I’ve been producing documents for the public from the archives for 21 years, during which time I’ve come to know the collections quite well. There are several extremely interesting collections that are very under used. One particular collection is the Parish War Books (WSRO F2/851/3/1 – F2/851/4/52) which are a very interesting piece of local history.
The Wiltshire Parish War Books have their origins with the Napoleonic Wars when there was a real threat of invasion from the French. In 1798 a plan was drawn up to make provisions in the event of this happening. Titled “Rendering The Body Of The People Instrumental In The General Defence” it laid out three plans. The first was to cut off the food supply to the French by moving all the live stock away from the enemy advancing. Another measure was “Breaking the upper millstone and the crown of the oven are deemed the most effectual and least expensive modes of derangement”. Second, was to supply the number of wagons, carts and horses with drivers and conductors that could be made available to help supply the British Army with provisions. Lastly, a plan for insuring the regular supply of bread to the army with instructions for bakers to bake loaves of three pounds or four and a half. A hard crust all the way around was needed otherwise they would not keep in hot weather.
Copyright Imperial War Museum
Fast forward 143 years and the risk of invasion was once again upon us. By mid 1940 German forces had invaded France, Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands. “Operation Sea Lion” was the code name for Nazi Germany’s invasion plan of the U.K. during the Battle of Britain. In preparation, invasion committees were set up around the country.
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?