to become. And, conversely, it is a bad day for any municipality when its businessmen fail to take an intelligent, active interest in their own affairs. The end which the Chamber and the public authorities will have in view is one and the same: The prosperity and advancement of the town"

To be continued