It’s been a year since I first started working in Wiltshire – how time flies! Working as part of the Conservation and Museum Advisory Service (CMAS), I work with museums across the county giving support to staff and volunteers on a whole range of topics such as Accreditation, collections, exhibitions, audience development and fundraising.
Over the last twelve months I’ve been getting to know Wiltshire and visiting as many museums and heritage centres as possible. Having moved from South Wales, a very different part of the world with a different story, it’s been great to explore the county and find out more about it. With over forty fascinating museums, amazing archaeology and heritage sites, I’ve been spoilt for choice and I’ve really enjoyed finding out about the history of the area.
Driving around I frequently come across sites such as Silbury Hill, Stonehenge, Avebury and West Kennet. It’s a little treat every time I see them but it’s been many years since I studied archaeology. I was struggling to remember what I’d learnt about these special places – but where better to find out more than at a museum?! Salisbury Museum and Wiltshire Museum in Devizes both have internationally important archaeology collections from the area and are a great place to discover the story of Wiltshire going back over half a million years and see the evidence from the earliest humans living in the area, including beautiful gold jewellery, finely made pottery, coin hoards and everyday tools. What a great introduction to the history of the area and a way to help me understand the things I’d seen out and about!
When I came to Wiltshire I knew the archaeology would be amazing – it’s something the county is famous for around the world. However, there are many other stories that I hadn’t heard about and the ‘Wiltshire’s Story in 100 Objects’ project was a good starting point to help me find out more about them. One hundred objects from Wiltshire’s museums have been carefully chosen to interpret the history of the county from 10,000 BC to the present day. It gives a great overview of the diversity of collections that Wiltshire’s museums collect, care for and interpret.
The joy of working at the History Centre is that every day is a learning day with the added pleasure of discovering treasure!
My latest magical tour through the archives has taken me back to one of the most turbulent and important times in our history – the English civil wars, the rule of Oliver Cromwell and the fight to restore the monarchy.
I was hooked the moment a beautiful chancery document from 1655 appeared in our office. Archivist Steve Hobbs dug out the document for our recent open day and it had not just one, but two remarkable features: a superb portrait of Oliver Cromwell and a complete Commonwealth Seal showing parliament on the obverse (front) and a map of the Commonwealth – England, Wales and Ireland – on the reverse.
The illuminated document (2057/D4/81) is part of the Wilton House archive and relates to the estate of the Earl of Pembroke. I was not too concerned with the content (although it was in English as opposed to Latin). It was the portrait and seal that drew me in to a fascinating period in our history and opened up all sorts of questions about how power and authority are conveyed through images as well as words. Here I was, handling (very carefully) a 361-year-old seal and looking at a contemporary portrait of Oliver Cromwell, the ruler of an English republic!
I would have been happy if this journey into 17th century Wiltshire had stopped there. But it didn’t – it was just the beginning of a voyage of discovery that took me to documents written by a condemned man, heartfelt letters from his wife to Cromwell and then back to a document signed by a king who lost his head.
As the education officer here at the History Centre I look for ways our archives can support learning for all ages. I mentioned the Cromwell portrait and seal of 1655 to an historian friend who has been teaching the English civil wars and interregnum for 20 years. She responded immediately with two words – Penruddock’s Rebellion.
I have to confess that Penruddock and his rebellion had passed me by (my areas of expertise are the 20th century, early medieval and pre-history), and I felt somewhat shamefaced to discover that this short-lived but significant event began in my hometown Salisbury.
So off I went to fill this rather glaring gap in my historical knowledge and was rewarded with a fascinating story and a treasure-trove of documents from our archive and John Penruddock himself. The story is one of plot and intrigue, of secret (or not so secret) societies, and of paying the ultimate price for ones beliefs.
In October 1902, Wiltshire County Council received a letter from the clerk of Norfolk County Council asking that a petition be presented to the Local Government Board requesting them to ensure by legislation or likewise that a registration number was affixed on the back of every motor car to ensure the identification in the event of an accident on the public highway, in the interest and for the protection of the public.
The Motor Car Bill passed through The House of Commons and The House of Lords in the summer of 1903. The circular for the Motor Car Act was issued by the Local Government Board on the 20th November 1903. It set up a system of registration for motor cars and motor cycles, with a view to identifying motor cars/cycles and their owners. It brought in driving licences (legislation for compulsory testing was introduced for all new drivers with the Road Traffic Act 1934 for owners of motor vehicles and anyone wishing to use a motor vehicle). Penalties were introduced for people driving who did not hold a licence, and licences could be suspended for offences against the Act. A new speed limit was introduced of 20mph - raised from 14mph and aimed to prevent reckless driving by adding endorsements to the person’s driving licence.
The registration and licencing system was to be administered by County and Borough Councils throughout England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland. Each County or Borough was issued a letter, or a group of two letters (styled the index mark), issued by the Local Government. Registers were kept for motor cars and motor cycles. These registers could be kept in two parts, one relating to motor cars and one relating to motor cycles. Wiltshire County Council kept separate registers for motor cars and motor cycles.
The Act did not define the term motor cycles, nor could the Local Government Board, but it was generally treated as a motor car with not more than three wheels and weighing not more than three hundredweight (152kg).
Applications for registrations were made through the council and for a fee of £1 for a motor car and 5 shillings for a motor cycle, an identification mark was issued to the vehicle and it was entered into the register. A copy of the entry was issued to the owner.
Any changes in ownership of the vehicle were given either by the new or the old owner to the council who issued the index mark. The alterations were made to the registers and the new owner was issued a copy of the new entry. If any changes were made relating to the vehicle the owner needed to inform the council, and the register was amended accordingly. If the vehicle was destroyed, scrapped, exported or re-registered with another county or borough, then the index mark assigned to that vehicle was cancelled in the register and that number could then be assigned to another vehicle.
The Roads Act of 1920 came into effect on 1st January 1921. The registers were named vehicle allocation books. With the Wiltshire allocation books, only the vehicle owner’s details and the make of the vehicle were entered, with no indication of colour, style or engine capacity. All subsequent changes made to the vehicle and to ownership were entered into a file which was kept for each index mark and when the number was cancelled due to the vehicle being scrapped or exported this was duly recorded. These files where supplemented with a record card for each index mark. One allocation book was now kept for motor cars, heavy motor cars and motor cycles, so that the same number could not be issued twice, for instance to a motor car and a motor cycle.
By the end of 1939 and the early part of 1940 most of the 70,000 ‘aliens’ – immigrants – living in Britain had been sent before a tribunal which assessed their loyalty to Britain, after which less than 600 were classed as high threats to British national security and imprisoned, usually as a result membership of a Nazi organisation. This relatively tolerant policy was to change dramatically in May 1940.
Between the outbreak of war and early summer of 1940 the military situation of Britain and its allies had gone from relatively optimistic, to precarious, to potentially disastrous. The Norwegian Campaign had been a failure, France and the Low Countries had been invaded and overrun, the British Expeditionary Force had been trapped and nearly destroyed at Dunkirk, and a German invasion attempt seemed highly likely. To make matters worse, Italy joined the war against Britain on 10 June 1940.
Nationally, this sudden change in the outlook of the war exacerbated already simmering anti-alien tensions. It was not thought possible that the Germans could overrun France and Belgium so quickly under normal circumstances – that they had collapsed so soon was taken as proof that they had been undermined from within by German agents posing as immigrants. Combined with Britain’s difficult military situation these (unfounded) accusations led to a hysteria in which any alien, even those previously classed as loyal, was seen as a potential traitor. The government responded to this panic by ordering the arrest of all enemy aliens: when discussing what to do about Italians living in Britain, Winston Churchill is said to have demanded that the police “collar the lot!”.
The files of the Wiltshire Constabulary here at the History Centre show how this mounting hysteria gripped the county. On 28 May 1940 the Chief Constables of England and Wales wrote to the Home Office to say that: "It is not felt that the slightest reliance can be placed even on those aliens who have produced the most excellent credentials and whose conduct has hitherto been apparently innocuous, as it seems reasonable to expect that that any enemy agent ... will be extremely circumspect until the time comes for him to take action."
What’s interesting about this letter is the way that the language used to describe aliens living in Britain had changed since September 1939. Whereas at the start of the war aliens were deemed innocent unless specific evidence of disloyalty was found, by late May 1940 the police were suggesting that aliens should be assumed guilty of subversion unless proven otherwise. The best response to this, the security services felt, was simply to arrest all enemy aliens in Britain: “under the present circumstances the County Chief Constables feel that the only safe plan is to intern every enemy alien”.
The effects of this suspicion were soon felt in Wiltshire. On 29 April 1940, the Home Office wrote to Wiltshire Police instructing them to begin preparations to deal with Italians employed in sensitive locations within the county; in the event of hostilities between Britain and Italy these people were to be off immediately on receipt of a coded Home Office telegram. In response, the police began to draw up lists of all Italians then in Wiltshire; police records here at the History Centre show that 17 Italians were identified, 5 men and 12 women, giving their names, addresses and occupations.
The day that I found out I had been selected for the Skills for the Future ‘Transforming Archives’ traineeship was a strange one. Partly because it was only the day before that I’d attended interview for the role – this was the quickest I’d ever heard back! Admittedly, another aspect of the strangeness was due to my still being ‘spaced out’ with tiredness, following several nights of too little sleep; the build-up to the big day had been so incredibly intense. Combine all this with the mixed rush of excitement at hearing that I’d been successful, and the utter shock at having been chosen for one of only 12 traineeship positions nationwide which over 700 people had applied for – and you’ll have some idea just what was going on for me that day. It was strange. Once the shock had settled and I’d finally got some sleep, the reality of how incredibly fortunate I was set in. The world of archives, history and heritage has always drawn me, but due to my career background consisting largely of military and police service – I wasn’t exactly the type actively recruited into the sector. Unless Archivists are now being trained in close-quarters combat drills, (I mused), in an attempt to curtail the growing and ever-present threat of angry genealogists, waving their pencils frantically and uprising en-masse to bring down the current system (of cataloguing documents). Unlikely. This is why I felt sheer delight at seeing the advert for the traineeship online:
‘Through the Transforming Archives programme we are hoping to diversify the archives workforce, address skills gaps in the archives workforce and provide new routes into working in the sector.’ The National Archives were actively looking for new skills, fresh energy and people from unique, untypical backgrounds. My hopes of beginning a fresh new career in the archives and heritage sector had been rekindled… My posting was to be at Wiltshire and Swindon History Centre, and my first day there was inspirational. Everyone was so warm, welcoming and personable – I immediately felt right at home. (Helped, no doubt, by all the delicious and colourful cake on offer in the break room!). I was given a tour of the building and facilities by Claire, the Principal Archivist, and introduced to a whole range of smiling staff members. I got a tangible sense of the wide scope of work that went on at WSHC: Under one roof we had Archivists, Archaeologists, Conservators, the County Arts Lead and Conservation and Museums Manager, an Education Officer, the Wiltshire Buildings Recorder, county Registrars, World Heritage Site officers, Community History Advisors… many of whom were overseen by Terry, the Heritage Services Manager. Such an incredible wealth of resources and information available in one place! Once more, I felt that tingling sense of deep gratitude welling up inside me; how fortunate I was to have been chosen for this role.
Over the following week I undertook various inductions, training and ‘orientation’ a WSHC, before being whisked off to Manchester for the enigmatically named ‘DCDC16 Conference’. My meticulous and painstaking research later uncovered that this stood for ‘Discovering Collections, Discovering Communities’. (Clearly I had what it took to be an excellent Archivist!).
To be honest, I’d been so busy I hadn’t had time to think or get excited about going to the conference. It was only after the restful 3 hour train ride and short walk to my hotel, which overlooked Old Trafford football stadium, that the excitement really began to kick-in. So much learning, networking and FUN to be had over the coming few days! A quick shower and cup of tea, and I donned my suit in preparation for the pre-conference reception.
When I rocked up to The Lowry at Manchester’s Salford Quays, it felt like I’d stepped onto a Hollywood plaza. The bright glowing lights of the ITV building, the BBC, the ‘Coronation Street’ set and the futuresque architecture of the Imperial War Museum North, all set upon the harbour’s edge; an array of colourful signage being reflected into the rippling, dark water below. Absolutely magical. The spell continued as I headed up to the reception room at the top of The Lowry, to catch a beautiful display of precision-timed fireworks popping and frazzling in the sky directly outside. How wonderful, I thought - I’ve never been welcomed to a conference in such style! (It later transpired that the fireworks had nothing to do with DCDC16, we were just fortunate be overlooking the water directly opposite Media City, in all its opulent extravagance).
We had a recent visitor from the National Association of Road Transport Museums who was interested in our Historic Photograph Collection and wanted particularly to see the two images below of a group outing at Hilperton pictured on a ‘private bus’.
I was intrigued to learn that this bus not only had an interesting past but also an interesting present! It is reg. LH8186 and chassis no. B2737; now known as the ‘Battle Bus’. It has been part of an HLF funded project to restore one of the last surviving B-type buses back to working condition and to its first world wartime appearance.
The London General Omnibus Company B-type bus was introduced in 1910 when buses were mostly still horse-drawn but by 1913 there were 2,500 B-type buses. They had proved themselves to be mechanically reliable and became the first successfully mass-produced motor-bus.
After the outbreak of war in 1914 the buses were commandeered by the War Department along with many of their drivers and mechanics. The buses were protected with wooden boards and painted khaki for camouflage. They were each able to transport 24 soldiers along with their equipment to and from the Front Line and were also used variously as ambulances, lorries and even mobile pigeon lofts! Around 1,200 London General Omnibus vehicles were used in this way, mostly in France and Belgium.