Last year I completed a dissertation that looked at how archives and archival activity could help tackle the widespread issue of elderly loneliness. As an archive professional I wanted to see what was being done within the profession that could aid the mental and physical well-being of those experiencing loneliness, but also to ask what else could be done. My research showed archival institutions are well placed to contribute to tackling loneliness, indeed they are already actively doing so. This blog hopes to highlight the positive effect of using archives during lockdown (and beyond!), and update readers on our work behind the scenes.
Anyone who frequents an archive may note its popularity with those of retirement age; retirees may have more time to undertake research and so may visit an archive more often. However, it should be emphasised that archives are friendly, welcoming places for anyone with an interest in history or any form of local history research to conduct: be it students researching for their degrees, house historians searching historic building applications, or family history enthusiasts. Anyone and everyone is welcome: provision of access to historic documents is at the forefront of our work, and we would encourage anyone to visit Wiltshire and Swindon History Centre, regardless of age and, furthermore, that feelings of isolation and loneliness are universal and not confined to any one demographic!
So, in these unprecedented times, where isolation and loneliness for all age groups is more prevalent than ever before, Wiltshire and Swindon History Centre is looking at new ways of serving all of our community. While we’re unable to carry out any physical outreach work during lockdown, promoting and ensuring continued access for as broad an audience as possible is still a fundamental and highly enjoyable part of the work of the archive team at WSHC, except now we must find new ways to reach out to anyone unaware of what we can offer!
In terms of our ability to interact with the community, our intrinsic knowledge of the local area ensures that we are well placed to do this. Archivists can relate to tales of old and offer suggestions on how to find out more on such subjects, but we can also bring to light fascinating new stories, that were hitherto forgotten or hiding in the strongrooms. In Wiltshire, our County Local Studies Librarian, Julie Davis, does exactly this with her ‘Memory Box’ reading groups – follow this link to see some of her recent isolation sessions from her living room. Julie’s work shows how heritage professionals are adapting to fulfil their duties during this period. Not yet available on the website, but done in preparation for the VE Day celebrations is her extract readings on the event. This is available here.
The entire nation would normally be planning events to commemorate the 75th anniversary of VE day. However, new and innovative ways are being sought to celebrate and mark the occasion during lockdown. The talk we had planned at WSHC has been made available online, again by Julie Davis, and is available here (you may need to sign in to Google for this).
Of course it is a great shame not being able to celebrate with our family, friends and neighbours, but Wiltshire Council has put together a VE Day Toolkit, that will hopefully provide inspiration on how best to celebrate this momentous occasion at home or in the garden.
Even if we cannot be in the immediate vicinity of our friends, family or community, we can continue to be connected, and being connected can contribute to people’s well-being. Did you know that there is evidence to show that tracing your family tree can have a positive effect on your mental health? Indeed, any form of research that engages the mind will be positive during these times, so why not take a look at some of the fantastic online resources that are available and start a new research project or learn about the local area? You can find out more about these resources here in our recent blogs.
Connectedness does not need to be confined to the present. Relating to the past, be it family members researched as part of a genealogy project, or even past occupiers of your house, can help ease feelings of isolation. Documents usually consulted in the searchroom, are increasingly available as online resources, for example: Wiltshire parish registers and wills are now temporarily available for free on Ancestry. Follow this link to see what’s available and for guidance on how to proceed. So, if you’re at home struggling for things to do, why not start your family history? We have starter packs available here too!
There are multiple agencies working locally and nationally to assist us in these difficult times. If you, or anyone you know, is struggling in isolation in Wiltshire, check out the Wiltshire Wellbeing Hub. Charities are naturally at the forefront of the effort to keep loneliness and isolation at bay. At a local level, Celebrating Age is a fantastic project aimed at tackling the issue of loneliness by delivering arts and heritage events in community settings for frail, vulnerable older people unable to access concert halls or theatres. Their current programme of events has understandably been called off, however they are looking at ways of delivering digital programme. Follow this link for 90 minutes of live music and storytelling from the comfort of your living room! Also, keep an eye on their website when lockdown is over because they are doing great things across the county.
At a national level, the Campaign to End Loneliness website has a really useful section specifically for Corona virus related issues and anxieties, as does the Age UK site.
I’d just like to sign off by wishing all of our readers well. Do share, re-tweet or pass on this message with family, neighbours, colleagues or anyone you know who may be struggling with loneliness during lockdown and whose well-being may benefit from some of the suggestions here.
Follow us on Twitter, friend us on Facebook and keep a close eye on our website for more information, as well as updates on re-opening. Happy researching!
To all our visitors and researchers who are enduring lockdown with the rest of the country, first and foremost, we hope you and your loved ones are safe and well in these difficult times.
While the History Centre is closed we wanted to reach out and let you know that the world of heritage is still accessible in many forms online. In the first of a series of blogs we highlight all that is available on our website and draw your attention to external websites that you can connect with from it. This is a generic overview and we will be publishing more detailed blogs on specific resources and how to best use them at home in due course.
Using the ‘Our Services’ tab you will unearth huge amounts of useful research tips and tools within the Archives section, from tips for the advanced family historian to how to research LGBT history. You will also see links to information which may be of interest, such as the work of an archivist – discover what we do behind the scenes (spoiler alert, we do not spend all day reading in the basement looking at dusty documents). There really is too much to highlight in just one blog post, so head over to the Archives page and explore for yourself.
In the Local Studies section of the website you will now find video recordings of County Local Studies Librarian Julie Davis conducting a virtual memory box reading group. Simply follow this link and then choose from the sessions by following the blue links listed after each session. Enjoy!
In this section there is also a link to the Wiltshire Community History website which is a wealth of information in itself, providing information on 261 Wiltshire Communities. This is well worth checking out for anyone interested in Wiltshire as a whole, but especially for more specific locations. It is arranged very simply in alphabetical order by location and every community page already has certain basic information, such as early maps, local administrative bodies, population from 1801, newspapers for its area, lists of local maps, the registration district, information on buildings and links to other sites of interest, plus a thumbnail history of the parish.
Of course our archive collection, the largest source of information in the History Centre, is locked away in the strong-rooms and is inaccessible for the foreseeable future. However our archive and library online catalogues remain accessible. The archive catalogue will give you a descriptive overview of our collections, but please be aware you cannot view the documents online. With that in mind, make a note of the reference number of any items you may wish to consult in the future once we reopen. If you are looking for new books or magazines to read, you can search the library catalogue. If you are not already a member you can sign up to access eBooks and eMagazines. The library service is also developing more online resources, such as poetry readings; keep an eye on their website for details.
Within the ‘Explore’ tab of the History Centre’s home page there are links to fabulous websites for all forms of local history. For those of you interested in researching local maps follow the link to Know Your Place West of England, which has historic maps for all participating counties in the region, though the Wiltshire map is available here.
It is an interactive website that layers historic maps of Wiltshire, which allows for easy map comparison and is useful for seeing how your local area developed over time. Watch this space though, as we are working on adding more useful information to it in the near future.
The Creative Wiltshire link is also well worth having a browse at, the project aim was to collect and celebrate the work of the county’s creative people, and the latest blog tells the story of the project as it reaches its conclusion.
This really is just a starter and, as mentioned above, there is so much more available on and via the website. So, whether you are a keen researcher already, or new to this heritage game then have an explore but also keep an eye out for the next in this series of blogs highlighting accessible heritage in Wiltshire during lockdown. Also follow us on Twitter and Facebook for instant updates.
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.