“As sure as fate I will burn down all your house and your farm things, and no one shall keep me from it…” This horrific threat was made in March 1845 by a 30 year old woman from Codford St Peter, with the unusual name of Praxell Alford Hinwood. She addressed these words to the prosecutor at the Wiltshire Assizes, where she was on trial for the felony of writing a threatening letter. The upshot of the trial was a sentence to transportation to Tasmania, or Van Diemen’s Land, for ten years. So how did Praxell come to this unhappy fate, and what happened to her next?
Praxell was born on 29 May 1815 and christened on 15 August 1815 at Codford St Mary church. She was one of the daughters of William, a labourer and afterwards a blacksmith, of Codford St Peter, and his wife Sarah. She had six siblings and her eldest brother was also a blacksmith. Her unusual name is possibly a corruption of ‘Praxis’, a Classical name meaning “Action”, which is highly appropriate in the light of her life thereafter! At some point in her childhood she learnt to read and write – possibly locally at a day school in Codford St Peter, or at a Sunday School. (There were Sunday schools associated with the Codford Congregational Chapel which opened in 1811, which would have taught reading and writing as well as scripture.)
In the 1841 census we find her living in the Warminster Union workhouse together with her illegitimate one year old son, Francis John Hinwood. Warminster Union workhouse was built in 1836 on a site in Sambourne, south of the town, as a place where up to 300 paupers from local parishes could be placed to carry out hard work such as breaking stones. This was designed under the ‘Poor Law Amendment Act’ of 1834 to be a deterrent from becoming a burden to their parish in terms of claiming assistance known as poor relief. Segregation of the sexes resulting in splitting up of families meant that many people hated and feared the workhouse in equal measure. For agricultural labourers in particular, who were used to being in work on a seasonal basis and using ‘outdoor relief’ from the parish to help them during the winter when work was sparse, the idea of the workhouse seemed unfair, irrational and the source of much anger. Praxell clearly shared this anger, as her later actions reveal.
Rebellion was in the air more widely at this time - in 1843 the Rebecca Riots were in full flow in rural Wales, and there were Chartist uprisings elsewhere. In June 1843 Praxell wrote a letter to the Master of Warminster workhouse, Benjamin Merchant, as follows: ‘Bloody Merchant, I have sent you a few lines to inform you that sooner or later shall be your blood or ours for there are more than two window breakers on the look out for you, so you must look out for we are determined to do it and you shall not walk out in Warminster streets but a very few more times for you may depend on it shall be your blood or ours, and we don’t care for none of you[r] damn’d police nor you neither for it is time the Devil had you and he shall, for you are not fit to live on the earth nor you shall not damn’d purse-gut bloody bugger, and that is your name, and that is what you are, so mind what is said as a thief in the night sudden destruction shall come upon you” Signed: two symbols of rakes.
I find the use of “we...” interesting here – was Praxell the ringleader of a group of discontented inmates or was she acting alone?
The sentence was six month’s imprisonment for Praxell at Fisherton Gaol although the Quarter Sessions archives show she spent the time in Devizes Prison.
Imprisonment did not crush Praxell’s spirits, and she was up to her old tricks again in Feb 1844 when she broke some workhouse windows, although she was discharged for this crime. The Guardians’ minute book for 6 May 1844 (H15/110/7) simply states that they had received a letter from the Women’s Penitentiary at Bath refusing to admit Praxell, with no comment on what she’s done to deserve admission. Then in October 1844 in the Quarter Sessions Calendar of Prisoners (A1/125/70) we find her back in Devizes Prison for two months, for “misconduct in a workhouse.” I had a look in the Guardians’ minute book for this period but I couldn’t find anything explicit – the entry for 2 Dec 1844 states that owing to the “continued insubordination of the inmates at the workhouse” a special meeting was to be held. At that meeting the fact that “so many women having scaled the walls of the workhouse with the Union clothes” had taken place was raised, but no names were given, frustratingly. The answer from the Guardians was to put spikes on top of the walls!
Four years ago I wrote a blog about the importance of archives, and I felt, with International Archives Day today (Saturday 9 June), it was timely to revisit this topic. Archives are often newsworthy, but not always for good reasons - I was saddened by the recent story on the BBC News website of adopted children in Ireland with falsified birth certificates. As the story shows, archives are meant to be authentic records of the past, vital for discovering our history, but they can be subject to human manipulation and distortion, like anything else. ‘Fake news’ is nothing new. Last week one of my colleagues informed me that a famous photograph showing an aeroplane over Stonehenge during the First World War is probably not genuine but a pre-Photoshop analogue amalgam of two separate photographs. I felt quite cheated! However, it is important to recognize that ‘fake’ archives are the exception not the rule, whatever some politicians – and countries - might have us believe. As a custodian of archives I think it’s important to reassure the public that archivists as a profession abide by a code of conduct and strive to behave ethically.
An archive is a record which has been selected for permanent preservation, and so it doesn’t need to be hundreds of years old but could have been created two months ago, two weeks ago, even two days ago. The key thing is that it has some kind of evidential value for the future, going above and beyond the purposes it was originally created for. One of our oldest documents - a charter for Stanley Abbey dating from c1151 - is evidence that such a body existed, and tells us what lands it once held, lands which are now owned by other people who can trace their descent over the centuries with the use of other archives such as title deeds and maps. It matters as part of the wider jigsaw of the history of Wiltshire’s communities. The format of such archives is irrelevant. The Council minutes being created electronically and published on Wiltshire Council website today are just as important as the large, leather-bound volumes in our strong rooms dating back to the formation of the Council in 1888. These archives matter because they act as crucial evidence of the decisions of the local authority which affect the lives of thousands of people, from planning and rights of way, to the care of children and vulnerable adults. Without publicly available minutes recording such decisions, local people would be unable to defend themselves against the local authority, businesses or individuals behaving in a corrupt, unlawful or self-serving manner. Bishop Desmond Tutu once stated: ‘Archives are the bulwark of a free society’ (speech by Tutu at a CITRA conference, Oct 2003.) You only have to look at the way archives and historical artefacts are often targeted during war, to see the justification for this. Evidence that could be used against an aggressive or inhumane regime is conveniently swept away, so that the narratives which prevail are those of the victor. Those who think this would never happen in the UK should look again at the earlier Hillsborough public inquiries where redaction was used by the police to distort the narrative of what happened – thankfully the unredacted records survived in the archives and were able to be used by the Hillsborough Independent Panel which published its report in 2014.
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.
As The Tour de France has just finished and we can start celebrating the success of Chris Froome, now twice winner of the competition and the first British man to accomplish this, I thought readers might be getting withdrawal symptoms. So I have dipped into our archives to see what they might say about Wiltshire and Swindon’s connection to cycle racing. Cycling fever most recently came to Wiltshire in 2014 when the Tour of Britain passed through the county, including British riders Sir Bradley Wiggins and Mark Cavendish. There are also many clubs and individuals who put on the lycra and take to the road, which puts me to shame as I can barely pump the tyres up on my bike these days. But our earliest references go back certainly to the 1890s.
An illustration of the opening of the Trowbridge Cycle Club cycle track appears in the Kings Quarterly magazine, 1891, no. 8, for seemingly no other reason that the illustrator happened to be just passing through. However, it gives us a useful starting date and it is accompanied by illustrations of the committee men, who were Mr Mackay, President; Mr DP Wise, Vice President; and two honorary secretaries, Mr George Rose and Mr Ernest Williams (presumably a mistake, where one of them was Treasurer). The Swindon Cycle Club was also established at least during the 1890’s, as in 1897 they submitted plans to extend their club building in Dixon Street, New Swindon, even though the building already contained everything a club needed. It included an assembly room, a kitchen and a cellar, a skittles alley and, of course most essential of all back then, a bar.
The Swindon Wheeler’s Cycle Club was established in 1923 for a potted history go to this link http://swindonwheelers.wix.com/swindonwheelers . At the History Centre we are delighted to be the custodian of the club’s archives, which date back to 1924. The club was established to “promote road-racing, touring and social club runs.” The subscription was 4 shillings and activities included a run to Cycle Show in Olympia; a charabanc outing to Weston Super Mare; and, perhaps this should have been earlier, a map reading competition. Rules included that when road riding, “the captain shall have complete command and no rider shall pass without his permission”; with two sections being formed – a fast section and a ‘social’ section; while during time-trials “every competitor must carry a bell on the handlebars of his machine” (there does not seem to be any references at this stage to women riders).