Since joining the team at Wiltshire and Swindon History Centre as a ‘Transforming Archives Trainee’ with The National Archives, life has certainly been full! Over the last 5 months I’ve been involved in several HLF funded projects, completed a university module on Education and Outreach, have undertaken various in-house training sessions on traditional archive skills, as well as attending training conferences in London, Bristol, Manchester, Warwickshire, Gloucester and Dorset. In a few weeks I’ll be off to Edinburgh for another ‘basecamp’ week, training with The National Archives and Scottish Council on Archives. How time has flown!
Something that has struck me deeply over the course of my traineeship so far, which I’d like to share here, is a realisation about the vast importance of learning from our history - particularly the individual lives and stories of people who have gone before us.
Working on the ‘Wiltshire at War: Community Stories’ project, which focuses on the lives and culture of Wiltshire and its residents during WW1, has brought this home to me most of all. Traditionally, when remembering the World Wars, historians tend to concentrate on military or political strategy, and we subsequently have a multitude of movies, books and magazines concerned with the armed forces and the battles they fought. Whilst this is all fascinating information, the Wiltshire at War project seeks to collect and share the stories and memories of the individual people across Wiltshire, who lived through the troubled times of 1914 -1918. We feel it’s equally important to understand how the Wiltshire community adapted during this time, how life continued, and what individual sacrifices were made. What support did Wiltshire provide to the war effort? How did people across the county ‘pick up’ their lives again, once peace was declared? How did they cope with so much change? The project seeks to bring all this community history back into the community, and to share those stories through our fantastic website and ongoing exhibitions.
Recently I was publishing a story which came to us via our Wiltshire at War Twitter feed. It’s the story of a young farmer’s son called Freddie Butler, who grew up on Rookhaye farm in Bowerchalke, and tragically died in a flying accident whilst serving with the Royal Flying Corps. I was looking at a photo of Freddie as a child feeding hay to one of the horses, happy as can be. I wondered about that child – his hopes, dreams, memories... In that one moment captured through a camera lens, he, like all the people around him, had absolutely no idea what was to come. I wondered too about Freddie’s mother, shown in a separate photo – how did life continue for her, after the loss of her beloved son?
Looking at some of the family photos that have come in with other recent stories - some dating back as far as 1905 - I find myself peering at each individual face, pondering the complex network of unique memories, life experiences, struggles, choices and relationships that each, single person represented. Was it even possible for those individuals to comprehend that, in the not so distant future, these photos and associated stories may be all that’s left to prove that they even existed? Questions then arise in me that are fundamentally about the human condition: What lessons can we learn from these people and their experience - fellow human beings who lived 100 years before us, in circumstances even more challenging than our own? If I consider that in another 100 years, researchers might be sitting at a desk and pondering photos of me and my family, reflecting on the lives we perhaps lived – might I now choose to live mine differently? What legacy would you choose to leave?
As the Second World War drew on numerous other nations entered the conflict, both with and against Britain: Britain formally declared war on Finland, Hungary and Romania on 7 December 1941, the same day as Japan entered the war with the attack on Pearl Harbour; more countries joined the war as time went by. These new entries into the conflict made enemy aliens out of thousands of foreign nationals living in Britain, enemy aliens whom the government believed needed to be controlled. The way these people were dealt with by the government can tell us much about how the final stages of the internment process unfolded in Britain, particularly Wiltshire, and about everyday life for foreigners during the war.
In Wiltshire after the summer of 1940 the aliens who most concerned the police were Romanians. On 8 November 1940 the Home Office issued a letter to all British police forces outlining that in the event of war with Romania, any Romanians in Britain would automatically become enemy aliens, at which point the government planned intern those who were male and between the ages of 16 and 65. We don’t know exactly how many Romanians were living in Wiltshire at this time, but it wasn’t many. According to a census undertaken by the police in March 1942, out of a total of 624 aliens living in Wiltshire there were only six Romanians, two men and four women.
On 12 November the police in Wiltshire drew up a list of names of male Romanians in the county who were to be interned under these orders. They were a 31-year old living in Swindon, and a 16-year old living in West Lavington. In a note at the end of the report the police recorded that “both are physically fit”, meaning that they were not exempt from internment due to poor health. The Home Office had asked the police to keep this list continually updated, and on 13 February 1941 the older man’s name was removed and replaced by another 18-year old living in Hullavington, also described as ‘physically fit’.
These lists present us with something of a puzzle: the Arandora Star was sunk in July 1940, resulting in a public outcry against mass internment and supposedly the government’s abandonment of the policy. Yet here we have evidence that police in Wiltshire, on the orders of the Home Office, were actively maintaining a list of people eligible for mass internment as late as February 1941. The reality is that the government’s change of internment policy was only a very gradual process, one that was set in motion by the sinking of the Arandora Star but not one that was completed quickly.
The conservation department have recently undertaken the conservation treatment of a bust of Alfred Williams.
Owned by the Swindon Museum and Art Gallery the bust has links to two prominent Swindonian artists. The bust is of Alfred Williams who worked for Great Western Railway in Swindon for many years. In his spare time he looked to improve his knowledge learning languages including Latin and Greek, reading the classics and learning about the natural world around him. He started writing in his early twenties and published a number of works, both poetry and prose, throughout his lifetime leading to him becoming known as ‘the hammerman poet’.
The creator of the bust is Swindonian artist Carleton Attwood. Although Attwood worked in many more traditional materials, this bust is made from moulded concrete. Some of his other well known public commissions are “Golden Lion” in Regent Street and “The Watchers” at Toothill Village Centre.
The conservation of the object has been undertaken to improve the condition of the bust so that it can be placed on display. Over the years a layer of dust and dirt had built up on the surface of the bust, as well as it being subjected to graffiti in the past.
The joy of working at the History Centre is that every day is a learning day with the added pleasure of discovering treasure!
My latest magical tour through the archives has taken me back to one of the most turbulent and important times in our history – the English civil wars, the rule of Oliver Cromwell and the fight to restore the monarchy.
I was hooked the moment a beautiful chancery document from 1655 appeared in our office. Archivist Steve Hobbs dug out the document for our recent open day and it had not just one, but two remarkable features: a superb portrait of Oliver Cromwell and a complete Commonwealth Seal showing parliament on the obverse (front) and a map of the Commonwealth – England, Wales and Ireland – on the reverse.
The illuminated document (2057/D4/81) is part of the Wilton House archive and relates to the estate of the Earl of Pembroke. I was not too concerned with the content (although it was in English as opposed to Latin). It was the portrait and seal that drew me in to a fascinating period in our history and opened up all sorts of questions about how power and authority are conveyed through images as well as words. Here I was, handling (very carefully) a 361-year-old seal and looking at a contemporary portrait of Oliver Cromwell, the ruler of an English republic!
I would have been happy if this journey into 17th century Wiltshire had stopped there. But it didn’t – it was just the beginning of a voyage of discovery that took me to documents written by a condemned man, heartfelt letters from his wife to Cromwell and then back to a document signed by a king who lost his head.
As the education officer here at the History Centre I look for ways our archives can support learning for all ages. I mentioned the Cromwell portrait and seal of 1655 to an historian friend who has been teaching the English civil wars and interregnum for 20 years. She responded immediately with two words – Penruddock’s Rebellion.
I have to confess that Penruddock and his rebellion had passed me by (my areas of expertise are the 20th century, early medieval and pre-history), and I felt somewhat shamefaced to discover that this short-lived but significant event began in my hometown Salisbury.
So off I went to fill this rather glaring gap in my historical knowledge and was rewarded with a fascinating story and a treasure-trove of documents from our archive and John Penruddock himself. The story is one of plot and intrigue, of secret (or not so secret) societies, and of paying the ultimate price for ones beliefs.
By the end of 1939 and the early part of 1940 most of the 70,000 ‘aliens’ – immigrants – living in Britain had been sent before a tribunal which assessed their loyalty to Britain, after which less than 600 were classed as high threats to British national security and imprisoned, usually as a result membership of a Nazi organisation. This relatively tolerant policy was to change dramatically in May 1940.
Between the outbreak of war and early summer of 1940 the military situation of Britain and its allies had gone from relatively optimistic, to precarious, to potentially disastrous. The Norwegian Campaign had been a failure, France and the Low Countries had been invaded and overrun, the British Expeditionary Force had been trapped and nearly destroyed at Dunkirk, and a German invasion attempt seemed highly likely. To make matters worse, Italy joined the war against Britain on 10 June 1940.
Nationally, this sudden change in the outlook of the war exacerbated already simmering anti-alien tensions. It was not thought possible that the Germans could overrun France and Belgium so quickly under normal circumstances – that they had collapsed so soon was taken as proof that they had been undermined from within by German agents posing as immigrants. Combined with Britain’s difficult military situation these (unfounded) accusations led to a hysteria in which any alien, even those previously classed as loyal, was seen as a potential traitor. The government responded to this panic by ordering the arrest of all enemy aliens: when discussing what to do about Italians living in Britain, Winston Churchill is said to have demanded that the police “collar the lot!”.
The files of the Wiltshire Constabulary here at the History Centre show how this mounting hysteria gripped the county. On 28 May 1940 the Chief Constables of England and Wales wrote to the Home Office to say that: "It is not felt that the slightest reliance can be placed even on those aliens who have produced the most excellent credentials and whose conduct has hitherto been apparently innocuous, as it seems reasonable to expect that that any enemy agent ... will be extremely circumspect until the time comes for him to take action."
What’s interesting about this letter is the way that the language used to describe aliens living in Britain had changed since September 1939. Whereas at the start of the war aliens were deemed innocent unless specific evidence of disloyalty was found, by late May 1940 the police were suggesting that aliens should be assumed guilty of subversion unless proven otherwise. The best response to this, the security services felt, was simply to arrest all enemy aliens in Britain: “under the present circumstances the County Chief Constables feel that the only safe plan is to intern every enemy alien”.
The effects of this suspicion were soon felt in Wiltshire. On 29 April 1940, the Home Office wrote to Wiltshire Police instructing them to begin preparations to deal with Italians employed in sensitive locations within the county; in the event of hostilities between Britain and Italy these people were to be off immediately on receipt of a coded Home Office telegram. In response, the police began to draw up lists of all Italians then in Wiltshire; police records here at the History Centre show that 17 Italians were identified, 5 men and 12 women, giving their names, addresses and occupations.
"My own life has been rather like a kaleidoscope", writes Matilda Talbot in her autobiography. For somebody who experienced the two world wars at first hand, travelled in three continents, and went on to unexpectedly inherit Lacock Abbey, her life was truly kaleidoscopic; a constantly changing sequence of patterns punctuated by bursts of colour.
It was perhaps due to her natural flair for languages, combined with her kind and down-to-earth manner, that many of these colourful experiences came about. She readily accepted invitations to visit old friends and new acquaintances in far-off places, sometimes travelling with her family, but never fearful of travelling independently. When she did travel on her own, she was never alone, striking up friendships with passengers and crew, on-board boats as she tried out her language skills.
Language learning was to become an important element when preparing for a trip abroad and she often came up with enterprising ideas in order make progress. Before spending Christmas in 1908 with Lord and Lady Methuen in their new home in South Africa, she went to the “Dutch Church in Austin Friars” to find a teacher: "I found a verger and asked him if he knew any lady of the congregation might be willing to give me some lessons in Dutch”. From there, her studies continued on deck, which must have made for a curious sight, for she and a new lady acquaintance sat down to read from a "big Dutch Bible" that she had brought with her from Lacock: "We sat together on the deck and I tried to talk, and she read to me. The captain was highly amused, when he found us reading the Psalms, verse about, in Dutch, but she really was a good help".
Earlier on she had turned her attention to Scandinavia after delivering some illustrated papers at the Scandinavian Sailors' Home, near the West India Dock, where she met a young Norwegian girl, Fredrike Betzmann. A friendship developed between the two young women and they met regularly in London, later holidaying together, first in Scotland and then in Norway. While Fredrike perfected her in English, Matilda and her sister Mary made good progress in Norwegian. "For nearly a month we stayed with Fredrike's family and were soon able to talk Norwegian quite fluently. […] Some of our pleasantest expeditions were in rowing boats up the little inlets of the fjord, going ashore and picnicking where we liked. Looking back, it seems to me that every afternoon was fine".
Besides Dutch and Norwegian, she understood French from an early age which she continued at a day school in London: "We always talked French to our French nursemaid, Emilie, and also to my mother, who spoke French as readily as English". During World War I she put these skills into practice when working for L'Œuvre de la goutte de café which ran a canteen for convalescent soldiers near Paris, and then later at Bussang in the Vosges where troops went to the trenches or returned from them.
A natural talent for languages was helped greatly by her indomitable spirit. While staying in Scotland in February 1925, she writes a letter in Italian despite of her deficiencies in the language: "Today Miss A asked me to help her write a letter in Italian: She recently received a letter from an Italian but still hasn't replied. I tried but it was awful. It's hard: Now everything I think is in Russian" . Undeterred and determined to help her friend, she goes on to explain that with the help of an Italian book and some difficulties, she was able to finish the letter in half an hour and give it to a "quite contented Miss A", who could copy it out in her own hand.
Out of all the languages she learned it was certainly Russian which required her to draw the most on that indomitable spirit. "[Learning Russian] was like paying court to a beautiful woman and capricious woman: she is maddeningly unreasonable and one is furious with her but all the same one cannot cease making love to her".
Although she never visited Russia or the Soviet Union, she learned the language to a high level. She describes the Estonian town of Pechory on the Russian border which she visited twice during the 1930s: "One day we went by train to the extreme south-east of Estonia, to a place called Pechora. There was a monastery there with a wonderful church. […] Everyone in Pechora spoke Russian and very few people spoke Estonian, but the notices were printed in both languages. […] We had a look round the monastery and went into the church for part of the service, but I could not understand a word for the Orthodox Service is always said in old Slavonic".
Also, while in Estonia she experienced a real steam bath where she is beaten with birch twigs to stimulate the skin. On leaving the bathhouse she notes "We had lots of little birch leaves clinging to us which had to be rinsed off. The Russians have a saying about the kind of person one cannot shake off: 'She clings to me like bath foilage'".