Four years ago I wrote a blog about the importance of archives, and I felt, with International Archives Day today (Saturday 9 June), it was timely to revisit this topic. Archives are often newsworthy, but not always for good reasons - I was saddened by the recent story on the BBC News website of adopted children in Ireland with falsified birth certificates. As the story shows, archives are meant to be authentic records of the past, vital for discovering our history, but they can be subject to human manipulation and distortion, like anything else. ‘Fake news’ is nothing new. Last week one of my colleagues informed me that a famous photograph showing an aeroplane over Stonehenge during the First World War is probably not genuine but a pre-Photoshop analogue amalgam of two separate photographs. I felt quite cheated! However, it is important to recognize that ‘fake’ archives are the exception not the rule, whatever some politicians – and countries - might have us believe. As a custodian of archives I think it’s important to reassure the public that archivists as a profession abide by a code of conduct and strive to behave ethically.
An archive is a record which has been selected for permanent preservation, and so it doesn’t need to be hundreds of years old but could have been created two months ago, two weeks ago, even two days ago. The key thing is that it has some kind of evidential value for the future, going above and beyond the purposes it was originally created for. One of our oldest documents - a charter for Stanley Abbey dating from c1151 - is evidence that such a body existed, and tells us what lands it once held, lands which are now owned by other people who can trace their descent over the centuries with the use of other archives such as title deeds and maps. It matters as part of the wider jigsaw of the history of Wiltshire’s communities. The format of such archives is irrelevant. The Council minutes being created electronically and published on Wiltshire Council website today are just as important as the large, leather-bound volumes in our strong rooms dating back to the formation of the Council in 1888. These archives matter because they act as crucial evidence of the decisions of the local authority which affect the lives of thousands of people, from planning and rights of way, to the care of children and vulnerable adults. Without publicly available minutes recording such decisions, local people would be unable to defend themselves against the local authority, businesses or individuals behaving in a corrupt, unlawful or self-serving manner. Bishop Desmond Tutu once stated: ‘Archives are the bulwark of a free society’ (speech by Tutu at a CITRA conference, Oct 2003.) You only have to look at the way archives and historical artefacts are often targeted during war, to see the justification for this. Evidence that could be used against an aggressive or inhumane regime is conveniently swept away, so that the narratives which prevail are those of the victor. Those who think this would never happen in the UK should look again at the earlier Hillsborough public inquiries where redaction was used by the police to distort the narrative of what happened – thankfully the unredacted records survived in the archives and were able to be used by the Hillsborough Independent Panel which published its report in 2014.
Beatrice’s Illustration of the Anatomy of a Bat (from 4313/2/3)
Alongside our parish, ecclesiastical and local government collections, the History Centre is also home to many fascinating personal archives. I have recently completed cataloguing one such collection; the papers of the ecologist Beatrice Gillam (1920-2016). Beatrice was a dedicated observer of wildlife, and a vociferous advocate for the county’s natural history. As the cataloguing project comes to a close this seems a timely opportunity to celebrate the life and achievements of this local hero.
Beatrice’s interest in ecology began in her childhood, partly spent in Exmouth where she enjoyed exploring the local countryside. She began her career as a teacher of natural history and physical education in Somerset and later became an occupational therapist. But Beatrice never lost her interest in wildlife and in the 1950s took evening classes in natural history through Bristol University. This led to the award of a mature scholarship at London University to study zoology and botany in 1963. In 1966, she gained a Certificate of Proficiency in Natural History. Beatrice’s study notebooks give us an insight into the teaching of natural history at this time.
Beatrice’s Drawing of a Whinchat (from 4313/10/1)
Observer and Campaigner
Beatrice devoted many hours to observing wildlife at numerous sites across the county, and used diaries and notebooks to record species sightings and their behaviour. Beatrice also took part in many national and local wildlife surveys. Even when she was well into her seventies, Beatrice was out in the field, contributing to initiatives by the British Trust for Ornithology, such as their survey of skylarks (1996-1997) and annual Winter Farmland Bird Census (in the years up to 2000). Thanks to her long-standing commitment to many such surveys we can develop a picture of the changes to species population over time. Another component of the collection are the reference files which Beatrice compiled on butterflies, snails, ladybirds, deer, bats, grasses and many other species. These files typically contain printed articles, correspondence with conservation groups and habitat surveys.
I have been asked to write a few words about the participation of Wiltshire Buildings Record in the ‘survival’ of a suburban library in Swindon. To partly fulfil the requirement in WBR’s constitution, that is, to provide information to those who have any interest in Wiltshire’s heritage building stock, an ‘outreach’ policy has been pursued for the past few years, when volunteers and opportunities have been available. With a fixed location like a local library it is a situation where the public comes to a WBR source for advice or research resources. So the base is an intermediate role between archive and buildings of the area.
Wiltshire being a geographically large county contains a diverse mix of vernacular building styles, so the libraries’ resources need only reflect its own close vernacular characteristics. Volunteer-run village museums could offer the same opportunities but do not have as many communal facilities. Aldbourne on the Marlborough Downs, provides a very well-run active Heritage Weekend in March from their own created museum including tours. There was a large scale village street map on which almost every building was dated, a very creditable achievement. Purton to the west of Swindon has long had a museum in the same Victorian building as their County Library. The WBR’s published book stock is on sale at Beechcroft Library providing some basis for research. There are four schools within a half a mile radius, but with restrictions of all sorts weighing down on the education system they rarely use the facilities. Display boards of the history of Stratton buildings are on show with the contents eventually going to the WBR archive.
Clive Carter, Wiltshire Buildings Record Volunteer
“But here, on the downs, you are not compassed about with trees and boughs, and locked fast in rich meadows… Instead there are bareness, simplicity, and spaciousness, coupled with a feeling of great strength and uncontrolled freedom, an infinity of range, and an immortality of purpose.”
Alfred Williams is better known for his poetry, having gained the title ‘Hammerman Poet’ whilst working for the Great Western Railway in Swindon.
Williams wanted to sketch a view of the people and landscape covering a whole locality rather than just one village or parish. The site was well known to him; along the ridgeway overlooking the Vale of the White Horse which extends into Oxfordshire, now part of the North Wessex Downs AONB.
Alfred’s attempt was successful and what remains are a collection of stories and imagery that takes you from community to community over a 20 mile area. Alfred notes that the characters he writes about are exactly as he found them, and he paints a good picture, describing their clothes, their speech, their backgrounds and trades, but the picture appears to have always been so rosy… perhaps possible artistic licence makes for a more nostalgic read?
The downs are described in detail including how they were cultivated and the flora and fauna that could be found. There were also the buildings; where they were located, what they looked like and their uses. The journey is fondly itinerated, from village to village, up slopes, through thickets and coombs, beside springs. Information on the history of the locations as Alfred knew it is recorded, along with tales of poaching, thieves, smugglers and ghosts. Time was spent talking about local sports such as cockfighting and backswarding and their importance in the community, the relationship between locals and their bees, and the customs that bound these traditions together. Williams presents a unified picture of old village life with ballad sheets in every house and many songs sung in pubs; fairs and revels; village ales. He also vividly notes the changes in the area from the first threshing machine, the first train, the arrival of telegraph poles, the decline of village trades.
Alfred encapsulated the lives of a number of local craftspeople such as the carter, the sawyer, the weaver, the tailor and the basket maker to name a few, describing who they were and how they worked. He also went into great depth regarding how to make certain products, from soap and candlemaking to watercress and elderflower products. Elderflower wine stood high in the estimation of the villagers. The famous north Wiltshire bacon could not be excluded.
Sometimes here at the Wiltshire and Swindon History Centre, a researcher turns up with an enquiry that really captures your imagination. This happened to me last year when Cathy Fitzgerald arrived to research material for Moving Pictures, a BBC Radio 4 production inviting you to discover new details in old masterpieces:- http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/w3cswf9g This link will allow you to listen to the programme produced and review the image of this wonderful coverlet that the V & A hold in their textile collections.
The coverlet was acquired from Kerry Taylor Auctions with the support of the Contributing and Life Members of the Friends of the V & A and was made in Wiltshire in 1820 by a lady called Ann West. Kerry Taylor of Kerry Taylor Auctions, specialists in textiles, describes the moment of arrival when a gentleman delivered it covered and wrapped in a large flannelette sheet, which when unpacked revealed this large 2.5m square bed cover; a real ‘tour de force’, colourful, vibrant and packed with pictorial images that draw you in and begin to tell a story.
It is wool appliqué and patchwork, with embroidery worked into the surface and is a valuable primary source in a pictorial sense giving a snapshot of life in Wiltshire around 1820, focusing on the everyday and depicting various trades, professions and social events that were part of day to day life.
The images and especially the centre panel depict biblical references, such as the Garden of Eden, David and Goliath and Moses being hidden in the bulrushes. The outer images give a taste of rural Wiltshire life, so have a closer look to see what you can find.
The reason for Cathy’s visit to the history centre was to research Ann West herself. There is a possibility that she may have come from Chippenham as a Milliner’s and Drapers is listed in Pigot’s Directory of 1830 and 1842 in the name of Ann West, but this connection cannot be confirmed. There is also a possibility that she came from the Warminster area, but again, nothing has yet been confirmed. However, the cloth she chose to use is absolutely typical of West of England textiles and lends itself perfectly to this type of appliqué work. We hold some good examples of cloth pattern books from the Collier family and Crosby and White of Bitham Mill, Westbury, and these show exactly the types of fabric used in the coverlet; strong woollen cloths, typical of the West of England and produced in a wide selection of colours. These would have been dyed with natural materials as chemical dyestuffs were not in use until synthetic dyes were developed in the mid-19th century, specifically William Perkin’s mauveine in 1856. The coverlet is also hand sewn; sewing machines c1820 were still in the early stages of development and not generally in domestic use until mid-19th century. You can begin to imagine the time it would have taken to produce such a piece.
What can the quilt tell us about life at this time in Wiltshire?
During my ongoing survey of uncatalogued items from the collection I keep coming across unexpected and fascinating finds. This week was no exception. I opened up a paper document to find unusually dense lettering and was particularly interested as it had the signs of being iron gall ink.
Iron gall ink was extremely common from the Middle Ages through to 20th century. Unfortunately because of the chemical makeup of its ingredients it can be prone to deterioration known as ink corrosion. In its most extreme stages it can literally burn away the lettering leaving a text shape hole where it would originally have been. Because of this it is extremely important to keep an eye out for typical signs of early deterioration such as haloing around the text so that documents can be monitored for further deterioration.
However, in this case when I looked closely I found large crystals tightly packed on the surface of thicker areas of text.
Initially I thought this might have been a phenomenon of the ink itself which can reportedly create crystals on its surface, but with further investigation it became clear that these crystals are quite different in size and shape.
It turns out that these are most likely remnants of blotting sand. This was used until approx. the mid 1800s as an alternative to blotting paper. The writer would most likely have had a small shaker pot or box of sand or dust which they would sprinkle over the wet ink to speed up the drying process, the excess sand would then be shaken off. Although this is just a small detail, it offers an intriguing insight into the everyday life of a past age.