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?”
As shown by one of this year’s Explore Your Archive themes #Archivecatwalk ‘the history of fashion is the history of people’. Archives can provide a unique insight into the fashion of the past from sources such as inventories, wills, household accounts, bills, photographs, drawings, magazines and periodicals, diaries and more. Sometimes they can provide evidence where little else has survived. I’ve picked a few examples from our collections for this blog, but there are many more out there!
Inventories, wills and bills
Inventories can provide evidence for the garments and quantities of clothing in households of varied status. Textiles and clothing are not only revealed through bequests in wills but in the given occupations of testators including clothiers, cloth-workers, glovers, haberdashers, hat makers, draper, cordwainers, weavers etc.
Bills and accounts give us dated evidence of prices paid for all sorts of clothing and textiles, such as this example in the papers of sisters Miss Mary Codrington of Walcot in Bath (died 9 March 1754) and Miss Dorothy Codrington (died at Bath in 1768).
We also hold a detailed bill for Lady Elizabeth Seymour dating to 1669 which is mostly for clothing. It includes white and coloured worsted stockings; fabrics including tabby, lutestring, satin, sarsnett, venetian, cambric, farindin, avignion, parrigone, tifiney; laced shoes, and a “pare of golosus”; damask and jessemy powder. Rather pleasingly it also includes an entry for 8 pounds of that most essential of items ‘iockaletta’ (no prizes for guessing!).
Women in the mid-17th century often wore low cut bodices laced down the front with ribbons and coming to a deep point, a linen collar (which was sometimes transparent) ¾ length sleeve with turn ups of lace. They would have worn gowns and petticoats (which are also listed in Lady Seymour’s bill). There was also a fashion for adding ‘patches’ to the face which satirist John Bulwer described as the ‘vain custom of spotting their faces out of affectation of a mole, to set off their beauty’. The shapes could vary from spots, to stars, crescents, or even ‘a coach and horses cut out of black ‘court plaster’. Amazingly this was a fashion which lasted for more than 50 years.
For men the custom of wearing a periwig was adopted following the King appearing in one in 1663. Samuel Pepys recorded his wearing of a periwig in his diary, and is seemingly a little disappointed not to have provoked more interest: “I found that my coming in a periwig did not prove so strange as I was afraid it would for I thought that all the church would presently have set their eyes upon me” The fashion lasted for nearly 100 years, although the use of powder did not begin until the latter part of the 17th century.
Nearly 100 years later, a 1741 inventory of the Earl of Ailesbury’s clothes in London and at Tottenham includes suits of cloth in various colours, flowered crimson velvet, bargen, camelet, flowered silk, 4 tied wigs and 3 bobs, silk and thread stockings, 4 swords, buttons, shoe and knee buckles in gold, silver, pinchbeck and enamel.
Magazines and periodicals:
In a collection of family papers we have 11 copies of ‘The Ladies Cabinet’ magazine covering fashion, music and romance. This 1835 edition includes an advert for ‘French and English Corsets’ with the Patent Black which is ‘instantly unlaced in cases of sudden indisposition’. There is also the Elastic Stay which prevents pressure on the chest in the case of pulmonary complaints and the Gestation Stay, which gives necessary comfort and support to ladies during pregnancy. The corset had come back into fashion after the earlier ‘Empire’ gown of the end of the 18th century. The pursuit of this style led to some extraordinary effort; Laver notes in ‘A Concise History of Costume’ (p162) that in one corset advert a mother is advised to make her daughter lie face down on the floor so she might place a foot in the small of her back to obtain the necessary purchase on the laces.
In slightly less restricted attire, a 1928 magazine snippet shows the remarkable speed record-holder Mrs Bruce (see our Principal Archivist’s blog on some of her favourite archives to learn more about Mary Bruce’s extraordinary story). Post war, fashion began to pick up again, and the flared skirt which had lasted throughout the war was replaced by a more cylindrical ‘barrel’ line with shorter skirts (knee length). This can be seen in this sketch where she is described as ‘a picture of practical smartness in her redingote of beige and grey tweed. With it she wears tan gloves and a felt hat to match’.