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.
Since joining the team at Wiltshire and Swindon History Centre as a ‘Transforming Archives Trainee’ with The National Archives, life has certainly been full! Over the last 5 months I’ve been involved in several HLF funded projects, completed a university module on Education and Outreach, have undertaken various in-house training sessions on traditional archive skills, as well as attending training conferences in London, Bristol, Manchester, Warwickshire, Gloucester and Dorset. In a few weeks I’ll be off to Edinburgh for another ‘basecamp’ week, training with The National Archives and Scottish Council on Archives. How time has flown!
Something that has struck me deeply over the course of my traineeship so far, which I’d like to share here, is a realisation about the vast importance of learning from our history - particularly the individual lives and stories of people who have gone before us.
Working on the ‘Wiltshire at War: Community Stories’ project, which focuses on the lives and culture of Wiltshire and its residents during WW1, has brought this home to me most of all. Traditionally, when remembering the World Wars, historians tend to concentrate on military or political strategy, and we subsequently have a multitude of movies, books and magazines concerned with the armed forces and the battles they fought. Whilst this is all fascinating information, the Wiltshire at War project seeks to collect and share the stories and memories of the individual people across Wiltshire, who lived through the troubled times of 1914 -1918. We feel it’s equally important to understand how the Wiltshire community adapted during this time, how life continued, and what individual sacrifices were made. What support did Wiltshire provide to the war effort? How did people across the county ‘pick up’ their lives again, once peace was declared? How did they cope with so much change? The project seeks to bring all this community history back into the community, and to share those stories through our fantastic website and ongoing exhibitions.
Recently I was publishing a story which came to us via our Wiltshire at War Twitter feed. It’s the story of a young farmer’s son called Freddie Butler, who grew up on Rookhaye farm in Bowerchalke, and tragically died in a flying accident whilst serving with the Royal Flying Corps. I was looking at a photo of Freddie as a child feeding hay to one of the horses, happy as can be. I wondered about that child – his hopes, dreams, memories... In that one moment captured through a camera lens, he, like all the people around him, had absolutely no idea what was to come. I wondered too about Freddie’s mother, shown in a separate photo – how did life continue for her, after the loss of her beloved son?
Looking at some of the family photos that have come in with other recent stories - some dating back as far as 1905 - I find myself peering at each individual face, pondering the complex network of unique memories, life experiences, struggles, choices and relationships that each, single person represented. Was it even possible for those individuals to comprehend that, in the not so distant future, these photos and associated stories may be all that’s left to prove that they even existed? Questions then arise in me that are fundamentally about the human condition: What lessons can we learn from these people and their experience - fellow human beings who lived 100 years before us, in circumstances even more challenging than our own? If I consider that in another 100 years, researchers might be sitting at a desk and pondering photos of me and my family, reflecting on the lives we perhaps lived – might I now choose to live mine differently? What legacy would you choose to leave?
We often get an influx of our antipodean cousins in the early summer here at the history centre. Many of our internet and postal research requests hail from Australia and New Zealand. Do you ever wonder if your ancestors ever left Blighty for sunnier climes or were forced to leave these shores as punishment?
The transportation of prisoners to Australia rose to a climax during the late 18th century after a statute was passed during the reign of King George III. The standard sentence for transportation was for seven years but in more serious cases for life. Many escaped the gallows and suffered the inhumane conditions on board the prison ships. Not unlike those poor slaves that also had to endure months at sea in cramped and unsanitary ship hulks.
The first wave of the colonisation of Australia aptly named the ‘First Fleet’, took place in 1788. The 11 ships containing around 1500 men, women and children left Portsmouth in 1787 also laden with food supplies, clothing and livestock. The people on board were to be the founding fathers and mothers of the new colony, albeit a penal one.
The colony was established at a location now known as Port Jackson, further inland in Sydney Harbour than originally planned. Transported convicts were shipped in, in their thousands. The transportation of prisoners was abolished in 1868; by then a staggering 162,000 men and women had arrived on 806 ships.
Whilst exploring the archives at the History Centre on the subject of transportation, I discovered that we held some ‘Bonds and Contracts for the transportation of felons to the American colonies and plantations and elsewhere 1728-1789.’ Within these documents there are names of the Ships’ captains and felons; very useful information for those researching their convict ancestors.
I picked up the trail of a convicted thief, Sarah Varriner, in 1788. She was originally from Painswick, Gloucestershire but arrested, tried and sentenced in Wiltshire for the theft of gold and silver coins. The calendar of prisoners (shown below), lists her offence and committal in 1788.
Sarah Varriner was sentenced to 7 years transportation to the ‘Eastern Coast of New South Wales or some one or other of the islands adjacent’. She was bound for the ship ‘The Lady Juliana’ which was to be the first all female convict ship to leave for the new colony in Australia.
The day that I found out I had been selected for the Skills for the Future ‘Transforming Archives’ traineeship was a strange one. Partly because it was only the day before that I’d attended interview for the role – this was the quickest I’d ever heard back! Admittedly, another aspect of the strangeness was due to my still being ‘spaced out’ with tiredness, following several nights of too little sleep; the build-up to the big day had been so incredibly intense. Combine all this with the mixed rush of excitement at hearing that I’d been successful, and the utter shock at having been chosen for one of only 12 traineeship positions nationwide which over 700 people had applied for – and you’ll have some idea just what was going on for me that day. It was strange. Once the shock had settled and I’d finally got some sleep, the reality of how incredibly fortunate I was set in. The world of archives, history and heritage has always drawn me, but due to my career background consisting largely of military and police service – I wasn’t exactly the type actively recruited into the sector. Unless Archivists are now being trained in close-quarters combat drills, (I mused), in an attempt to curtail the growing and ever-present threat of angry genealogists, waving their pencils frantically and uprising en-masse to bring down the current system (of cataloguing documents). Unlikely. This is why I felt sheer delight at seeing the advert for the traineeship online:
‘Through the Transforming Archives programme we are hoping to diversify the archives workforce, address skills gaps in the archives workforce and provide new routes into working in the sector.’ The National Archives were actively looking for new skills, fresh energy and people from unique, untypical backgrounds. My hopes of beginning a fresh new career in the archives and heritage sector had been rekindled… My posting was to be at Wiltshire and Swindon History Centre, and my first day there was inspirational. Everyone was so warm, welcoming and personable – I immediately felt right at home. (Helped, no doubt, by all the delicious and colourful cake on offer in the break room!). I was given a tour of the building and facilities by Claire, the Principal Archivist, and introduced to a whole range of smiling staff members. I got a tangible sense of the wide scope of work that went on at WSHC: Under one roof we had Archivists, Archaeologists, Conservators, the County Arts Lead and Conservation and Museums Manager, an Education Officer, the Wiltshire Buildings Recorder, county Registrars, World Heritage Site officers, Community History Advisors… many of whom were overseen by Terry, the Heritage Services Manager. Such an incredible wealth of resources and information available in one place! Once more, I felt that tingling sense of deep gratitude welling up inside me; how fortunate I was to have been chosen for this role.
Over the following week I undertook various inductions, training and ‘orientation’ a WSHC, before being whisked off to Manchester for the enigmatically named ‘DCDC16 Conference’. My meticulous and painstaking research later uncovered that this stood for ‘Discovering Collections, Discovering Communities’. (Clearly I had what it took to be an excellent Archivist!).
To be honest, I’d been so busy I hadn’t had time to think or get excited about going to the conference. It was only after the restful 3 hour train ride and short walk to my hotel, which overlooked Old Trafford football stadium, that the excitement really began to kick-in. So much learning, networking and FUN to be had over the coming few days! A quick shower and cup of tea, and I donned my suit in preparation for the pre-conference reception.
When I rocked up to The Lowry at Manchester’s Salford Quays, it felt like I’d stepped onto a Hollywood plaza. The bright glowing lights of the ITV building, the BBC, the ‘Coronation Street’ set and the futuresque architecture of the Imperial War Museum North, all set upon the harbour’s edge; an array of colourful signage being reflected into the rippling, dark water below. Absolutely magical. The spell continued as I headed up to the reception room at the top of The Lowry, to catch a beautiful display of precision-timed fireworks popping and frazzling in the sky directly outside. How wonderful, I thought - I’ve never been welcomed to a conference in such style! (It later transpired that the fireworks had nothing to do with DCDC16, we were just fortunate be overlooking the water directly opposite Media City, in all its opulent extravagance).
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.
It is suggested that these records are one of only two complete sets of such records to survive as the tribunal papers were supposed to have been destroyed after the war. So we thought our blog readers might be interested to know that the Wiltshire and Swindon History Centre also hold a series of tribunal papers.