Wiltshire at War: Community Stories is a five year Heritage Lottery Funded project, aiming to discover, explore and share stories about Wiltshire’s response to the First World War. Since 2014 we’ve travelled the county collecting stories of the amazing men and women who were affected in some way by the war a hundred years ago, such as ‘Fiesty Aunty Olive and the Women’s RAF’, ‘Young Freddy Butler – from the farm to the Royal Flying Corps’ and the ‘Soldiers and Sailors Free and Easy Club’.
While we’ve written about the project before, it’s worth taking another look as we’ve just launched the fascinating fourth exhibition – ‘Keeping the Home Fires Burning’. This explores how the war affected everyday life in Wiltshire, including the new roles taken on by women, rationing, daylight saving and the refugees who fled to England from Belgium.
The new exhibition was launched on Friday 3rd March at Athelstan Museum in Malmesbury. A large crowd gathered for the event and following the official opening of the exhibition, musician and singer Louise Jordan took to the stage. Louise spent a year researching and writing songs about the remarkable women involved in World War One, who are often overlooked in conventional histories.
The title of Louise’s show ‘No Petticoats Here’ is inspired by Sir Arthur Sloggett’s words to Dr Elsie Inglis. Elsie graduated from the Edinburgh School of Medicine for Women in 1892 and started working with the poor in Edinburgh. Through this work she became aware of the needs of greater rights for women and was an active suffragette. When war broke out, Elsie offered her medical knowledge and expertise, coming up with the idea of treating wounded soldiers from mobile hospital units, run entirely by women. When she presented the idea she was told by Sir Arthur:
‘My good lady, go home and sit still. We don’t want any petticoats here’.
Not to be discouraged, she set about raising the funds to set up hospitals and field units across Europe, staffed by over 1000 women, often in dangerous situations. A truly inspirational woman whose contribution deserves to be remembered.
Louise weaved beautiful melodies through the fascinating tales of these women, with plenty of audience participation along the way! We learnt about many incredible women including engineer Hertha Ayrton who amongst other achievements invented a fan to clear poison gas from the trenches, Louise de Bettignes a French spy employed by the British army and Elsie Knocker and Mairi Chisholm, keen motorcyclists who joined Dr Munro’s Flying Ambulance Corps on the front line.
Also celebrated was one brave woman who is already familiar to Wiltshire at War – Dorothy Lawrence. In 1915 Dorothy was a teenager living in the Cathedral Close in Salisbury, with ambitions of becoming a war correspondent for the newspapers. Determined to report on the fighting in Europe she set out from England by bicycle, heading for the Somme. With a uniform borrowed from soldiers she met along the way she posed as Sapper Denis Smith, spending 10 nights on the frontline before giving herself up.
It’s been a year since I first started working in Wiltshire – how time flies! Working as part of the Conservation and Museum Advisory Service (CMAS), I work with museums across the county giving support to staff and volunteers on a whole range of topics such as Accreditation, collections, exhibitions, audience development and fundraising.
Over the last twelve months I’ve been getting to know Wiltshire and visiting as many museums and heritage centres as possible. Having moved from South Wales, a very different part of the world with a different story, it’s been great to explore the county and find out more about it. With over forty fascinating museums, amazing archaeology and heritage sites, I’ve been spoilt for choice and I’ve really enjoyed finding out about the history of the area.
Driving around I frequently come across sites such as Silbury Hill, Stonehenge, Avebury and West Kennet. It’s a little treat every time I see them but it’s been many years since I studied archaeology. I was struggling to remember what I’d learnt about these special places – but where better to find out more than at a museum?! Salisbury Museum and Wiltshire Museum in Devizes both have internationally important archaeology collections from the area and are a great place to discover the story of Wiltshire going back over half a million years and see the evidence from the earliest humans living in the area, including beautiful gold jewellery, finely made pottery, coin hoards and everyday tools. What a great introduction to the history of the area and a way to help me understand the things I’d seen out and about!
When I came to Wiltshire I knew the archaeology would be amazing – it’s something the county is famous for around the world. However, there are many other stories that I hadn’t heard about and the ‘Wiltshire’s Story in 100 Objects’ project was a good starting point to help me find out more about them. One hundred objects from Wiltshire’s museums have been carefully chosen to interpret the history of the county from 10,000 BC to the present day. It gives a great overview of the diversity of collections that Wiltshire’s museums collect, care for and interpret.
Since I started at the Wiltshire and Swindon History Centre in November 2015, the main project I have been working on has been Wiltshire at War: Community Stories. I would like to let you know what the project has achieved so far, what we would still like to do, and how you can get involved.
What is Wiltshire at War: Community Stories? Wiltshire at War: Community Stories aims to bring people together from across Wiltshire to discover, explore and share stories about Wiltshire’s response to the First World War. It is supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund.
What has been achieved so far? During 2014, enthusiastic people from museums and heritage organisations were trained to carry out oral history interviews and community engagement sessions relating to gathering stories about the First World War. Throughout 2014 and 2015 (and now into 2016) research has been carried out by museums, history societies, and individuals from all over Wiltshire who have donated the stories to the Wiltshire at War project. In January 2015 the Wiltshire at War website went live. Do visit the website and explore this growing archive of stories.
The Call to Arms, the first of the five exhibitions, launched in February 2015 and is currently on display in the Springfield Campus Library, Corsham, until 3 March 2016. The theme focuses on the soldiers called up to fight, and the preparations for war in Wiltshire. The second exhibition, Wiltshire Does Its Bit, launched in September 2015, and is currently on display at Chippenham Museum, until 27 February 2016. The theme focuses on the contributions of ordinary people to the war effort at home in Wiltshire. Both these exhibitions are currently touring Wiltshire, and are available to hire, free of charge.
There are four identical schools’ exhibitions that have launched, are touring, and can be booked free of charge. They come with a handling kit to bring the exhibition to life, and complimentary teaching resources for key stages 1-3 are available on the website. There were library talks in 2015 from the likes of Stewart Binns and Elizabeth Speller, in Corsham, Salisbury, Warminster, and Mere, and they have been accompanied by a comprehensive book display.
Just before Christmas I was invited to an afternoon at Chippenham Museum to celebrate the contribution volunteers have made to the Museum over the past year.
I listened with great interest and a growing sense of wonder as Curator Melissa Barnett thanked all those who had given their time for free, speaking about all the work that had gone on throughout the year and the projects and events volunteers had been involved in.
Working with a small team of paid staff, the efforts of the volunteers are vital in creating an active and bustling community based Museum. They have a group of around 75 people who give their time to help in all areas, both front of house and behind the scenes. Amongst other things volunteers welcome visitors on the reception desk, carry out educational activities and workshops, answer enquiries, research and document the collections and work on special events. They also provide an important link with the local community, ensuring that the Museum provides what people in the town want.
As I reflected on the afternoon, it struck me that Chippenham isn’t the only museum in Wiltshire with a vibrant and hard-working group of volunteers. Having recently started working as Museum Officer for Wiltshire Council, I’ve been busy visiting many of the museums across the county and meeting the people who run them. Time and time again I’ve been mightily impressed by the levels of dedication, enthusiasm and expertise shown by the volunteers I’ve come across, including those here at Wiltshire and Swindon History Centre.
Last year we posted a blog about work we did to conserve Malmesbury’s historic fire pump for display. The pump is one of the largest items the museum owns and arranging a space suitable for it to be displayed in was not straight forward for the museum. For this reason the fire pump had to go back into storage whilst a display area was arranged for it. But recently I have been able to go back and help with putting the item on display.
The pump belongs to the Athelstan museum in Malmesbury but is too large to fit in their own store so it has been kept in a commercial storage facility in an old aircraft hangar. I met the curator at the storage site along with two members of the modern fire brigade who had volunteered to help move the object. It was interesting to hear their opinion on this piece of historic fire fighting equipment. In particular I learnt that that although I had been calling it a fire engine it should in fact be called a fire appliance or pump. Apparently the modern fire service does not use the term fire engine at all. In the case of the appliance I had worked on it should not be called an engine as it does not have any sort of engine or motor. Its pump was powered by people pushing its handles up and down.
In late August this year CMAS conservators were privileged to work on an exciting project to conserve a 19th century fire engine prior to display at Athelstan Museum, Malmesbury. The fire engine is constructed mainly from wood, which has been brightly painted in blue and red. A large trough houses a central pump in a wooden box the whole engine sits on four chunky wooden wheels reinforced with iron tyres. Folding handles extend from the body of the engine which would be used to pump the water from its source through the machine and onto the fire. Measuring 2 metres long x 1.4 metres high the fire engine is of an imposing size. Although it is still relatively easy to manoeuvre the engine with a small team of people the response times would still have been much longer than we are now used to!