History Centre

The Fabric of Life

on Tuesday, 03 April 2018. Posted in History Centre, Wiltshire People, Wiltshire Tales

V & A Museum T.23-2007

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.

WSHC 719/1 Collier cloth book 1774-1787

What can the quilt tell us about life at this time in Wiltshire?

Celebrating 70... and a boy called Heritage

on Tuesday, 07 November 2017. Posted in Archaeology, Archives, Conservation, History Centre

Archives and archivists, artists, archers and archaeologists – all were on hand to make our annual open day an event to remember.
In fact it was a triple celebration when we welcomed the public to the Wiltshire and Swindon History Centre in Chippenham.
Celebrating a decade in the “new” building would have been excuse enough for us to organise a special birthday open day, but 2017 is also the 70th anniversary of the county-wide archive being established, so we were really keen to pull out all the stops. The icing on the cake – there’s always cake at the History Centre – was the official presentation of our Archive Service Accreditation from The National Archives (TNA).

Heritage Cake - you can never have too much cake!

So at 10am on 28th October we opened our doors to the Family Fun Day and a host of activities designed to show off the wide-ranging work we do at the History Centre.
The stars of the show were a selection from the 70 favourite archives that have been featured on our website this year. It was difficult for staff and volunteers to choose their favourite archives – especially as it takes almost eight miles of shelving to house the archive collection – but all had a certain wow-factor. The display featured Kings, Queens and Presidents; artists and architects; nurses, soldiers and engineers; magnificent illuminated manuscripts and simpler texts. All had a story to tell and visitors on the day were fascinated to discover some of the gems of the collection.

A selection from the 70 favourite archives - and a wandering highwayman.

There were displays and activities showcasing all the work that takes place in the History Centre and this year for the first time our colleagues from the Copy Certificates team put on a display explaining their job. The team provides certified copies of birth, marriage and death certificates but it’s not always modern day certificates that they handle. They were able to show some of the more unusual girls and boys names from more than a hundred years ago – Lemon Maud and a boy called Heritage!

Behind the scenes with the conservators

Looking Back To Our First Day

on Tuesday, 31 October 2017. Posted in Archives, History Centre

Thursday 31st October 2007 we opened the doors to the new Wiltshire and Swindon History Centre.

Six months had passed since we closed the doors for the last time at the Record Office in Trowbridge. In that time we had moved 30,000 boxes of archives making 91 lorry loads from Trowbridge to Chippenham and safely installing Wiltshire’s archives into the new purpose built facility.


It was a real mixed bag of documents that went out, with members of the Wiltshire Family History Society coming in to look at Parish Registers and Bishop’s Transcripts. Officers from the Rights Of Way Department based at County Hall were here first thing to look at the County Council’s files for rights of way. Naturally there was interest in the local area with several maps of Chippenham being produced.

We produced 85 records (5 Wills, 3 Parish Registers, 2 Bishop’s Transcripts 66 documents and 9 maps) and welcomed 230 visitors to the new office on that first day. 

In the subsequent 10 years we have retrieved and returned quarter of a million documents, engaged 210,000 visitors and issued 14,900 new readers cards.

Here’s to the next 10 years.

Ian Hicks, Community History Advisor

Paste Paper Fun!

on Monday, 23 October 2017. Posted in Conservation, History Centre

Paste paper making is an historic craft technique used in bookbinding to make decorative papers for books.

They are fun and easy to make and suitable for all ages

You can come and join our workshop at our Family Fun Day on Sat 28th October at the WSHC in Chippenham, but if you can’t make it you can always have a go at home!

Materials needed:

• Corn starch paste*/ Wheat starch paste*/ wall paper paste (*see online for easy recipes)
• Acrylic tube paint/watercolours
• Paper (sugar paper is cheap and colourful and works really well)
• Some ideas for tools for mark-making:
    o Paint brushes
    o Plastic combs
    o Lollipop sticks
    o Fingers
    o Wooden spoon

What to do:

1. Mix some paint and paste together  (you want the consistency to be thick but preferably smooth without lumps)
2. Brush the paste and paint mixture onto the paper covering the whole surface
3. Create patterns by using a tool such as a comb or paintbrush (or anything else that can create a nice mark on the paper) by dragging or drawing across the surface
4. Leave to dry

Here are some that we made:

Sarah used a lollipop stick and the non-bristle end of a paintbrush to create this one
Gabby used a comb to create the subtle flower shape
Sophie used glitter paint on black sugar paper and a lollipop stick and comb to create the patterns
Beth dragged a comb across different stripes of colour
Sophie Coles, Assistant Conservator

My year in archives

on Saturday, 12 August 2017. Posted in Archives, History Centre

As my Heritage Lottery Funded ‘Skills for the Future: Transforming Archives’ traineeship draws to a close, I find myself reflecting on all the new, unique and exciting experiences I’ve encountered over the past 10 months, which have made this time so memorable. My personal focus has been on learning and acquiring valuable skills to carry forward into a future career – and in this sense the traineeship has more than served its purpose. The fact that I’ve been able to undertake the journey surrounded by such kind, interesting and supportive people has been a bonus!

I still clearly remember the day I started at Wiltshire and Swindon History Centre. Completely new to the world of archives and heritage, I was briefed by the previous trainee, Jess, who provided me with tables, spreadsheets, logs and lists that she had kindly prepared to help me manage my day to day activities. (Jess is very good at this sort of thing). Despite nodding calmly in response to her, my internal state was one of sheer anxiety – ‘There’s so much to cram in!’. In hindsight, the year has been nothing but smooth, engaging and fun… there was really nothing for me to have worried about.

If you’ve read my previous posts about coming to the traineeship and some of the interesting insights I’ve had along the way, you’ll get a sense of all I was up to in those early days. In truth, the time hasn’t become any less busy! From attending a training week at the National Archives of Scotland to visiting the City of London Police Museum, with pit-stops at various digitisation conferences, fundraising training days, and of course, the (world-famous) Museum and Heritage show at Kensington’s Olympia.

Closer to home, I’ve continued my training in traditional archive skills, looking at the typical  content and uses of education records, parish registers, manorial documents, wills and testaments, local government records, and even lunatic asylum records. Whilst learning about the latter with archivist Margaret Moles, I decided to conduct a small project, researching a name which had come up in a separate oral history interview I’d conducted. My interviewee had shared the story of his great aunt, who had suffered mental health issues in the 1920’s and was hospitalized at Roundway Mental Hospital, Devizes. Using what I’d learned, I traced the patient’s actual medical records from the time – with permission - and read about her day to day experiences at the hospital. I was able to learn about the nature of her condition, what her doctors had to say, and even glean some information about her relatives at that time. From there I sourced a book in our local studies library called ‘Down Pan’s Lane’, written by Philip Frank Steele, a historian fascinated by Roundway Hospital. This enabled me to get a sense of what life was like for patients at the time – from their food and sleep routines to gardening activities, and even the programme of entertainment laid on by medical staff! It was absolutely fascinating, and proved a valuable resource for putting this one lady’s personal story into a wider historical context.

Over the course of the year I have also had the privilege of contributing to several Heritage Lottery funded projects: Lacock Unlocked: Community Archive, Wiltshire at War: Community Stories, and Creative Wiltshire: Collecting Cultures. The latter two are ongoing and have attracted huge publicity – even drawing interest from BBC Radio Wiltshire. (Watch this space!).

Time travel with the archives

on Friday, 11 August 2017. Posted in Archives, History Centre, Schools

Working at the History Centre a little bit like being a Timelord… with access to the archives you can be transported through time and space.

The strong-rooms are our very own Tardis (Time and Relative Dimension in Space) since despite their relatively small footprint they contain around eight miles of archives.

Over the last two months I have been joined in my “travels” by GCSE and A-level students who have been on work experience at the History Centre.

The first port of call for the youngsters as they ventured into the strong-rooms was 12th century Messina in Sicily. One of the earliest documents in the Wiltshire and Swindon Archive is a letter (with Great Seal attached) from Richard I – Richard the Lionheart – confirming a gift of land to Stanley Abbey (WSA 473/34PC).

It is dated 3rd April 1191 and was sent by Richard from Sicily just days before he set sail with a fleet of ships to the Holy Land. (He had set out in 1190 to join the Third Crusade.) The letter came at a busy time for Richard who was not only on crusade but was about to be married to Berengaria of Navarre who had made her own epic journey across Europe with Richard’s mother Eleanor of Aquitaine to be with her future husband.

The students’ introduction to the archives continued with a jump to the Tudor period via a grant of arms, followed by a brief stop in restoration England and a splendid portrait of Charles II on an illuminated document.

With each new group of students I set myself and the students the challenge of searching our collections for documents relevant to their particular GCSE and A-level courses. The two world wars, the Cold War, and the Tudors are well travelled historical paths but what of 19th century China and Japan or American history?

At A-level, students at the end of Year 12 are making decisions about coursework so a placement at the History Centre was an ideal opportunity to begin their research. We had students who were looking at the American civil rights movement, antisemitism in England during the 19th and 20th centuries, the opium wars in 19th century China and western influence on 19th century Japan and the demise of the Samurai tradition.

In our pursuit of the American civil rights movement we took a detour into the history of the fledgling United States of America. The archive has a number of collections that, through letters and other documents, connect Wiltshire with the English colonies in the Americas, the war of independence and the American civil war and trade with the USA.

We were all rather excited to be handling two particular documents signed by James Madison and John Quincy Adams who served as the 4th and 6th presidents of the USA. Both documents (WSA 1498/4) were passports for Thomas Shorthouse who became an American citizen in 1797. The Shorthouse family lived at Little Clarendon, Dinton and the passports, letters from Philadelphia and citizenship document for Thomas Shorthouse are part of the family papers (WSA 1498/1-6).

Passport signed by James Madison 1805
Thomas Shorthouse citizenship papers 1797

The citizenship document was drawn up in the Court of Common Pleas of Philadelphia County and instructs Thomas to “absolutely and entirely renounce and abjure all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign prince, potentate, state or sovereignty whatever and particularly the allegiance to the King of Great Britain to whom he was heretofore a subject.”

The passports show that Thomas maintained his connections with his family in Britain. The first was signed by James Madison, as Secretary of State, in Washington on 27th September, 1805. Madison, one of the founding fathers of the USA, became President in 1809 and later became known as the ‘father of the constitution’.

In 1815, Thomas Shorthouse received a second passport, this time signed by John Quincy Adams who was then the United States Envoy in London. Adams went on to be the 6th President in 1825.

Passport for Thomas Shorthouse signed by John Quincy Adams
John Quincy Adams signature

We could have spent all our time in North America reading letters and documents about rebellion in the colonies, American Independence, the civil war and abolition of slavery, but other countries beckoned.

Our search for documents relating to the Opium Wars yielded instant and fascinating results in the Public and State papers of Sidney Herbert (1810-1861), Baron Herbert of Lea, who from 1841 to 1860 was successively Secretary to the Admiralty, Secretary of War and then Secretary of State for War.

The opium wars in China documents from the state papers of Sidney Herbert

His papers are part of Wilton House and Estate archive and are a fascinating insight into 19th century British political and military history. The journey into this immense collection was brief but rewarding as we discovered a wonderful document that summarised the issues surrounding the opium trade (“Neglect of Government to take steps as to opium trade”, WSA 2057/F8/I/G/1), and several letters and despatches describing the taking of the Peiho Forts – a joint British and French military action in China in the 1860s (WSA 20157/F8/V/B/192ee).

From China in the 19th century we ventured into the 20th century and a world at war.

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