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Letters Home

on Wednesday, 19 September 2018. Posted in Archives, History Centre, Schools

Charles Wyndham Barnes was born in Westbury, Wiltshire, England in 1884. His father was Frank Barnes and at the 1911 census was 53. Charles’ mother was Helena Barnes, aged 52. The census records that Charles working as a law clerk to a barrister. He had two siblings, one named Nellie Barnes, 22, and another called Constance, aged 10.

His Father was an engine fitter at a railway station and his sister’s occupation was as a shop assistant.

WSA Collection ref 4104

Charles was a dutiful son, and sent over 160 letters home from the front to his mother between 1915 and 1918 which are held here at the Wiltshire & Swindon History Centre (Ref: 4104/1). From his letters Charles appears confident and considerate – he wrote at least once a week.

Topics he talked of were his health (he was alright), gardening, fresh fruit such as apples, and partridges. His favourite topic was the weather – snow, floods and the heat of summer. He also mentioned that he would be away from the trenches for some time in May 1917.

Information from the Commonwealth War Graves Commission shows that Charles was married to Violet Blanche – known as “Blanche” who he mentioned in his many letters home.

Blanche Eyers was 24 when she married Charles on 24 December, 1914. The 1911 census shows Blanche living at home and working as a school teacher. She was born in Yarnbrook in 1891.

In the army, Charles joined the Wiltshire Regiment and served with the second battalion. Additionally, he had the rank of a Lance Corporal and his service number was 11257.

A week into the Battle of the Somme – called the Great Offensive by the public and the “big push” by the soldiers – Charles wrote a postcard giving an upbeat assessment of the battle.

Seal of Approval

on Monday, 23 July 2018. Posted in Archives

Archives are regarded, quite rightly, as vital sources of information about past lives and times, and are pored over for the fascinating details that they offer. However, in the quest for knowledge it is easy to overlook the format and appearance of the documents, which are also informative, but are worthy of consideration and appreciation for their style and artistic achievement. A good example of this is seals, which were used to validate or authenticate documents, much as we might provide a signature or enter a PIN.  A soft material made of beeswax with tree resin and pigment that was pressed into a metal matrix onto which image and text was engraved, to make an impression. Usually the seal would have writing around its edge (known as the legend) which was often in Latin. They might identify the owner, or be relevant to the image. One of my favourites, in The National Archives, appears on the seal of a lady, ‘Love me and Lyve’.

Why are they important and so deserving of such attention? Because they are examples of the skill of the engravers who made the moulds or matrices, which produced exquisite miniature works of art. This small scale medieval sculpture complements the work of masons, carvers, painters and other craftsmen in buildings, statues, paintings and devotional and personal objects that survive from the Middle Ages.

The choice of motif was a matter of personal taste surviving from a time when people had few personal items. They are revealing about the owner: their social status, indicated by the use of heraldic symbols, emphasising his or her power and authority: their occupation, by an image of the tools of their trade: or their personality and mindset, by devotional motifs indicating their piety, or amusing images suggesting a sense of humour. Wit, sentimentality, and popular devotion, all appear in the designs the seals of individuals below the elites. Delight in the absurd and the burlesque, such a hare blowing a horn while riding on the back of a dog and humorous punning designs and pictograms were commonly displayed. Images of saints with their emblems, such as St Catherine and the wheel on which she was tortured, a pelican in its piety, pecking their breasts to feed their young, were also popular designs. 

I will be giving an illustrated talk on this subject, entitled Good Impressions: Seals from the 13th-20th centuries, at the History Centre on Thursday 9 August at 10.30. Tickets £4.00.

No the History Centre is not trying to compete with the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society, also based in Chippenham, and taken on a wider brief in the preservation of the Natural World. This is about the seals, archival not mammalian; the lumps of beeswax impressed with intricate and elaborate designs that authenticated legal documents. Relevant in a time when only the few could read or write their names, the conservative nature of the law means that they continue in use today; if reduced to the ignominy of a self-adhesive red circle stuck alongside the signatures on deeds.

My dear Edith… letters from the Bloomsbury Set and Bright Young Things

on Wednesday, 18 July 2018. Posted in Archives, Wiltshire People

Each July I set myself a challenge – to find documents in our archive that support the GCSE and A-level topics studied by students who come to us on work placements.

The topics are wide-ranging and on the face of it have little to do with our wonderful county. But Wiltshire folk have always found themselves involved in, if not at the centre of, world events.
Among the topics studied by students who have been with us this year are: the Crusades; Henry II; Black American history and Germany 1889-1989. That was just one A-level student.

At GCSE most students tend to study medicine through time, often with a more in-depth look at battlefield medicine in the First World War. Other topics that our students have studied include Weimar and Nazi Germany; international relations during the Cold War; settling of the American west; American politics and civil rights plus a bit of King John and the Magna Carta and a touch of Elizabethan politics, trade and war with Spain thrown in for good measure.

And yes – we can produce documents that relate to all of these topics. The Wiltshire and Swindon Archive is truly global in its coverage.

This year though, the particular challenge was finding collections that referenced the rise of Nazism in 1930s Germany. We searched using a variety of key words including ‘Hitler’. And it was this search that yielded some interesting results – letters written to author and diarist Edith Olivier by friends who were travelling in Europe in the 1930s or who had strong opinions about the politics of Germany and Italy.

We are privileged to have Edith’s archive as she was an inveterate diary and letter writer and our collection contains fascinating letters, notes and postcards from her large circle of friends who, post First World War, included nationally and internationally famous writers, artists, socialites and aristocracy associated with the ‘Bright Young Things’ and the ‘Bloomsbury Set’.

Three letters in this collection were particularly exciting – two were written in 1933 (WSA 982/116) and the third in 1938 (WSA 982/125), and all referred to events and people that are now key to our understanding of the interwar period.

Poet Siegfried Sassoon was a close friend of Edith’s and they wrote to each other regularly. A letter from him dated 28 February, 1933, highlights his fear that another war is imminent. He wrote it the day after the Reichstag – the German parliament building – was set on fire and a month after Hitler had been sworn in as German Chancellor.

Sassoon writes: “How miraculously opportune my poor little poems will be at this moment when there is all this horrible war feeling in the air. Everything seems leading up to a European war… & Hitlerism appears to be a very dangerous & explosive remedy for unrest!”

His letter also alludes to the political disagreements at home with some factions supporting the work of the League of Nations and others believing the organisation, formed in the aftermath of the First World War, was doomed to failure.

Sassoon goes on to say: “The Devil must rub his hands when he sees Winston baiting poor old Lansbury, who after all is on the right side, though he may be a bit silly.”

Lansbury was George Lansbury who in October 1932 became leader of the Labour Party. He was known for his belief in pacifism and unilateral disarmament; so it is interesting to read Sassoon’s support of Lansbury’s position. Sassoon is pessimistic about the future: “I have been thinking about it a lot, & I can’t help feeling that, given a bit of bad luck & people losing their heads, another war might be started just as the Reichstag has been set on fire. Isn’t it strange how some people seem definitely to hate the League of Nations for trying to safeguard the world?”

Unravelling the Great Rolls

on Thursday, 28 June 2018. Posted in Archives

One of the pleasures of working in a History Centre or County Record Office is that you are always discovering new material. There are many occasions when a customer has requested something and I think ‘that looks interesting, I must have a look some when.’ The list is growing ever longer and I will probably never get round to looking at everything that interests me. A few months ago one of our regular customers spent several days looking at the Great Rolls. These documents have always been a mystery to me as I have never known exactly what’s in them and how easy they are to use.

The Rolls are part of the Quarter Sessions records. Prior to the Local Government Act 1888 and the creation of County Councils, the Quarter Sessions presided over by JPs were responsible for the administration of justice. As well as dealing with criminal cases, examples of their responsibilities were the administration of poor law, apprenticeship indentures, ale house licences, plans of canals and railways, coroners’ accounts, the County Militia, Meeting House certificates, registers of gamekeepers, the supervision of prisons, the drawing up of jury lists, regulations regarding highway maintenance, the licencing of lunatic asylums and recording the names of parish constables. All of which is a wealth of information for both the family and local historian.

Here in Wiltshire we are fortunate enough to have an active Family History Society which has transcribed and indexed many of the criminal and poor law registers. One of our archivists has transcribed the ale house records. But what about the many hidden gems that we don’t know about? As well as the rolls themselves, which in Wiltshire date back to 1603, there are also rough minute books, entry books and order books. The rough minute book was effectively the clerk’s notebook. The order book records the full minutes of the court. The entry book includes names of the jury, presentments (a formal presentation of information to the court) and the names of people who were bound to appear at the court. I have chosen the year 1750 as an example.

IMG 0378

The term ‘rolls’ describes the documents perfectly, as the parchment and paper documents used in the court were spiked, threaded on string and rolled for storage. There are four bundles for each year, one for each of the sessions. They are still known by the four English court terms during the calendar year, Easter, Trinity, Michaelmas and Hilary. Each bundle consists of smaller rolls each covering one subject, one of which is returns of jurors.

As well as giving names, which will be of interest to family historians, the return also gives a glimpse into the workings of local government. The next layer of government below the Quarter Sessions was the hundred court. (Wiltshire was divided into 40 hundreds; a hundred was a group of parishes that functioned as one administrative unit).  This dealt with petty crimes committed in one of the parishes within the hundred.  At the top of the document are the names of the constables of the hundred. They were senior law enforcement officers (prior to the establishment of professional police forces). Next are the gentlemen summoned to serve on the grand jury at the Quarter Sessions. Finally, all the men who served on the hundred jury, with their parish, are listed. Sometimes the list will include the juror’s occupation.

Why Archives Matter in 2018

on Friday, 08 June 2018. Posted in Archives

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.

P40770 Postcard of Stonehenge with a biplane overhead, 1919

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.

A Force of Nature: The Papers of Beatrice Gillam

on Tuesday, 29 May 2018. Posted in Archives, Wiltshire People

4313 2 3

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. 

Early Years

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.

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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.

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