Wiltshire People

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?”

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.

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.

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?

Deadly Game: death of a poacher at Red Lodge Farm in Braydon

on Monday, 20 November 2017. Posted in Architecture, Wiltshire People, Wiltshire Places

Wiltshire Buildings Record was recently asked to look at Red Lodge Farmhouse, Braydon. This was a farm created in the mid-17th century out of the royal forest of Braydon, which had formerly been a royal hunting ground. The house is of great interest and reflects changing ownership over time until the 20th century, as does almost every house we look at. This time, however, it was a very human tragedy that took our attention.

Andrews and Dury 1773 map

By sheer coincidence I was on my way there and had called into another farm at Brinkworth nearby. When I mentioned my destination, the farmer exclaimed that his great, great uncle, Hezekiah Matthews, had been killed as a poacher at Red Lodge in 1882, and gave me a transcript of the poor man’s inquest.

Hezekiah Matthews had been one of a group of poachers, all cousins from Brinkworth, who were looking to bag something for the pot on the night of 27th December 1882. Because of previous incidents, a watching party consisting of the Neeld Estate head keeper, William Collins, Henry Reeves, Henry John Reeves, Thomas Reeves, and three others ambushed them, and after a struggle, apprehended them. Unfortunately, two of the keeper’s party were accidentally shot, and Hezekiah Matthews received a blow to the head. They were all taken off to Red Lodge Farmhouse to await the doctor and the police, who were coming from Purton.

Hob-Nob and the Salisbury Giant

on Friday, 10 November 2017. Posted in Wiltshire People, Wiltshire Places, Wiltshire Tales

Now in The Salisbury Museum, the Salisbury Giant and Hob-Nob were first mentioned in 1570 and 1572 respectively, in records from the Salisbury Guild of Tailors but it is probable he existed by the 1400s. Originally used by the Salisbury Guild of Tailors on the eve of the feast of St John (Midsummer’s Day), they have been a part of processions and festivals in Salisbury, originally to mark the eve of St John the Baptist’s Day (June 23rd) and the eve of the feast of St Osmund’s translation (July 15th), but later to be paraded for special occasions, such as royal weddings and jubilees.

WSHC P56697 – early 20th century postcard marking the arrival of the Giant and HobNob at Salisbury Museum

The Salisbury Giant is a tall (now 12ft) figure made from a wooden frame; the oldest part of which is the head. Hob-Nob’s purpose in celebrations and parades was to clear the way for the Giant – he is smaller, and horse-like, with jaws fitted with hob-nails to snap at members of the crowd if they were in the way. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries there were reports of the hobby horse chasing people and ripping their clothes with his teeth as a result of people throwing things at him. The Giant and Hob-Nob could each be supported by one man holding the frame. This resulted in the Salisbury Giant having a very life-like sway and movement.

The physical appearance of the Giant has changed frequently since the sixteenth century. Most depictions of him in the nineteenth century show a tricorn hat and tobacco pope, but in the twentieth century he was garbed in fifteenth century style robes. One of the biggest changes to his appearance was also in the twentieth century, when his face was painted over with shellac to preserve it, but had the side effect of making him look as if he was from African descent. A restoration later on discovered around 6 layers of pink-ish paint underneath.

Some say that the Salisbury Giant represents St Christopher, the biblical giant, and that he was detached of his religious significance during the Reformation and the Puritan era. However, it has also been pointed out that other than his bearing, the Salisbury giant has no other similarities to the saint.

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