“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.
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.
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 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.
On a recent History Centre village interpretation day course Claire Skinner and Mike Marshman led a party around the village of Box. Besides the Roman villa site, medieval church and many 17th and 18th century buildings they noted, near the bottom of Quarry Hill, an industrial site. In the first half of the 19th century there was a tallow chandler that made candles here. When Brunel’s Box Tunnel was being excavated and built for the Great Western Railway line between London and Bristol the Vezey family at the factory were providing one ton of candles every week for 2½ years to lighten the darkness for the workmen underground. The factory continued to make candles and soap until 1930.
Nowadays the factory sign reads, ‘J. Price (Bath) Ltd’, with no indication as to what is made. From the 1930s the business became Box Rubber Mills until the 1950s and were retreading the motor car tyres that some of us remember from our early car driving days. One of the other products of this family firm was tennis balls and they are now the only manufacturer of these in Europe; you can get them in various colours and with your name printed on them if you wish. Also made is a wide range of other products including squash balls, skittles balls, handballs and Eton fives balls, besides rubber parts for trailers, equipment for the navy, and rubber mouldings for industry.
Now that summer fades away and crisp/wet autumn arrives, one would expect the museum staff in Wiltshire to take advantage of the impending winter months and retreat into their archives until spring. However, there is still much to see and visit throughout the county – indeed an intrepid traveller could embark on a grand circular tour this weekend, starting at Royal Wootton Bassett, then heading south west towards Trowbridge, due south to Mere and return via Market Lavington.
The museum at Royal Wootton Bassett is an iconic site in the town. Half-timbered, supported on fifteen pillars and dating from 1690, the former town hall was a gift from Lawrence Hyde, MP, (later the Earl of Rochester) to the citizens and incorporated a store room and a lock up or Blind House for drunks and other undesirables, used before local police stations contained their own cells. The building has seen many uses, including a school and a courtroom. After extensive restoration in 1889 the town library was based in the town hall and since 1971 it has housed the museum.
Currently, the museum is marking the closure of the Wootton Bassett railway station back in 1965 with an exhibition and marvellous scale model depicting the station in the 1960’s. Visit the slide show telling the story of the station and its various buildings and its early links with Isambard Kingdom Brunel. Look at railway life through the eyes of a signalman and discover the impact of the Swindon rail works on Wootton Bassett.
Royal Wootton Bassett Museum is open every Wednesday and Saturday (10-12).
Travelling across the county we reach the administrative centre of Trowbridge and its wonderful museum which is situated in The Shires Shopping Centre. The museum collection covers Trowbridge and outlying villages and contains a multitude of artefacts relating to the history of the town including its past industries and notable townspeople, one of which was Sir Isaac Pitman, developer of phonetic shorthand. Trowbridge Museum is located on the second floor of Salters Mill, the town’s last working woollen mill which closed in 1982. The cloth industry was a huge factor in the town’s development and in 1820 the place was nicknamed the ‘Manchester of the West’ with over twenty cloth-producing factories - the museum possesses one of only five Spinning Jennies left in the world.
The other day we received a visit from a gentleman who was a direct descendent of Sarah Purse of Wootton Bassett. Now Sarah is the lady after whom Salley Pussey’s Inn at Wickfield on the outskirts of Wootton Bassett was renamed in the 1970s and he was interested in her family. Sarah was born to William and Anne Garlick and baptised on 16th April 1815. She had at least five brothers, Joseph (1803), Thomas (1808), William (1812), Mark (1818), and Matthew (1821); four Biblical names with a boy named after his father in the middle. She had two sisters, Ann (1806) and Jane (1829) and father William was a cordwainer (shoemaker).
The 2014 Winter Olympics will soon be upon us, and as we'll be cheering on Pewsey’s very own Shelley Rudman, I thought I would bring to light another of Wiltshire’s pioneering sportswomen. Fanny Williams played for Swindon Town ladies football team in the 1920s. Ladies football developed during World War I when the employees of munitions factories formed teams to play each other. The Football Association banned ladies football on their grounds but the English Ladies Football Association was formed in 1921. A national Challenge Cup competition was begun in 1925. Fanny’s boots are kept at the Swindon Museum and Art Gallery.
Wiltshire can also be said to possess some famous athletics stars of the past. Walter George was reported to be the finest runner of the Victorian era, with a ‘phenomenal’ performance in 1886. He became a ‘national institution’ and was the sporting world’s very first superstar. His method of training involved brine baths and a ‘100-up’ exercise. He also enjoyed beer drinking and smoking, but still managed to produce a new ‘miracle mile’ that lasted for 29years. He was born in 1858 and suffered from asthma, croup and St. Vitus’ dance as a child. He lived in Calne; his father was a pharmacist whose clients came from many parts of Wiltshire. As a child he was encouraged to get lots of fresh air and went off running for an hour or two, especially around the area from Cherhill to Morgan’s Hill with the white horse and newly erected Lansdowne Monument. It was at Lillie Bridge on August 23rd, 1886 where Walter smashed the mile record by four seconds. One spectator stated that silence prevailed whilst waiting for the time to be displayed onto the board. Then a roar went up ‘Such a roar thrills me now as I write this... thousands broke loose from every quarter and rushed madly across the ground towards the victor’. It was the fastest mile in history at four minutes twelve and three quarters. Walter’s brother Alfred was also a title winning athlete who later managed the British team at the 1924 Olympics.