Traditions and Folklore

The Memory Box Reading Group

on Tuesday, 01 October 2019. Posted in History Centre, Traditions and Folklore, Wiltshire People, Wiltshire Places

Do you love reading and history?

Our latest venture might just suit you down to the ground!

Our reading group is based at the History Centre on the 1st and 3rd Monday of every month, 2-3.30pm, free entry. It’s a chance for anyone who is at a loose end to come along and listen to extracts of books from our Local Studies Library on a wide range of topics, take a look at a range of documents from the Archives and photographs from our Local Studies Collection, not to mention tea/coffee, biscuits and a chat at the end!

Feel free to join in with any memories or comments you may have, or just enjoy the friendly atmosphere with others and the chance to take a look at the many fascinating and little seen items from our vast range of collections.

Sketch for an instrument to lop forest trees at Savernake, 1809 from ‘Royal Forests’ topic

Topics we’ve covered so far have been as wide-ranging as Royal Forests, the Workhouse, the Fair, Ironworks, Education, Cinema, 1950s Chippenham, Washday, Harris’ of Calne and Alfred Williams. The extracts mostly cover Wiltshire places but we also find out about the origin of the subjects to add context, covered by our general reference (Heritage) collection held at the library. The group also suggest topics of interest for us to cover in future sessions, which is proving to be very successful and interesting to date.

Eden’s State of the Poor 1797 Vol 3, Wilts – Seend entry from ‘Agricultural Labourers’ topic

You’ll be amazed by what there is to discover and uncover; we’ve found out about sea eagle bones which were purported to have been used in medieval bird hawking; the common labourer who was writing to tell others of the plight of his follow workers in the 18th century, the pioneer of the modern-day cinema, based in Salisbury, and much more!

We are a small, friendly group at the moment who would love to expand; please feel free to drop in and join us sometime soon; no appointment or booking necessary. A copy of our leaflet with further information can be found here.

If you have any questions or queries please feel free to contact me This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or tel 01249 705534

Comments from attendees include “Brings back memories I’d forgotten I had”; “It’s lovely to hear other people’s ideas and learn new things”; “Brings up questions and new things to think about”…

We look forward to meeting you!

Julie Davis
Reading Group Leader and County Local Studies Librarian

The Truth about Stonehenge*

on Wednesday, 19 June 2019. Posted in Archaeology, Traditions and Folklore, Wiltshire Places

(*or what was held to be The Truth in the Middle Ages)

At the summer solstice, Stonehenge falls under the spotlight: in the solar sense and in the cultural sense. People all over the world find it fascinating and are reminded to ponder it when the sun is at its highest. Much of the appeal of Stonehenge may be attributed to its encompassing aura of mystery, its air of mind-bending antiquity. There is much about it we don’t understand, despite the advances made by ingenious researchers, but we are not the first generations to try to account for Stonehenge. So what did our forebears believe?

According to a twelfth-century author called Geoffrey of Monmouth, the ancient stone circle now known as Stonehenge was originally brought to mount Killarus in Ireland from Africa by a group of giants. It was known then as the Giants’ Dance and had healing properties. The stones came to Wiltshire with the help of a very young Merlin, at the behest of King Arthur’s uncle, Aurelius Ambrosius, to be reconstructed as a memorial to a group of Britons massacred during the reign of the malicious usurper, Vortigern. Some decades later the structure renamed Stonehenge becomes the final resting place of Uther Pendragon.

I studied this story while writing my PhD about an illustrated medieval manuscript containing an abridged version of Wace’s Anglo-Norman French translation of Geoffrey’s history: La Roman de Brut. Even in its shortened form, the episode in which the child Merlin guides the reconstruction of Stonehenge celebrates brains over brawn, great power despite littleness of stature: 

“They grasped the stones behind, in front and sideways: they pushed and thrust them hard and shook them hard, but however much force they used, they could not find a solution.
‘Rise’ said Merlin, ‘you will so no more by force. Now you shall see how knowledge and skill are better than bodily strength.’ Then he stepped forward and stopped. He looked around, his lips moving like a man saying his prayers. I do not know if he said a prayer or not. Then he called the Britons back.
‘Come here,’ he said, ‘come! Now you can handle the stones and carry them into your ships.’ As Merlin instructed, as he devised and told them, the Britons took the stones, carried them to the ships and placed them inside. They brought them to England and carried them to Amesbury, into the fields nearby.”
 – Based on Judith Weiss’ 2002 translation of Wace’s Roman de Brut


To the medieval mind, the stone circle was a monument to human mastery of nature, as well as to the fallen Britons. Still today we measure ourselves by the power of our prehistoric ancestors to have created it. I recently created a linocut of the child Merlin guiding the reconstruction of Stonehenge. Both Geoffrey of Monmouth and Wace focus on the dismantling of the stones in Ireland, which is also the moment illustrated in the manuscript I worked on for my PhD. Instead, I depicted the moment when that iconic plain was undergoing its momentous transformation.

“Very disorderly, danced the Morris Dance”: Morris, Garlands, Sedition and Riot

on Tuesday, 21 May 2019. Posted in Archives, Traditions and Folklore, Wiltshire People

Devizes Jubilee Morris

Here at the History Centre, we’re no stranger to Morris Dancers. We’ve had dancers on the staff, while each May Bank Holiday Chippenham hosts its popular Folk Festival. It’s great fun watching the street theatrics, but there was once a darker side to Morris Dancing that led to the following stories being recorded by the Wiltshire Magistrates (and now appear in Records of Wiltshire).

What happened at Woodborough in May 1652 caused official concern, but how was it that Morris Dancing threatened the pillars of the state?

Capers against the Commonwealth
On the evening of Sunday, May 16th 1652, Edward Smyth and Edward Hawking left their homes in Woodborough and went to All Cannings, where they met and conspired with about a dozen people. That same Sunday, Robert Golfe went from Woodborough into Marlborough “to get a drummer”, while Thomas Beasant went to Ram Alley in Easton and “there invited and procured a fiddler”.

The following day, their plans were revealed when a crowd gathered from the surrounding countryside; according to the records, “three hundred persons, or thereabouts … gathered together in a Riotous, Routous, Warlike and very disorderly manner’.” If anyone thought about stopping them, they were armed “with muskets, pistols, bills, swords drawn and other unlawful weapons”.

The musicians led the crowd from Woodborough to Pewsey where they “very disorderly, danced the Morris Dance”, and committed other misdemeanours, including “drinking and tippling in the inn and Alehouse”. While the prevalence of weapons may, happily, be less, it’s reassuring to see that the drinking still continues in and around Morris circles to this day (and sometimes, people still disapprove).

Public nuisance, party, or Sedition?
In 1652, England was a republic, following the execution of Charles I. The Commonwealth kept a close eye on signs of dissent, looking for evidence of Royalist insurgency: traditional sports and pastimes were suspect. Ales, Morris and other customs had been the target of religious reformers since before the Civil War. The opposition from these authorities meant that Morris and other customs now symbolised the old order prior to the Civil War, when license and liberty were, supposedly, more freely allowed; as such, Morris dancing and the open drinking of ale was as much an open challenge to the authorities as the bearing of arms. Although the weapons offered a challenge to the authorities, the Morris spoke of tradition, culture, custom and a perceived stability before the upheavals of the 1640s. The new rulers of England were right to view the emotional power of such demonstrations with suspicion.

Blackpowder Morris from Lewes in Sussex

While the Morris at Pewsey may not be as famous as folksinger Pete Seeger, who was blacklisted by McCarthy in Cold War America, or Victor Jara, the Chilean musician executed during the 1973 coup, the Wiltshire boys used their folk art and their rootedness in the traditions of their place to show dissent toward the Authorities. Were the ringleaders seeking to incite rebellion, or just standing up for traditional fun? No doubt motives were mixed and shifting, including a mass of local and national grievances, as well as people being there for the fun, the beer and the free entertainment. What also seems remarkably modern was the casting of The Commonwealth as  an alien, faceless Authority that stopped fun and meddled in the lives of “ordinary folk” (“Bonkers Conkers” anyone?).

However, as our next story shows, the dancers in Pewsey were evoking an idealised past in an “imagined village” …1

Villages of the White Horse, 1913

on Monday, 16 April 2018. Posted in Archives, Traditions and Folklore, Wiltshire People, Wiltshire Places

“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.

Alfred Williams (ref 2598/71)

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.

Vale of the White Horse via Wikimedia Commons CC-BY-SA-3.0 – photographer Phillip Jelley

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.

Wiltshire's Strong Room Cat and the Magical Protection of Buildings

on Saturday, 06 January 2018. Posted in Archives, Traditions and Folklore

Last summer I visited the Natural History Museum in London. While looking at the displays one item on display caught my eye, a mummified cat! This was of interest to me because kept in a strong room at the History Centre is a mummified cat, who, we’ve affectionately named Bing Clawsby! 

In 1989, the then County Archivist Ken Rogers and Archivist Margaret Moles collected the archives of solicitors Mann, Rodway and Green from their offices at 57 Union Street, Trowbridge.  While clearing their strong room a dead cat was found amongst the documents. A feeling of sadness was felt for the cat and they decided to bring it back to the Record Office in Trowbridge. “Bing Clawsby” now resides in Strong Room 2 here at the History Centre in Chippenham. Bing’s hearing and eye sight is not what it used to be and now spends most of the day asleep in its box.

During the 16th and 17th centuries, predominately during the witch-trials (first half of the 17th century), people believed that Satan was very active and that witches made pacts with him, they would hand over their soul in exchange for supernatural powers. Witches had the ability to take the form of animals to help them perform their evil deeds. Witches also had the help of familiars. These were believed to be supernatural entities that would assist the witch. Familiars would often appear as animals and could even take the form of humans. It was vitally important to take steps to protect oneself and the family and to destroy witches and their familiars. The house had to be protected by day and night from these evil forms that would enter the home and cause harm to the family.    

Witches Familiar from Wikicommons https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Familiar_spirit#/media/File:Witches%27Familiars1579.jpg

One important way to protect the home would be to conceal items within the wall, roof space, under the floor but quite often near points of entry, the door, window and chimney area. Concealed items included shoes, horse skulls, witch-bottles, dried animals such as birds, rats, mice and cats. These objects would have been hidden in secrecy because this itself was considered an act of magic and such beliefs were regarded as unlawful. 

Mummified cats or “Dried Cats” as they are officially known were used across Europe. It is not known if these cats had died before or after concealment, but some had been placed in a position that looks like they are about to pounce, which must have occurred after death. Cats were regarded as possessing a sixth sense and would carry on hunting in the afterlife. Some cats have been found with a dried rat or mouse next to them, one cat even had a rat in its jaws. Cats have been found from the period when London was rebuilt after the Great Fire. Some of these cats were in building designed by Sir Christopher Wren and could have been put there by Wren’s masons.

As with cats, horses are believed to be able to see things on a spiritual plane and would be able to watch over the family and guide them from witches and spirits. 

It's all Chalk and Cheese

on Tuesday, 27 June 2017. Posted in Archives, Traditions and Folklore

North Wiltshire’s edible tradition

Wiltshire is well known for its southern chalk and northern rich pasture dairy land, and cheese production was once a well established part of Wiltshire life, from cottage industry to factory production. Chippenham’s cheese market opened in 1850, reported in the London Illustrated News and the market soon became famous. Wiltshire Cheese was renowned from the 18th century and became highly sought after. The Wiltshire Loaf is a semi-hard cheese, smooth and creamy on the outside and crumbly in the centre. The North Wiltshire (or Wiltshire) Loaf reached the peak of its popularity in the 18th & early 19th centuries.

Illustration in the Illustrated London News, ref: P5215.

William Nichols was a Chippenham Chemist who developed the use of the substance annatto as a food additive. Annatto comes from the achiote shrub seed and is produced in South America. You can still see it as the orange skin on some cheeses today, and it is used to give colour to dairy products.

Article in the London Gazette, 1877, regarding the Annatto business William Nichols & Co., running from Rowden Hill, Chippenham
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