W.G. Hoskins, the great pioneer of English local history, wrote in his ground breaking book, ‘Local History in England’ (1959), “Directories … give us a good start for reconstructing the kind of community which existed over a period of about a hundred years from the 1830s to the 1930s”. Admittedly, he was writing when only two of the Victorian censuses were available to use for historic investigation; modern researchers are spoiled for choice in having easy accessibility to no less than eight census returns, spanning the period 1841-1911.
Even so, directories – published lists of people’s addresses and occupations – continue to supply much useful information for family and local history researchers. Although hardly ever listing those of humble status (don’t expect your servant or labourer forebears to be mentioned), directories provide information on a more frequent basis than the census. In the nineteenth century, and right up to the decades following the Second World War, detailed directories appeared encompassing the whole country. Some national publishers (like Slater and the better-known Kelly) covered whole counties every couple of years, while other smaller local printers might concentrate on a single city or town, sometimes also including villages in the vicinity. As they were produced by competing firms, one year might see several different directories produced for a given place, and the following two or three years, nothing at all.
Whether they are weighty tomes, or slim booklets, directories provide useful, contemporary descriptions of Victorian and Edwardian parishes, towns and cities. They may give details of population and geography, agriculture and industry, schools, charities, public institutions, details of conveyances (coaches and trains) .… but most people use directories to search for people. They will not provide up-to-the-minute information; because of the delay between collecting information and publication, directories may include information that was a year or more out of date by the time the publication date was finally reached. Despite that limitation, a directory can give a flavour of a place, conveying a sense of what a town or district was like to live in at a particular time, and identifying the main property owners, naming the shopkeepers and listing the tradesmen who gave a place its unique character.
They generally listed people whom literate or reasonably well-off people might want to find – clergymen, gentry, nobility, professionals, farmers, craftsmen and tradesmen. Directories may give exact street numbers where census returns do not. The lists often appear in sections, sometimes using a threefold division into ‘Court’, ‘Commercial’ and ‘Trade’ – where Court listed private residents alphabetically, Commercial listed trade and business people alphabetically and Trade broke the commercial list down into constituent professions and trades.
Secret Swindon by Angela Atkinson Amberley Press, 2018 95 pages, includes bibliography, paperback ISBN 9781445683386 £14.99
The aim of this colourful publication is to prove that Swindon is so much more than you might think; a multi-layered, unique and vibrant town. As a reader you are invited to discover things you never knew, aided by ‘Did you Know’ fact boxes to guide the way.
The book begins with an interesting synopsis of the history of the town before the railway. The stories of Swindon’s major families, writers such as Richard Jefferies, Edith New, Swindon suffragette and houses now lost figure here, alongside secret locations and tips on how to while away a happy hour in the town on a historical theme.
Travel back with the GWR and the amazing feats of its employees to create a healthcare system and some wonderful works of culture; also included are the origins of the Mechanics Institute and Swindon’s aviation history for good measure. Modern Swindon is not overlooked, with architecture, the magic roundabout and the strength of today’s cultural activities being investigated.
Angela’s style is witty, snappy and easy to read, weaving information with a conversational tone reminiscent of her origins as a successful blogger.
The content is a lovely mix of old and new on a multitude of topics that goes to the heart of the character of the town. The images reflect the content and complement the text well.
The aim of the book has indeed been met. It will prove an eclectic revelation to both Swindonians and non-Swindonians alike.
It is available to view at here at the History Centre under ref: SWI.940
“But here, on the downs, you are not compassed about with trees and boughs, and locked fast in rich meadows… Instead there are bareness, simplicity, and spaciousness, coupled with a feeling of great strength and uncontrolled freedom, an infinity of range, and an immortality of purpose.”
Alfred Williams is better known for his poetry, having gained the title ‘Hammerman Poet’ whilst working for the Great Western Railway in Swindon.
Williams wanted to sketch a view of the people and landscape covering a whole locality rather than just one village or parish. The site was well known to him; along the ridgeway overlooking the Vale of the White Horse which extends into Oxfordshire, now part of the North Wessex Downs AONB.
Alfred’s attempt was successful and what remains are a collection of stories and imagery that takes you from community to community over a 20 mile area. Alfred notes that the characters he writes about are exactly as he found them, and he paints a good picture, describing their clothes, their speech, their backgrounds and trades, but the picture appears to have always been so rosy… perhaps possible artistic licence makes for a more nostalgic read?
The downs are described in detail including how they were cultivated and the flora and fauna that could be found. There were also the buildings; where they were located, what they looked like and their uses. The journey is fondly itinerated, from village to village, up slopes, through thickets and coombs, beside springs. Information on the history of the locations as Alfred knew it is recorded, along with tales of poaching, thieves, smugglers and ghosts. Time was spent talking about local sports such as cockfighting and backswarding and their importance in the community, the relationship between locals and their bees, and the customs that bound these traditions together. Williams presents a unified picture of old village life with ballad sheets in every house and many songs sung in pubs; fairs and revels; village ales. He also vividly notes the changes in the area from the first threshing machine, the first train, the arrival of telegraph poles, the decline of village trades.
Alfred encapsulated the lives of a number of local craftspeople such as the carter, the sawyer, the weaver, the tailor and the basket maker to name a few, describing who they were and how they worked. He also went into great depth regarding how to make certain products, from soap and candlemaking to watercress and elderflower products. Elderflower wine stood high in the estimation of the villagers. The famous north Wiltshire bacon could not be excluded.
One of our most frequent enquiries at the History Centre is along the lines of ‘I’m trying to find out where my great aunt is buried; her death was registered in Salisbury in 1923…..’ We can usually help them track down the place of burial, but what they really want is to find the plot to visit. People assume that all churches have a plan of their burial ground, when the reality is that most don’t.
My interest in this subject began as a small child when I accompanied my father, who mowed the grass in our village churchyard. While he was busy mowing I was busy wandering around looking at all the grave stones. Who were these people, where did they live, what did they do? Horningsham also has a number of listed tombs which are bigger and grander than a headstone and often commemorate whole families. I was fascinated by all these people and wanted to find out more about them.
Many years later I found two friends who were happy to help me survey the churchyard and this was the beginning of my project. Horningsham is a challenge geographically, as the church is on a hill and the burial ground is divided into three sections, all on different levels. I soon realised that this was not going to be straight forward! However, with the help of my friends (I couldn’t possibly have done it on my own), and countless visits to check my drawing, I have at last finished. It has taken me years and five attempts at drawing a map I am happy with, but it is a huge sense of achievement to have finished at last. Along with the map I have also transcribed the inscriptions and photographed all the stones.
Is this something that might interest you? There are countless parishes still to be done and the staff here are always happy to help you. The archaeology team will be able to provide you with a large copy of the ordnance survey map, to give you an accurate ground plan to work from. The first thing I did was to draw an outline of the church, as I used the row of pillars on the south wall as fixed points from which to measure the stones. The scale I used was 1:100. The graph paper was marked in millimetres.
From here I began plotting each stone from two fixed points.
On a 1:100 scale, 145cm and 130cm reduce to 14mm and 13mm. You then draw two arcs (using a compass), and where the two arcs meet is the centre of your headstone. A cross will probably suffice to mark a headstone, but a tomb will need a square.
Fortunately, I had the church on one side of the square and a wall on a second side which gave me a straight line of graves that were easy to plot. Together, these gave me two sides of fixed points that helped me plot the remaining graves.
I had a room full of interested attendees for my first History Revealed day. For those of you who are familiar with our Interpretation courses at the History Centre, this is a variation on a theme. I would like to extend the scope of this type of event which to date has been reliant on the morning study session being within easy reach of the field visit in the afternoon, tying us to the Chippenham area. My grand plan is to use our wonderful public libraries as a base for the study session to allow us to explore further afield.
This was our first ‘test case’, although not much further afield I grant you! However, it did coincide with Calne Heritage week which was very fitting.
Calne Library proved a great venue for hosting the morning session where attendees enjoyed a presentation beginning with guidance on what to think about when tracing the origins of a village. I continued by explaining how to make the most of secondary sources, including material by local authors, academic works, the census, local directories and much more. Bremhill was used as a case study with examples and details highlighted to prove how much can be gleaned from these types of sources. They are a good place to start as the legwork has already been done for you!
I continued with a look at maps – the enclosure award was a big hit and rightly so, the field names in particular are fascinating to look at, especially when studied in conjunction with older and more recent written and map sources.
My colleague, Archivist Ally McConnell, then shared a number of archive sources for Bremhill with the group, explaining just how they can be utilised for local history research. These included plans, school records, sales particulars and more.
We concluded the morning session with a look at a number of online sources which can aid research into village history and attendees got hands-on with a number of books available at Calne Library which can help with local history research in general and at Bremhill.
Have you ever thought about investigating the history of your community but aren’t sure where to start? Why not organise a Reunion! This is something I first started in Horningsham in 1995 and 23 years later we are still going strong! It first began in 1994 when I wanted to mark the 150th anniversary of the rebuilding of our church. We held a special service with refreshments afterwards and it was a great success. Someone then had the idea of tracing as many people as we could find who had been baptised in the church, to invite them to a Reunion. Everyone who came enjoyed it so much that they asked if we could do it again the following year, when we chose marriage as our theme………
There are some key factors that will guarantee success. Food and drink is always a good ice breaker, so try and offer some nice treats to your guests. If they are travelling a long way it is good to offer lunch if you can. My experience is that once people sit down with friends over lunch, they are very happy to just sit and chat.
Old photographs are always popular and are a good way of stimulating conversation and memories. This will also encourage people to search through their own collections and find you something for next year. My best find was the year that I was given a photograph of the Royal School at Bath, who were evacuated to Longleat House during WWII. I couldn’t believe my luck and knew immediately that I had my theme for the next year (2008). Many villagers were on the picture as staff who helped look after the girls and I was put in touch with some former pupils who were still living locally and who offered to share their memories with me. This proved to be one of our most successful events.
You will be surprised by how quickly your invitation list grows. Many times I was asked ‘have you contacted my cousin/auntie/school friend….’ and for many years the number of people attending was over 60. Every year I think of a theme and put up a display of photographs in the church, for people to look at before the service. If you tell people what the theme will be in their invitation, someone is sure to offer you some photographs. Photos with people or houses are the most popular; everyone likes to see a wedding photo or the house they grew up in. The friends who come to the Horningsham reunion have been so generous over the years that in 2000 I had enough material to publish a book for the millennium.