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the delay between collecting information and publication, directories may include information that was a year or more out of date by the time the publication date was finally reached.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.
“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.
We are used to looking at a wonderfully rich source of materials in our Local Studies Libraries, Archives and Museums, but how many of you have ever wondered how those books, photographs, newspapers, archive collections and museum objects got there? Some material of course has been collected over many years, some of it gifted and others purchased; while for Archive services material is often deposited but still owned by the depositor. When material comes up for sale, usually at auction, a decision whether to attempt to buy an object or an archive collection is made on case by case basis (with the help of grants from various bodies raised at short notice). Now this can work well, but as you might imagine this is a reactive process rather than proactive; consequently gaps in our collections can emerge. This means that the heritage for future generations is incomplete and does not tell the full story of our communities past and present.
In Wiltshire and Swindon we have been thinking about this problem and looking at how libraries, archives , museums and art galleries can work together to identify and fill significant gaps in our collections; thinking about what we should collect, what do local communities think is important to their heritage, what would we leave for future generations? In particular we have been looking at the heritage of our local creative industries, something that is part of our everyday lives now and has been for past generations, but not always given the full attention it deserves. Now, with the aid of a grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund, we are able to take a strategic approach to collecting materials for our creative industry and, importantly, we have a significant fund to purchase items.
That Wiltshire opened its first purpose built library in the town of Melksham. And it was 43 years ago last month that a young Michael Marshman took over as the third town librarian. It was pretty much state of the art at that time – wooden shelves, dark wood block floor, lots of divisions and underfloor heating. When I returned to give the 50th birthday talk I found it transformed into a bright, friendly, and welcoming modern library.
Before launching into my local history talk I reflected on library life in the early 70s. Just like today there were lots of children’s activities – with the help of Children and Schools Librarian, Valerie Fea, I ran a twice weekly Puffin Club for about 70 children with lots of literary activities, competitions and games. We had top children’s authors such as Leon Garfield and Philippa Pearce visiting filling the then exhibition room with an attentive audience.
Here at the Wiltshire and Swindon History Centre we often get requests for work experience by people interested in a career in heritage, so it seems timely, with the end of the school year approaching, to run through some key facts and provide some useful links. This guidance is primarily aimed at those living in England - other parts of the UK may need to use a search engine to find links more appropriate to them.
The first thing to note is that ‘heritage’ is a very broad term and you will need to decide which aspect of it you are most interested in, as there is specialist vocational training for different careers and you can save yourself a lot of time and money by investing in the right training sooner rather than later. (For example if you want to become a qualified archivist it is essential to have a degree plus a post-graduate qualification in an accredited topic such as Archives Management – you cannot simply have a history degree, or an MA in another topic, even if it’s heritage-based.)
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.