This is a sad blog to be writing, as I’m writing this the day before I leave the History Centre for pastures new. I thought it would be a good way of rounding up what I’ve done over the last four years.
I started at the Wiltshire and Swindon History Centre as a timid (?) newly qualified archivist, fresh from a course at University College London and all prepared to work a full time job and write my dissertation for my Masters in Archives and Records Management. I had got a job as the project archivist for the high-profile HLF funded project Lacock Unlocked, and started my project in June 2013 working with up to 25 volunteers and the Lacock community to catalogue, make accessible and promote the Lacock archives.
I was certainly thrown in at the deep end with the project – I remember having a very serious meeting with the Devizes U3A group, who knew the archive very well and had listed much of it prior to my arrival, and training volunteers on how to use the database and how to read old handwriting. I wouldn’t have had it any other way, however. I learnt a lot very quickly: I learnt how to manage volunteers, and also how to tackle a large and important archive. I had to do talks to the public, both at the History Centre and externally, about the Lacock archive.
Towards the end of the project I was luckily enough given the opportunity to stay on in a permanent role, joining the rest of the archives team in searchroom duty, accessioning, cataloguing, general talks and so on. It was wonderful to be part of this team, join the rota and have a variety of tasks which have taught me more about the local area. It also enabled me to keep working on the Lacock project, retaining many of the volunteers who even now are still coming in weekly to do work for the History Centre.
I have never made any secret of the fact that I am passionate about the archives of private schools. I wrote my Masters dissertation on the use of school archives and have volunteered in a range of them. So it was a wonderful surprise to be told by Claire Skinner that there was an uncatalogued school collection which I could work on if I wanted to. I grabbed the opportunity eagerly, and immersed myself for the next few months in the archives and history of the Godolphin School in Salisbury, whose archives had been deposited with us and needed cataloguing. I was able to visit the school to put the records in context, which was a great day out. I loved starting working on a collection from scratch, combining two separate deposits of material into one, and finding out so much about the school and its history at the same time. The Godolphin School collection is a wonderful one, combining business records of the school, staffing records, beautiful old photographs of staff and students, and headmistress’ diaries which are extremely interesting – like school log books. These are currently being indexed by a volunteer and will be a great resource for anyone whose family member studied or worked at the school.
Following Godolphin, I then started working on a collection within a collection. Steve Hobbs has been cataloguing the extensive Merriman collection (a solicitors’ firm based in Marlborough) for some time and thought it might be nice for me to work on part of it – a succinct series of material relating to the Popham family of Littlecote. This was an estate collection like Lacock, although a lot smaller, but was another great chance for me to get my teeth into something new and uncatalogued, and find out some really interesting things about local families and local areas. I was able to use my experience from Godolphin to catalogue the Popham archive in the most effective way possible (hopefully), not helped of course by the occasional addition tossed to me by Steve as he was perusing other boxes of Merriman material (I was able to toss some to him too, luckily). I had volunteers who had been working on Lacock material working through estate letters which helped me to allocated letters to the various different estates: the Popham family owned Littlecote as well as properties in Churchdown in Gloucestershire, Hunstrete in Somerset and Puckaster on the Isle of Wight, among others.
My next mini project was to work on the collection of the Moulton family of Bradford on Avon, and I have just completed this. It’s been a fascinating collection because as well as lots of deeds of Bradford and other places in Wiltshire, information on the business started by Stephen Moulton in the mid 19th century in Bradford and family papers, there are also many papers relating to other families, particularly the Greene family of Stratford-on-Avon whose daughter Beryl married John Coney Moulton in 1914. Her brother Downes Greene spent many years in Sarawak and we have lots of letters from him to his parents about his life there, which give a wonderful indication of life abroad in the early 20th century. There are also letters from World War One soldier Charles Eric Moulton, who was killed in 1915.
Other projects I have been involved in are: being the acquisitioning archivist for the Creative Wiltshire project, which has allowed me to advise on and catalogue archives of creative people in Wiltshire: namely Roger Leigh, Ken White, Penelope Ellis and the Pelham Puppets business based in Marlborough. The most extensive collection from this was that of Roger Leigh, whose many photographs of his sculptures make up an interesting archive alongside his early diaries, condolence letters and cards to his widow after his death in 1997, and a dream diary that he kept as a young boy which is just a wonderful example of the extent and detail of somebody’s imagination. Becoming involved in Creative Wiltshire also gave me the opportunity to speak at the Creative Histories conference in July this year, in Bristol, about how the project has helped access to archive and museum collections. It has been wonderful to see first-hand how many more archive collections and objects by creative people have been made available for the public as a result of the project.
Away from the practical archives work, I have also been getting involved in writing articles for Local History News, involved with the South West Region of the Archives and Records Association and attending the Fundraising for Archives course run by the National Archives, which has given me lots of ideas on how to raise money for archive services. I have attended lots of courses and conferences, spoken at some and organised others, and I can really safely say that I wouldn’t have done any of this were it not for the encouragement given me by the managers and staff at the History Centre who have given me opportunities to develop my own career, improve the service here, and benefit the development of archives in general.
As my Heritage Lottery Funded ‘Skills for the Future: Transforming Archives’ traineeship draws to a close, I find myself reflecting on all the new, unique and exciting experiences I’ve encountered over the past 10 months, which have made this time so memorable. My personal focus has been on learning and acquiring valuable skills to carry forward into a future career – and in this sense the traineeship has more than served its purpose. The fact that I’ve been able to undertake the journey surrounded by such kind, interesting and supportive people has been a bonus!
I still clearly remember the day I started at Wiltshire and Swindon History Centre. Completely new to the world of archives and heritage, I was briefed by the previous trainee, Jess, who provided me with tables, spreadsheets, logs and lists that she had kindly prepared to help me manage my day to day activities. (Jess is very good at this sort of thing). Despite nodding calmly in response to her, my internal state was one of sheer anxiety – ‘There’s so much to cram in!’. In hindsight, the year has been nothing but smooth, engaging and fun… there was really nothing for me to have worried about.
If you’ve read my previous posts about coming to the traineeship and some of the interesting insights I’ve had along the way, you’ll get a sense of all I was up to in those early days. In truth, the time hasn’t become any less busy! From attending a training week at the National Archives of Scotland to visiting the City of London Police Museum, with pit-stops at various digitisation conferences, fundraising training days, and of course, the (world-famous) Museum and Heritage show at Kensington’s Olympia.
Closer to home, I’ve continued my training in traditional archive skills, looking at the typical content and uses of education records, parish registers, manorial documents, wills and testaments, local government records, and even lunatic asylum records. Whilst learning about the latter with archivist Margaret Moles, I decided to conduct a small project, researching a name which had come up in a separate oral history interview I’d conducted. My interviewee had shared the story of his great aunt, who had suffered mental health issues in the 1920’s and was hospitalized at Roundway Mental Hospital, Devizes. Using what I’d learned, I traced the patient’s actual medical records from the time – with permission - and read about her day to day experiences at the hospital. I was able to learn about the nature of her condition, what her doctors had to say, and even glean some information about her relatives at that time. From there I sourced a book in our local studies library called ‘Down Pan’s Lane’, written by Philip Frank Steele, a historian fascinated by Roundway Hospital. This enabled me to get a sense of what life was like for patients at the time – from their food and sleep routines to gardening activities, and even the programme of entertainment laid on by medical staff! It was absolutely fascinating, and proved a valuable resource for putting this one lady’s personal story into a wider historical context.
Firstly let me introduce myself, and then I’ll tell you about what I’ve been up to over the last couple of weeks. My name is Jessica Smith and I've just started a year-long 'Transforming Archives' traineeship (part of the Heritage Lottery Fund Skills for the Future programme), through the National Archives (TNA), but based here at the History Centre. I’ve taken over from the previous trainee Matt, who I know did great work, and wrote quite a few blogs while he was here! The focus of my traineeship is Outreach and Engagement, and Collection Development. Large parts of my year will involve training (unsurprisingly), in a lot of aspects of archives management, both in-house training and some offsite courses. I'll also be undertaking an undergraduate module in Archives Outreach and Engagement through the University of Dundee, as well working here at the History Centre on whatever tasks they give me to do, so there’s a lot to keep me busy! The two projects I’ll be mainly working on are Lacock Unlocked (continuing where Matt left off) and the Wiltshire at War project; both of which are incredibly interesting and I look forward to getting stuck into them. If you don't know what the projects are, I highly recommend you follow the links and find out, you won't be disappointed!
My First Day My first day at the History Centre was Friday 6th November, and as I walked in for the first time since my interview I was incredibly nervous, but I received a lovely welcome from Jan on reception, and then Claire, my trainer and Principle Archivist here. Claire gave me a great tour of the building, and I was struck by the number of different departments: archives, local studies, archaeology, museum advisory, conservation, Buildings Record, and business support, amazing. I was very impressed with the building itself, purpose built and state of the art, nothing like my previous (albeit limited) experience of archive strong rooms. I was particularly happy to discover that if there is a fire, although the strong rooms will lock, the powder released to put out the fire (so as not to damage the records) is not harmful to humans (phew)! As I was taken around I was introduced to many of the different people who work here, all of which I remember the faces of, but am struggling a bit with the amount of names. I'm sure I'll pick them up quickly enough though, and each person I was introduced to was incredibly welcoming and put me at ease immediately, which always helps.
My tour ended in what seems like the unofficial hub of the history Centre, the staffroom, and I was introduced to the complex system of the tea, coffee, sugar and milk supply, which means that everyone pays their share (quite right too), though I'm still not quite sure how the milk one works! Claire then spent time explaining some of what I'll be doing over the next year and going through a few workplace policies etc.; later I had a meeting with Terry, the Archives and Local Studies Manager, who explained the staffing structure at the History Centre, and spoke some more about my year to come. I finished off the day browsing the websites for Lacock Unlocked and Wiltshire at War, to try and help familiarise myself the projects.
Ann has been working every Monday at the History Centre for several years. Ann has also been involved with Wiltshire People First, a disabled people’s user led Self Advocacy (speaking up for yourself) organisation, with a Management Committee made up of people with learning difficulties. They work to make sure people with learning difficulties in Wiltshire have a voice and are treated fairly and included. One of their activities is the Heritage Lottery Fund project ‘Our lives, Our History’ researching the history, lives and experience of people with learning difficulties, including the history of the former St George’s Hospital, now the location of the Wiltshire People First offices. Ann also took part in the History Centre’s Lacock Unlocked project activity with Wiltshire People First, learning about digital photography and early experiments in photography.
Here is Ann’s first blog for the History Centre:
I like to work here because the people are very nice to me who work with me and I like to do all my jobs. I do lots of jobs and I like working with Terry and Ros because they are very nice and understand my learning difficulties. They are very good with me and I like both of them. I tidy the Reception area, I help with the post, I do photocopying and folding, I help to get the Education Room ready for meetings, I do some filing and help to greet visitors. We get on well together and people help me to do my jobs. My job and the people I like very much. I have some days holiday from work and I go clothes shopping, Pub nights on a Wednesday and I go to Longleat where I have a pass. I get money from work to pay for things. I use a bus pass to get around.
I go to Wiltshire People First to talk about St Georges where I used to live 29 years ago. We talk about me living there, I can’t remember a lot but I can remember some things.
For my blog on Lacock this time I want to look at a bundle of documents only recently discovered in the Lacock archive, during my listing of some final boxes. The documents concern the 200th anniversary of the commemoration of the Great Hall in Lacock, which was rebuilt by John Ivory Talbot, the owner of Lacock at that time.
Talbot and the architect Sanderson Miller designed the Great Hall in a Gothic style and anyone who has been to Lacock will vividly remember the prowess of the room, with its great high ceilings, coats of arms decorating the ceiling, and breathtaking sculptures adorning the walls. Outside, Talbot built some grand steps.
In 1755, Talbot invited the friends whose coats of arms he had had put on the new ceiling to a commemoration event at Lacock Abbey to celebrate the completion of the work. Talbot invited 40 of his friends and neighbours to the event. An article in the Wiltshire Times 200 years later said that the emblazoning of the coats of arms “was most original, and a graceful compliment to his neighbours”. Whilst many sceptics would say that it was a way of really getting in with the local nobility, it is clear that Talbot himself was a high-standing member of the community and I’d like to think that his neighbours were pleased to be represented on that ceiling. The party brought together the local nobility and must have been a very grand event – if it happened. Unfortunately only a letter suggesting the possibility of an event was found, not any documents confirming that it had taken place.
200 years later, the final owner of Lacock Abbey before its presentation to the National Trust, Matilda Talbot, decided to host an anniversary event to commemorate the commemoration, and her intention was to recreate the event of 200 years earlier, by inviting representatives of those friends and neighbours of Matilda’s ancestor to the party. Although Matilda no longer owned the abbey, she continued to live there from 1944 until her death in 1956. Members of her family, the Burnett-Brown family who were descendants of her brother William, were living at the abbey as well and they also attended the event. The family and some acquaintances did some tireless research to find representatives of the 1755 party. Peter Summers of the Kingswood School did most of the research, which involved firstly trying to work out who some of the coats of arms on the ceiling were for anyway, and then painstakingly tracing their descendants down to the family member who appeared to be their most ideal representative. Those representatives were then invited to the commemoration event.
October saw a wonderful new project associated with Lacock Unlocked, and the chance for some of our staff and volunteers to work with Wiltshire People First, a group for adults with learning disabilities, and a professional photographer Jamie, to understand about photography; how to use a high-quality digital SLR camera and take good quality photographs. The three workshops followed different patterns and allowed the members to learn about different aspects of photography, experiment with picture taking and be creative. The project will finish with an exhibition of three images taken and chosen by each member; those which they feel are the most successful photographs they took. The exhibition will take place on Friday 28th November in the Manger Barn at Lacock, and I would recommend anyone who is able to go and see what brilliant pictures have been taken and the improvements made throughout the three weeks of the workshops.
The project fitted with Lacock Unlocked perfectly as it allowed us to work with a wider community of people and having Lacock as the venue was great as we could all imagine ourselves in the shoes of William Henry Fox Talbot, a pioneer in photography who owned Lacock Abbey in the 19th century and developed the first negative image actually inside the abbey itself.
The first day of the project, held on a chilly autumnal day in early October, started with a “welcome” session where the group members got a chance to meet Rachael, the National Trust staff member helping lead the project, Terry and Ally from the Wiltshire and Swindon History Centre, David and Ronnie, our two volunteers, and Jamie McDine, the photographer. We also were able to meet Julie and Angie from Wiltshire People First. After some introductions, we went to the Fox Talbot Museum in Lacock, where Roger Watson, the curator, spent some time with the group explaining all about William Henry Fox Talbot and his early developments with photography. He showed us a replica of the camera obscura which Fox Talbot had invented, and explained how Fox Talbot’s hard work eventually led him to produce the negative image which became so important in the success of photography.