During a visit to Cricklade I was asked to pop in to see a cottage in Swindon. This cottage and another similar one nearby were all that were left of an ancient hamlet and were now surrounded by modern houses, giving a very suburban flavour to the area. The cottage had once been a prosperous farm but was subsequently divided into two cottages, a not unusual development for a farmhouse in the 19th century.
On the ground floor were two original rooms, the core of the cottage before it was extended. A heavy 17th century beam ran from the gable end fireplace to the cross wall and this immediately aroused my interest; when an open medieval hall with a central hearth is floored over, the beam supporting it often has one end lodged in the chimney breast, which is added at the same time.
By the time I got to the first floor I was excited to see the start of a heavily-plastered cruck blade with arched brace of what must have been a hall truss emerging from the stone wall, and disappearing through the ceiling. Crucks are a very distinctive form of timber-framing not seen in Wiltshire after about 1530: our dendrochronology project is collecting data on this very subject. Barely containing myself, I arrived at the attic floor via a steep, winding stair to be confronted with the massive and heavily smoke-blackened top parts of a 14th century roof. There were two main frames complete with characteristically skinny wind-braces, some original chunky rafters, and smoke-blackened battens, though the thatch had been replaced.
Image: Apex of one of the cruck trusses
The timbers had been cut about to allow circulation within the attic space, but originally the impressive cruck frames would have been only viewed from the ground. To get some idea of what a medieval dwelling house would have been like when built, go into an old tithe barn such as that at Lacock or Bradford-on-Avon and be impressed by the sheer scale and size of the timbers and height to the roof. A farmhouse would have been smaller, but still impressive. The hall truss over the open fire would have been the most decorative, with chamfered bracing, parts of which remain. In the 17th century the old hall was clad in stone, hiding or replacing the original timber-framing and its wattle-and-daub panels. Houses like this had to change with the times to stay useful, or be replaced. I suspect there are many more hidden medieval halls out there just waiting to be discovered, even in the most unlikely places!
One of the best things about my job is visiting different museums around the county, seeing behind the scenes and finding out about all the exciting things that are happening. Last week I was lucky enough to go to two museums and get a peek at things not normally seen by visitors.
First up was a visit to the Fox Talbot Museum https://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/lacock-abbey-fox-talbot-museum-and-village/features/learn-about-the-history-of-photography in Lacock, with the Wiltshire Museum Group. The Museum tells the story of the history of photography, from the very first photographic chemical processes to the modern smartphone. It also celebrates the life and work of William Henry Fox Talbot who lived in Lacock Abbey. A Victorian pioneer of photography, Fox Talbot created the earliest surviving photographic negative, taken in 1835, of a window of the Abbey. Upstairs there’s a gallery with a changing temporary exhibition programme, which explores photography as an art form.
Curator Roger Watson, told the group about a current project to acquire and manage the Fenton Collection. Thousands of photographs from the 19th and 20th centuries were collected by James Fenton, along with a wide range of photographic technologies – including cameras, exposure meters and stereoscopic viewers. He displayed them in his own Museum of Photography on the Isle of Man, before donating them to the Museum of the Moving Image in 1986. All the items had been in storage since the museum closed in 1999 and last year the British Film Institute had donated them to the National Trust’s Fox Talbot Museum.
Funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund www.hlf.org.uk and the Prism Fund www.artscouncil.org.uk/funding/prism the project has brought the collection to Lacock, where it is being catalogued and cared for, including being re-housed in a newly created store.
The new store is built inside one of the traditional buildings in Lacock – from the outside you wouldn’t be able to tell what’s kept within. A room has been built inside the barn to house the objects. This is insulated to help keep the environment stable and the conditions the best possible to ensure the preservation of all the treasures kept within.
"My own life has been rather like a kaleidoscope", writes Matilda Talbot in her autobiography. For somebody who experienced the two world wars at first hand, travelled in three continents, and went on to unexpectedly inherit Lacock Abbey, her life was truly kaleidoscopic; a constantly changing sequence of patterns punctuated by bursts of colour.
It was perhaps due to her natural flair for languages, combined with her kind and down-to-earth manner, that many of these colourful experiences came about. She readily accepted invitations to visit old friends and new acquaintances in far-off places, sometimes travelling with her family, but never fearful of travelling independently. When she did travel on her own, she was never alone, striking up friendships with passengers and crew, on-board boats as she tried out her language skills.
Language learning was to become an important element when preparing for a trip abroad and she often came up with enterprising ideas in order make progress. Before spending Christmas in 1908 with Lord and Lady Methuen in their new home in South Africa, she went to the “Dutch Church in Austin Friars” to find a teacher: "I found a verger and asked him if he knew any lady of the congregation might be willing to give me some lessons in Dutch”. From there, her studies continued on deck, which must have made for a curious sight, for she and a new lady acquaintance sat down to read from a "big Dutch Bible" that she had brought with her from Lacock: "We sat together on the deck and I tried to talk, and she read to me. The captain was highly amused, when he found us reading the Psalms, verse about, in Dutch, but she really was a good help".
Earlier on she had turned her attention to Scandinavia after delivering some illustrated papers at the Scandinavian Sailors' Home, near the West India Dock, where she met a young Norwegian girl, Fredrike Betzmann. A friendship developed between the two young women and they met regularly in London, later holidaying together, first in Scotland and then in Norway. While Fredrike perfected her in English, Matilda and her sister Mary made good progress in Norwegian. "For nearly a month we stayed with Fredrike's family and were soon able to talk Norwegian quite fluently. […] Some of our pleasantest expeditions were in rowing boats up the little inlets of the fjord, going ashore and picnicking where we liked. Looking back, it seems to me that every afternoon was fine".
Besides Dutch and Norwegian, she understood French from an early age which she continued at a day school in London: "We always talked French to our French nursemaid, Emilie, and also to my mother, who spoke French as readily as English". During World War I she put these skills into practice when working for L'Œuvre de la goutte de café which ran a canteen for convalescent soldiers near Paris, and then later at Bussang in the Vosges where troops went to the trenches or returned from them.
A natural talent for languages was helped greatly by her indomitable spirit. While staying in Scotland in February 1925, she writes a letter in Italian despite of her deficiencies in the language: "Today Miss A asked me to help her write a letter in Italian: She recently received a letter from an Italian but still hasn't replied. I tried but it was awful. It's hard: Now everything I think is in Russian" . Undeterred and determined to help her friend, she goes on to explain that with the help of an Italian book and some difficulties, she was able to finish the letter in half an hour and give it to a "quite contented Miss A", who could copy it out in her own hand.
Out of all the languages she learned it was certainly Russian which required her to draw the most on that indomitable spirit. "[Learning Russian] was like paying court to a beautiful woman and capricious woman: she is maddeningly unreasonable and one is furious with her but all the same one cannot cease making love to her".
Although she never visited Russia or the Soviet Union, she learned the language to a high level. She describes the Estonian town of Pechory on the Russian border which she visited twice during the 1930s: "One day we went by train to the extreme south-east of Estonia, to a place called Pechora. There was a monastery there with a wonderful church. […] Everyone in Pechora spoke Russian and very few people spoke Estonian, but the notices were printed in both languages. […] We had a look round the monastery and went into the church for part of the service, but I could not understand a word for the Orthodox Service is always said in old Slavonic".
Also, while in Estonia she experienced a real steam bath where she is beaten with birch twigs to stimulate the skin. On leaving the bathhouse she notes "We had lots of little birch leaves clinging to us which had to be rinsed off. The Russians have a saying about the kind of person one cannot shake off: 'She clings to me like bath foilage'".
John Ivory inherited Lacock Abbey estate in 1714 on the death of his maternal grandfather, Sir John Talbot, and took the name John Ivory Talbot. The following year he entered Parliament as a Tory and served as MP for Ludgershall for 7 years. Later he served as an MP for Wiltshire from 1727 - 1741. His career as an MP was less than distinguished. His entry in 'The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1715-1754' is brief. It records that he voted consistently against the Government and made only one speech in the House of Commons, against the Quakers title Bill in 1736. It is also noted that he was a possible Jacobite supporter in the event of an uprising against the new Hanoverian king. The last remark in the entry is, however, intriguing and reads:
'In 1735 the mother of his nephew, Thomas, 2nd Lord Mansel, then aged 14, objected successfully to his being made sole guardian of her son because she ‘did not care that Mr. Talbot, whose wife is mad ... and is himself driven to drink, should have the sole management of her son’s education’.
Evidence for these assertions have been sought in the Lacock Abbey archives and is found in the Account Books of the Lacock estate and in the correspondence between John and his wife, with John's brother-in-law, Henry Davenport.
In July 1716, John Ivory Talbot married the Honourable Mary Mansel, the daughter of Sir Thomas Mansel, 1st Baron Mansel of Margam in South Wales. Together they had 4 children; John (b. 1717), Thomas (b. 1719), Martha (b. 1720) and Ann (b. 1723). The early years of the marriage appear to have been happy and trouble free and Mary appeared to be running the household and engaging in country pursuits such as riding to hounds. However, problems with her health became evident within a few months. In a letter to Henry Davenport in January 1717, John noted 'you must excuse both me and my wife for not answering yr letters, for she has scarce been a day without some disorder, & yesterday worse than ever, but I thank God she is pretty well to day; these fitts follow her so fast' (1). Mary herself, in July 1717, at this time half way through her first pregnancy, wrote to Henry reporting that 'I have been extream ill all this week my self' (2).
Surprisingly perhaps, in view of this, the meticulous accounts that John kept of expenditures incurred in the running of his household and the Lacock estate show only one entry for a doctor's bill over this period so little medical help was thought necessary at this stage.
The birth of their first child, in November 1717, did not apparently pose any particular medical problems either, as judged by the total lack of doctor's bills, and there is no evidence that Mary's health was of concern during and immediately after her second child, Thomas, was born in March 1719. However, in November 1719, in a letter to Henry Davenport, John Talbot mentioned that 'My wife continues very weak in her limbs tho' well as to other respects' (3).
From this time on, Mary's health deteriorated. Doctor's fees and apothecary's bills began to feature prominently in John's account books from 1719 onwards with most of the entries being 'for my dear' or 'for my dear wife', rather than for the children.
In March 1720, John wrote that 'My wife is better than she was, but so weak as not to stir out of her room or dine at table, but I don't doubt but she will soon pick up if ye children do but continue well, for it is ye frights for them that is ye occassion of all her illness' (4). In August, he reported that 'she had a relapse almost as bad as ye former' (5).
This situation prompted a move to Bath, for in a further letter to Henry at the end of August, John records 'I took lodgings this day sennight, it was a sudden resolution taken, not for ye sake of drinking ye water but only that she might be near help in case of danger, & that she has been so open in that it has sufficiently terrifyed me. We were dissappointed of a horse litter after expecting one three or four days, but by filling up ye bottom of ye coach wth bedding & being near six hours in coming we made ye journey almost as easy to her wch she bore very well & is much better since her lameness still continues' (6). Mary, in her third pregnancy, and so big 'that some say I shall have two added to my family' (7), remained in Bath for several months and gave birth to a daughter, Martha, there in November 1720. A Doctor Bane was in very regular attendance, at a guinea a visit, during the period immediately after the birth and there were also expenditures recorded for nursing, although it is not specified whether this is for Mary or the baby. One entry in the accounts in December 1720 is half a guinea for 'bleeding Jacky', presumably their son John.
For most of 1721, Mary appears to have been better, although there are some entries in the accounts for medical expenses, specifically one in July for £5-10s 'for bleeding my dear'. The size of this bill would indicate that several bleedings were administered. John Talbot was not noted for paying bills on time so this payment could refer to an earlier illness. Letters between John and Henry Davenport during this year are largely positive about Mary. In October 1721, Mary is described as 'perfectly well' (8). In November, the reports are even better, John Ivory reporting that 'My wife thank God is very well & grows fatt' (9).
Within a few days, however, the situation changed, as, by mid-December, Henry was informed that 'My wife was yesterday a little out of order & has return of a giddiness & fainting again today I hope it will go off again for otherways she is in perfect health' (10). A month later, the message became 'My wife has been very ill these ten days, taken much after ye same manner she was before she went to Bath last year, but she mends now' (11). The name of Dr Bane appears in the expenditure column of the accounts in December 1721. It is clear that Mary's condition was now chronic.
No correspondence survives between John and Henry in 1722, but the accounts show numerous payments to doctors and apothecaries during the year, and also payments to a Mr Sagar (or Segar) for bleeding Mary. John conveniently provided a complete summary of his 1722 accounts (March 1722- March 1723) which included the entry 'Doctors fees, Sagers and Apothecarys bills & belonging to Illness £58-12-6'. Sickness clearly was not cheap at this time!
The Lacock archive is as full of references to cats as there are currently cats living in and around the abbey. Although these are mostly photographs, there are also text references to cats. The earliest reference I’ve found is from the 19th century. Charles Henry Talbot, who owned Lacock from 1877, kept most of the letters written to him (although sadly didn’t make copies of the ones he sent) and from there we can find several interesting references to his home life and relationships with his family and friends – and animals! We know from correspondence that Charles had at least two cats in the last part of the 19th century, called Stripy and Bunny. It appears that he was very fond of them. Matilda Talbot, who inherited Lacock from her uncle Charles, was equally fond of them and many photographs of cats have appeared from amongst her papers.
In a letter to his uncle of 1893, William Gilchrist-Clark advises Charles regarding the mange that his pet is suffering from: “On my way from Brighton I heard of your cat’s illness. I said to Auntie Monie [Rosamond Talbot] that I thought it must be mange, and she asks me by letter this morning to write to you about it. I thought the cat was not in a healthy state when I saw it in Jan – the hair was too matted and it didn’t look right. The regular vet is laid up, but I am sure the best thing you could do would be to have the matted hair cut off as much as possible and the skin dressed with sulphur and hair oil – the cat would be in an unpleasant state for a bit and would hardly do for the house – but if it was kept in a stable for a bit it would soon feel right again – you could get the dressing from any local vet, and at the same time find out if it was the best thing to use – I always use it for dogs myself.” Personally, I think the first thing I’d do is visit the vet, and find out if it was suitable before I even considered buying the dressing. But it is interesting to see how people dealt with animals’ illnesses. Charles must have been very worried about his cat, and William likewise as he wrote to him so quickly. Let’s hope the strange concoction for the cat’s skin worked, and 1893’s “Grumpy Cat” (I would be if I was kept in a stable and dressed with sulphur) got over his mange and his health improved!
A letter from Rosamond Talbot to Charles of 1898 suggests that Charles has had to find a new home for one of his cats due to it possibly hunting his chickens, and she is helping: “We think that a good home has offered for poor old Bunny, in Somersetshire – people who want a grown up tame cat, so I must see about it when I get home. I cannot think that she has been interfering with the chickens again, now that they are grown so much older – besides she has been so constantly and carefully kept indoors during the middle of the day when the chickens are free, but still it is best to be on the safe side, if we can, for the future. Do you think the fox has put in an appearance again?” The phrase “poor old Bunny” is very apt here. It appears that the poor cat was rehomed as a scapegoat for the fox, although we cannot rule out the possibility of Bunny being a natural hunter and deciding that actually, grown-up chickens were also quite appealing. It is not known if Bunny was eventually rehomed. Maybe Charles decided to just be a bit more careful about where she was kept in relation to the chickens.
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.