My name is Annette and I am an Employer Engagement Officer with Wiltshire Council working on a program called Building Bridges.
“Building Bridges is funded by the European Social Fund and the National Lottery, through the Big Lottery Fund.”
Several weeks ago, Wiltshire & Swindon History Centre & Building Bridges set out on a journey of discovery and learning with five would-be archivists with a love of all things past. You could say a real ‘Throwback Thursday’ as this is the day we came together to indulge in something we all love: history.
I can’t believe we have nearly come to the end of our first but I hope not last ‘Archive to Survive’ project.
After attending a learning symposium facilitated by Wiltshire Museum & Heritage Service and hearing a presentation from The Museum of London and the work they were doing with Autism in Museums I was buzzing - I couldn’t wait to do something similar.
Lucky for me I had already formed a working relationship with the fabulous Heather Perry -Conservation & Museum Manager who was nearly as excited as me, and completely on board.
We decided we wanted to target our project at those who may have found it hard to gain paid employment due to anxiety, depression, or other barriers. We wanted to promote confidence and skills learning that would support their journey, and give them a sense of wellbeing and inclusion.
So along with my Building Bridges partners in crime Lorraine, Laura and the lovely Sophie, Conservator (Archives) at the History Centre, we set about putting our plan into action.
If you are reading this it is possible you will know that in Wiltshire & Swindon we have an amazing purpose-built facility that holds the county wide archives. What you may not know is that the public can come in and research things from family histories, to who lived in your house 100 years ago. To do this every document held at the centre needs to be catalogued and this is where we came in.
We wanted to offer an opportunity for a group of people to come in and work with trained professionals to learn all about maintaining and cataloguing this amazing resource. Preserving it for future generations and so Archive to Survive was born.
We recruited five like-minded participants with a love of history and our journey of learning began back in August. Since then we have come together every Thursday and have been building on our confidence and skills, and form new friendships.
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.
In archives, as in everything else, some jobs take longer than others. The archivists at the History Centre can generally list small or medium sized deposits of documents within a few weeks or months of receiving them, but larger collections may take years, or even decades, to catalogue fully. A catalogue I recently completed was a case in point.
Forty years ago, archivists from the Record Office (then based in Trowbridge) collected a large number of clients’ papers from the offices of the Calne solicitors, Spackman, Dale and Hood. Once safely in the record office, they were placed in acid-free boxes (forty-eight in all) and allocated the collection number 1409. The boxes remained on the strongroom shelves, safe and secure but not listed. Eventually, in 2003, it was decided that I would devote my time (when not on public duty or attending to more urgent priorities) to sorting and listing the Spackman, Dale and Hood collection. My listing gradually proceeded, box by box, over several years. By 2007, when our office relocated from Trowbridge to Chippenham, about three-quarters of the work was done. Increasing public duties and other urgent matters in our new building meant that work on collection 1409 was again shelved for several years. Finally, two years ago, I completed listing the last couple of boxes, and then handed the collection over to my strongroom colleagues, who numbered and packaged each item. This took the greater part of another year. I then word-processed the lengthy catalogue and added it to our online catalogue.
So, what have we ended up with, after all that effort? A slimmed-down collection, reduced from 48 to 35 boxes, after weeding out the rubbish, rough copies, drafts and duplicate documents. But still a large collection – one thousand separate items, listed in detail in a 125 page catalogue (available in hard copy at the History Centre and on our online catalogue). As one might expect, a large proportion of the collection concerns Calne people and properties, and those of the neighbouring area. The two largest categories are sale particulars (the greater part dealing with Calne properties between the 1880s and the 1970s) and title deeds and associated conveyancing papers. Title deeds are useful to both family and local historians. To take one example, a bundle of deeds (1409/16/54) relating to a house in Calne Church Street, “commanding one of the best positions in the town”, prove that at various times between the eighteenth and twentieth centuries, the building was occupied by a shoemaker, a baker, a seedsman, and C. & T. Harris, Ltd., as well as being used as the library of the Calne Literary Institution and, later, as an Oddfellows lodge. There is also a series of 44 eighteenth century leases of properties in Castle Combe; the tenant of an enclosed three-acre field at Thorn Grove was given “liberty to set up cribs for sheep on Castle Combe fair day”, in 1779 (1409/16/259/33).
Other contents of the collection are more unusual. For instance, there is some correspondence (1409/10/5) concerning applications for midwives’ certificates by Mrs Sarah Gaby of Sandy Lane and Mrs Elizabeth Ponting of Cherhill, 1904-1905.
The main background task of an archivist, when not assisting researchers in person or by email, involves the sorting and cataloguing of archives in order that they are made accessible and available. In a well established service such as Wiltshire and Swindon’s, which celebrates its 70th anniversary this year, much of this consists of additions to existing collections, usually of more recent material, reflecting our commitment to the continuing process of preserving the past for the future. In this way our service is very much an organic one.
However, new sources do present themselves, and bring with them the excitement of serendipity. One such case is the archives of a Marlborough solicitors’ firm, that we collected in 1983 and which I have been working on over the last couple of years. Far from reflecting tardiness or inactivity on our part, it should be understood that archives have been collected in vast quantities often without much warning, to the extent that they occupy eight miles of shelving, and a cataloguing backlog is unavoidable. Furthermore this collection presented particular challenges in terms of its size and level of disorder that led to it slipping down the priority list.
When colleagues came to collect the material they were directed to a house stuffed full of papers and books, to the extent that just entering the building presented something of a challenge. However, they were gathered up, the volumes shelved and the documents decanted into 350 boxes our old Record Office in Trowbridge: the first aim of our service, preservation, having been achieved.
My first task was to produce a rough list of the contents of each box and then sort them accordingly. The volumes all were the firms’ own records and consist of ledgers, registers of deeds and letter books. The boxes contain the archives of former clients, ranging from landed families like the Pophams of Littlecote, covering its extensive estates and several manors, to an individual whose only business was the administration of their personal estate at the ends of his or her life. Each in its way fascinating and informative, providing insight into the lives of our predecessors. Having identified the records of the major clients in about 120 boxes, I faced the remaining boxes with some trepidation. However, while it sat unassumingly on our shelves the technological revolution had brought new tools, in the shape of computers and software, which enabled this mass of material to be sorted far more easily and efficiently than the traditional methods of pencil and paper, and to become available far more speedily than ever before.
I recently finished cataloguing the archive of the Godolphin School, a girls’ only boarding and day school in Salisbury. I took the project on with glee, because I have been very interested in school archives for years and it was wonderful to get the chance to work on the archive. The archive came to the History Centre at two different times. The first accession of material was listed many years ago, but the much more recent second accession had not, although much of it had been indexed. It was my job to take the first accession, 2954, and the second accession, 4265, and amalgamate them into one new collection, 4312.
My first job was to do my own rough box lists of all the material from the different accessions so that I properly understood the material that we had from the school. This also allowed me to check that the 2954 listing was correct and there were no mistakes. Sometimes I think it’s lovely to have a blank canvas with archive collections and it’s great to have no work done on an archive before, so that you come to it with a fresh mind, but for Godolphin it was certainly useful for me to use the previous listings, although I tried to do my own description of the documents before referring to the lists.
Once I had got an idea of what we held, it was time to try and virtually amalgamate the two accessions. I drew up my proposed structure and put each document or bundle of documents from the two accessions into an Excel spreadsheet, which over time probably found itself multicoloured in every shade Excel allowed me to use. Once I had finished, thankfully every number and description was either a satisfying shade of green, to show they’d been put on the system and numbered, or an equally satisfying red to show they were being returned to the school. These returns were all duplicate items. It was then time to put the structure onto our database and begin the more detailed descriptions, which was a lot of fun as I began to know and understand the school history, location, structure and quirks. I loved the school before I even began the project, but I love it more afterwards.
Records for the school date back to 1709, in a letter from Sidney Godolphin, who died in 1712. The school itself was founded by the will of Elizabeth Godolphin, who had married Sidney’s brother Charles. Between them the couple founded many charities, including the school “for the better education and maintenance of eight young gentlewomen to be brought up at Sarum or some other town in the County of Wilts under the care and direction of some wise and prudent Governess or Schoolmistress”. Elizabeth made her will in 1726, but the school did not open until 1784 in the Cathedral Close. Now, the school’s site is in Milford Hill and teaches well over 400 children. The copy made of Elizabeth’s will is the second oldest document in the archive – although the copy itself is much more modern than the will. The most recent documents are from 2014, so the archive really does span the whole history of the school. The most common ones are from the turn of the 20th century: the school itself still holds most of the more modern records.
The most extensive part of the collection (in terms of number of records) is the five boxes we have of photographs, and it was these that I started cataloguing first. The hope was that having the visual impression of the school would help when I was cataloguing other material, and I think it worked. The part I loved most was looking at the turn of the century photographs, which include whole school photographs, staff, house and form photographs, and lovely images of sports. The earliest photograph in the Godolphin collection is one of Miss Polhill, who was headmistress from 1854-1857.
For my Year 10 work experience I chose to come to the History Centre. It has been an insightful experience into what the Centre actually does. I was lucky enough to get to do some sub-numbering - it helps prevent documents becoming lost. I was sub numbering the Earls of Radnor archives – which are also done by volunteers. These documents vary in age from the 17th century to the 20th century.
I have been able to do some cataloguing – both online and offline. The documents that had to be catalogued were the agendas and minutes of the meetings of the local Wiltshire councils. I began by sorting the documents by place, and noting their dates in Microsoft Excel. Then we had to go into a strong room, and place the meeting records with all of the others. These files are now accessible to the public. However the files have only been catalogued in draft form.