Articles tagged with: online resources

Tracing Your Military Ancestors Online

on Wednesday, 27 May 2020. Posted in Military

A few weeks ago Max posted two blogs listing some of the fantastic online resources available to family and local historians during the lockdown. It looks like we’ll all be waiting a little while longer for archives to start reopening, so in the meantime I thought it would be useful to highlight some more valuable sites that can help us scratch the history itch during these strange times. We often get enquiries from customers looking to find out more about a relative who served in the armed forces and given the recent VE Day celebration this seemed like a timely topic.

Trooper George Sweetman, Royal Wiltshire Yeomanry (WSA 3560/10/22)

Before we dig into some of the websites that offer access to soldiers’ records, it’s worth bearing in mind a few things. First, the sources that follow largely deal with historic records from before 1922. It is possible to get some material after that date, but soldiers’ service records after 1922 are still with the Ministry of Defence. Access to these records can be provided, for a fee, as long as the service member is no longer living - please see https://www.gov.uk/government/collections/requests-for-personal-data-and-service-records for more details.

Secondly, as with many other types of historical records the further back in time we go the sparser and less revealing the records become, and this is particularly true for ‘other ranks’ (Privates, Lance Corporals, Corporals, Sergeants and Warrant Officers). Before the First World War ‘service records’ as we would recognise them today did not exist for enlisted men, though they are more complete for officers. As such, if you are looking for soldiers serving before World War One you will very likely need to piece together information from multiple different sources, and even then, it’s likely that many of the records have not survived. Personnel records were more comprehensive after 1914, however more than two-thirds of these were destroyed by an incendiary bomb in 1940 and so the surviving papers are very incomplete.

Royal Wiltshire Yeomanry collection WSA 3560/10/22

Finally, looking at military records can be quite confusing if you don’t know which unit your relative served with, where that unit was stationed at a given time, or whether they were an enlisted soldier or an officer. Just as we recommend when taking your first steps in family history, it’s worth asking relatives what they remember and checking family documents to gather as much information as you can. A little work before you start can save you a huge headache further down the line.

With that, let’s have a look at some of the sites providing access to military records. Sadly, not all sites offer free access, but those that charge offer a free trial and I have provided a link to these trials where possible.

Most military service records are held at The National Archives, mostly but not exclusively in the War Office files. Obviously we can’t access the originals right now, and the majority of the files aren’t digitised, but at the moment any that are available electronically are free to download for as long as TNA remains closed (you will need to register with the site first). Luckily for us a lot of the War Office’s records are also available through TNA’s Digital Microfilm Project. This link will take you to the project home page which has instructions on how to access the material; to see which records are available from the War Office, scroll down until you see reference numbers beginning ‘WO’. It’s also worth searching TNA’s catalogue Discovery as some of the records are searchable by the soldier’s name, for example WO25 (registers of service) and WO374 (officers’ service files, 1898-1922). TNA also have an excellent series of guides on how and where to find information on members of the armed forces and they’re well worth a read.

Findmypast has an excellent collection of British Army Service Records transcripts and digital images which are indexed and searchable. It is a subscription service, but they’re currently offering a free 14-day trial for new members. The transcripts give a wealth of information including service number, rank, regiment and unit, birth year and birth county. The images accompanying the transcripts can give you even more information, including the soldier’s physical description, occupation, name and address of next of kin, religion and their service history.

Ancestry is, like Findmypast, a subscription service, but they also offer a free trial. Ancestry’s collection of Military Records covers everything from First World War pension records through to the Roll of Honour for seamen 1914-1945 and is well worth searching.

Some of the material on Ancestry is provided via their affiliate fold3 which hosts military records. Once again it’s a subscription service but they also offer a free trial, albeit only for seven days. The material is primarily American, but there’s a vast amount of material relating to Britain and the Commonwealth. Most useful will be the British Army Lists which contain information on officers in the regular army between 1882 and 1962, British Army WW1 Service Records, Medal Roll index cards, and British WW1 Wounded and Missing, though there are many other excellent collections on the site, all of which seem to be indexed by soldier’s name.

Royal Wiltshire Yeomanry WSA 3560/10/22

If you know that the soldier you are searching for was killed during a conflict then the Commonwealth War Graves Commission website can also be helpful. You can use its search function to find fallen soldiers, which in turn can give you information such as the soldier’s rank, service number, service branch, date of death and place of burial. If there is an inscription on the grave marker, this can be shown as well.

Finally, the websites of regimental museums can also provide a wealth of information. For example, The Wardrobe (The Rifles Berkshire and Wiltshire Museum) has a comprehensive history of the regiments related to Wiltshire, and also offers excerpts from unit War Diaries (which give an indication of what a unit was doing on a given day). These can be invaluable for getting a flavour of the actions soldiers took part in during a conflict.

Tom Plant

Community History Advisor

Exploring Heritage Online

on Saturday, 18 April 2020. Posted in Archives

Last week we showcased our website and talked about how to continue accessing heritage at home. This blog is a continuation of that theme with a look at just some of the many online offers from our colleagues in heritage, arts and libraries in Wiltshire and across the UK.

For budding family historians, the closure of libraries and archives has made it more difficult to access the necessary documents and records; while there are many records online they are often behind pay-walls. However, in partnership with Ancestry the History Centre can now offer free home access to Wiltshire parish registers and wills. You can find out how to access these records from our archives home page. If you are new to family history there are plenty of free "how to" guides to help you with your research. Head to the History Centre’s own archives pages for free research tools and check out the National Archives research guide on family historyAnother online genealogy resource is the Wiltshire site for Online Parish Clerks. The idea behind the project is to assist those who are researching their family history in a specific parish who might otherwise have difficulty accessing information at record offices. Also visit the Wiltshire Family History Society which has downloadable publications. (While the indexes are free, fees do apply to other publications.) Swindon Local Studies Library is able to offer free access to Find My Past for library members but downloads are limited and you do need to join the library. Watch  this space for further updates on free resources.

If local history, historic buildings, or aerial photography are your thing then you are spoilt for choice. Combining local history with guided walks is historian John Chandler’s latest publication Salisbury, The History Around Us and he has made this available as a free download from Hob Nob Press. John has revised and expanded his book, which was originally published in 1992, in anticipation of the 800th anniversary celebrations of the founding of Salisbury Cathedral and City. John is a familiar face at the History Centre working on Victoria County History – VCH – volumes for Wiltshire and Gloucestershire, including most recently a volume on Chippenham. He is the author of a significant number of books on the history of the south west and promotes the work of local historians as publisher of Hob Nob Press. 

Historic buildings and aerial photography are a feature of Swindon-based Historic England’s searchable online collections. Visit its archive and the home page where there are links to guides helping you explore heritage from the comfort of your own home. Part of the archive contains more than 4 million aerial photos of England, over 95,000 of which are viewable online via a dedicated website – Britain from Above. It is worth registering on this website – it is free – and this will allow you zoom in and explore the aerial photos in detail.

Another searchable database is the Wiltshire Historic Environment Record. This records all archaeological finds in the county and is a great way to discover what is under your house, road or home town. So whether it’s palaeolithic hand axes or Second World War pillboxes explore Wiltshire’s material history on the HER. And if you are interested in how buildings are dated then visit the Wiltshire Buildings Record website. Here you can learn about dendochronology (the study of tree ring growth and how it can be used to date buildings), the Wiltshire farmstead project and much more, including how to contribute to the work of the WBR.

Wiltshire is a county blessed with many wonderful historic houses and gardens, many of which are managed by the National Trust. While these beautiful spaces are currently closed to the public but the National Trust has been busy behind the scenes thinking of fun activities and challenges to carry out in our own homes and gardens. The organisation’s very popular  50 things to do before you're 11¾’ activity list has been adapted to meet the current requirement to stay at home with a selection of activities that can be done in the garden. There are wide ranging suggestions on things to do at home – for all ages – including exploring some of the National Trust’s collections on the theme of spring.

Also on an artistic theme, the Arts in Wiltshire blog has collated a number of online resources to help you take part in and enjoy creative activities at home. The blog is regularly updated so is worth checking out if you are looking for creative activities for yourself or your family. It also contains information for arts practitioners on where to go for help and guidance during this lockdown period.

Reading is hugely important for all ages and Wiltshire Libraries is making sure there is something for everyone available online. Check out Read and Rhyme on the Active Communities web page for information on Rhyme Time readings on Wiltshire libraries Facebook pages, eBooks and eMagazines, and titles for Reading Groups. The Reading Agency has also produced a toolkit to help us all stay connected during isolation, providing ideas on how to keep book groups going virtually, preparing for the Summer Reading Challenge and Reading Well which supports all ages in understanding and managing our health and wellbeing.

Continuing the reading theme, the British Library website is well worth checking out, especially its Discovering Children’s Books pages. These explore the history and rich variety of children’s literature and provide a host of great activities for all the family, from learning how to draw a Gruffalo, to making your own miniature book or even your own flying superhero. For those of you on Twitter you can keep up to date with more initiatives coming out of UK libraries by following #LibrariesFromHome. For those not on social media visit the Libraries Connected webpage.

In the previous blog we spoke about the Know Your Place website for accessing historic maps of Wiltshire and some of its neighboring counties. However, if you require access to nationwide collections then visit the National Library of Scotland maps website which has over 200,000 digital maps available for consultation. As with all new websites, getting used to the lay out and how it all works can take some time, but it does have some very useful orientation videos, which are well worth viewing before you get started.

We can’t finish this blog without a visit to The National Archives which has added some new resources following the nationwide lockdown. The boredom busters section is great for regular or new users and includes podcasts, videos, online exhibitions and more. Also, why not have a go at the online paleography (reading old handwriting) course. It is interactive, fun and will prove useful when you are able to get back into the search room to consult those all-important historic documents.

We hope this finds you all well, whether you are one of our regulars or are new to the Wiltshire & Swindon History Centre. Engaging with heritage, arts and culture really is a great way to encourage creativity and support wellbeing during these difficult times, so explore the links in this blog and keep an eye out for more material coming your way soon.

Max Parkin, Archivist & Ruth Butler, Heritage Education Officer

 

Getting the most from the History Centre website

on Friday, 10 April 2020. Posted in Archives

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.

The Wiltshire & Swindon History Centre website is a gateway to vast amounts of accessible information. On the Archives home page you will find useful starter packs for family history, ideal for anyone considering taking up genealogy as a pastime whilst in isolation, also house history and town and village history.

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.

Work of an archivist

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! 

Memory Box Reading Group

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.

Creative Wiltshire

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.

Max Parkin, Archivist

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