One of the many joys of our archive is how it encompasses not only the county’s history – its people and places – but also world events as witnessed and experienced by Wiltshire folk through the centuries.
Each year I am in the privileged position of being able to take young historians on an archival journey round the world thanks to the extensive collections held by Wiltshire and Swindon Archive. These youngsters come to the Wiltshire and Swindon History Centre for work experience and for a week they get to explore the archive and local studies collections, as well as learn about the work of the conservators, archaeologists, civil registration certificates team and business support staff.
During five weeks of work placements – this year we took 14 students from six schools –the archives have transported us through time and space. We have crossed continents and centuries, catching a glimpse of the ordinary and extraordinary lives of people from another time.
As Education Officer at the History Centre there are types of documents that I frequently use because they make great classroom resources – maps, photographs, diaries, personal letters, school log books. And then there are the topics for which we have excellent collections – Tudors, Victorians, canals and railways, the First and Second World Wars and the Cold War.
But with the arrival of work experience students I have the opportunity to explore the archives at a more leisurely pace and in broader terms – and I am always finding new things to look at or seeing familiar documents in a different way. A good example is Siegfried Sassoon’s February 1933 letter predicting war. This year was the third time I produced the document for students and it was as they were practicing their transcribing skills I finally made out a word that had been eluding me all this time – ‘entente’. It was so obvious that I’m slightly embarrassed to admit that I had not worked it out sooner.
Although we often begin by digging out documents related to topics being studied at GCSE and A-Level, the challenge is to find the more unusual and quirky among them that don’t always see the light of day but which take us on wonderfully unexpected journeys.
One of the quirkiest set we produced this year concerned the gift of an elephant to Queen Charlotte (wife of George III) in 1794. Three letters (WSA 9/34/42) contain hints and allegations of an East India Company man, who acted as an intermediary in delivering the elephant, claiming back the cost of the animal despite it being a gift.
The East India Company is well documented across a number of significant collections within the Wiltshire and Swindon Archive, including archives from Wilton House, the Earls of Radnor (Longford Castle), the Seymour family (Dukes of Somerset), politician Walter Hume Long and the Money-Kyrle family.
But I was not expecting to find any further reference to elephants… Yet in the Lacock archive, among documents belonging to the Davenport family, is a cache of letters, invoices, receipts and company accounts detailing goods being shipped – including elephants’ teeth! (WSA 2664/3/2B/125 & 139 and WSA 2664/3/2D/79 et al.)
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?”
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.
Working at the History Centre a little bit like being a Timelord… with access to the archives you can be transported through time and space.
The strong-rooms are our very own Tardis (Time and Relative Dimension in Space) since despite their relatively small footprint they contain around eight miles of archives.
Over the last two months I have been joined in my “travels” by GCSE and A-level students who have been on work experience at the History Centre.
The first port of call for the youngsters as they ventured into the strong-rooms was 12th century Messina in Sicily. One of the earliest documents in the Wiltshire and Swindon Archive is a letter (with Great Seal attached) from Richard I – Richard the Lionheart – confirming a gift of land to Stanley Abbey (WSA 473/34PC).
It is dated 3rd April 1191 and was sent by Richard from Sicily just days before he set sail with a fleet of ships to the Holy Land. (He had set out in 1190 to join the Third Crusade.) The letter came at a busy time for Richard who was not only on crusade but was about to be married to Berengaria of Navarre who had made her own epic journey across Europe with Richard’s mother Eleanor of Aquitaine to be with her future husband.
The students’ introduction to the archives continued with a jump to the Tudor period via a grant of arms, followed by a brief stop in restoration England and a splendid portrait of Charles II on an illuminated document.
With each new group of students I set myself and the students the challenge of searching our collections for documents relevant to their particular GCSE and A-level courses. The two world wars, the Cold War, and the Tudors are well travelled historical paths but what of 19th century China and Japan or American history?
At A-level, students at the end of Year 12 are making decisions about coursework so a placement at the History Centre was an ideal opportunity to begin their research. We had students who were looking at the American civil rights movement, antisemitism in England during the 19th and 20th centuries, the opium wars in 19th century China and western influence on 19th century Japan and the demise of the Samurai tradition.
In our pursuit of the American civil rights movement we took a detour into the history of the fledgling United States of America. The archive has a number of collections that, through letters and other documents, connect Wiltshire with the English colonies in the Americas, the war of independence and the American civil war and trade with the USA.
We were all rather excited to be handling two particular documents signed by James Madison and John Quincy Adams who served as the 4th and 6th presidents of the USA. Both documents (WSA 1498/4) were passports for Thomas Shorthouse who became an American citizen in 1797. The Shorthouse family lived at Little Clarendon, Dinton and the passports, letters from Philadelphia and citizenship document for Thomas Shorthouse are part of the family papers (WSA 1498/1-6).
The citizenship document was drawn up in the Court of Common Pleas of Philadelphia County and instructs Thomas to “absolutely and entirely renounce and abjure all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign prince, potentate, state or sovereignty whatever and particularly the allegiance to the King of Great Britain to whom he was heretofore a subject.”
The passports show that Thomas maintained his connections with his family in Britain. The first was signed by James Madison, as Secretary of State, in Washington on 27th September, 1805. Madison, one of the founding fathers of the USA, became President in 1809 and later became known as the ‘father of the constitution’.
In 1815, Thomas Shorthouse received a second passport, this time signed by John Quincy Adams who was then the United States Envoy in London. Adams went on to be the 6th President in 1825.
We could have spent all our time in North America reading letters and documents about rebellion in the colonies, American Independence, the civil war and abolition of slavery, but other countries beckoned.
Our search for documents relating to the Opium Wars yielded instant and fascinating results in the Public and State papers of Sidney Herbert (1810-1861), Baron Herbert of Lea, who from 1841 to 1860 was successively Secretary to the Admiralty, Secretary of War and then Secretary of State for War.
His papers are part of Wilton House and Estate archive and are a fascinating insight into 19th century British political and military history. The journey into this immense collection was brief but rewarding as we discovered a wonderful document that summarised the issues surrounding the opium trade (“Neglect of Government to take steps as to opium trade”, WSA 2057/F8/I/G/1), and several letters and despatches describing the taking of the Peiho Forts – a joint British and French military action in China in the 1860s (WSA 20157/F8/V/B/192ee).
From China in the 19th century we ventured into the 20th century and a world at war.
Wilsford Manor was renovated by architect Detmar Blow in 1898 following a commission by Lord Glenconner and Lady Pamela Tennant. It was built of knapped flint and grey Tisbury stone in the local 17th century style with gables and mullioned windows modelled on the nearby Lake House, which was also renovated by Detmar Blow in 1897 (under advisement from the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings).
Image of Lake House – inspiration for Wilsford Manor with its chequerwork pattern.
Wilsford Manor was left to Pamela, Stephen’s mother by Lord Glenconner, and all the children grew up there with their step-father Edward, Viscount Grey of Falloden. It became a retreat for the family and an escape from the London summer season for Pamela. The childhood of Stephen Tennant was recorded in ‘The Sayings of the Children’.
After the loss of her eldest son Edward (Bim) in the Battle of the Somme, Pamela turned to spiritualism. Along with neighbour, and developer of wireless technology, Sir Oliver Lodge, she developed séance techniques and held spiritualist gatherings at Wilsford.
After Bim’s death, the bond between Stephen and his mother grew, further developed by Stephen’s emerging talent for poetry and art. Aged just 13, Stephen published humorous drawings of ducks and swans, frogs and nets, owls and dragonflies in ‘The Bird’s Fancy Dress Ball’.
After his mother’s death in 1928, Wilsford was left to Stephen’s older brother David, who planned to sell it. A deal was arranged between David and Stephen’s trustees and for all intents and purposes, Wilsford became Stephen’s.
When I am asked to write a blog I try to find an interesting or curious subject to write about and as I was thinking about this I started to reflect on the variety of activities that happen within the Archives & Local Studies Service. So I thought I would share this with our blog readers.
Though strictly at the end of last week, my week began on Saturday with an event held by the English Folk Dance and Song Society (EFDSS) at the History Centre to promote the Full English project, which has seen the digitisation of 19 archive collections or 80,000 pages of manuscript, involving volunteers around the world, and including the Alfred Williams collection of folk songs held at the History Centre. The Full English was funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund with a £585,400 grant, but as the EFDSS Library Director, Malcolm Taylor OBE, told the audience, the original project was conceived in a pub! It makes the digitised archives available to the whole world and has even inspired the formation of a folk-super group of the same name who won at the BBC 2 Folk Awards.