Working at the History Centre a little bit like being a Timelord… with access to the archives you can be transported through time and space.
The strong-rooms are our very own Tardis (Time and Relative Dimension in Space) since despite their relatively small footprint they contain around eight miles of archives.
Over the last two months I have been joined in my “travels” by GCSE and A-level students who have been on work experience at the History Centre.
The first port of call for the youngsters as they ventured into the strong-rooms was 12th century Messina in Sicily. One of the earliest documents in the Wiltshire and Swindon Archive is a letter (with Great Seal attached) from Richard I – Richard the Lionheart – confirming a gift of land to Stanley Abbey (WSA 473/34PC).
It is dated 3rd April 1191 and was sent by Richard from Sicily just days before he set sail with a fleet of ships to the Holy Land. (He had set out in 1190 to join the Third Crusade.) The letter came at a busy time for Richard who was not only on crusade but was about to be married to Berengaria of Navarre who had made her own epic journey across Europe with Richard’s mother Eleanor of Aquitaine to be with her future husband.
The students’ introduction to the archives continued with a jump to the Tudor period via a grant of arms, followed by a brief stop in restoration England and a splendid portrait of Charles II on an illuminated document.
With each new group of students I set myself and the students the challenge of searching our collections for documents relevant to their particular GCSE and A-level courses. The two world wars, the Cold War, and the Tudors are well travelled historical paths but what of 19th century China and Japan or American history?
At A-level, students at the end of Year 12 are making decisions about coursework so a placement at the History Centre was an ideal opportunity to begin their research. We had students who were looking at the American civil rights movement, antisemitism in England during the 19th and 20th centuries, the opium wars in 19th century China and western influence on 19th century Japan and the demise of the Samurai tradition.
In our pursuit of the American civil rights movement we took a detour into the history of the fledgling United States of America. The archive has a number of collections that, through letters and other documents, connect Wiltshire with the English colonies in the Americas, the war of independence and the American civil war and trade with the USA.
We were all rather excited to be handling two particular documents signed by James Madison and John Quincy Adams who served as the 4th and 6th presidents of the USA. Both documents (WSA 1498/4) were passports for Thomas Shorthouse who became an American citizen in 1797. The Shorthouse family lived at Little Clarendon, Dinton and the passports, letters from Philadelphia and citizenship document for Thomas Shorthouse are part of the family papers (WSA 1498/1-6).
The citizenship document was drawn up in the Court of Common Pleas of Philadelphia County and instructs Thomas to “absolutely and entirely renounce and abjure all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign prince, potentate, state or sovereignty whatever and particularly the allegiance to the King of Great Britain to whom he was heretofore a subject.”
The passports show that Thomas maintained his connections with his family in Britain. The first was signed by James Madison, as Secretary of State, in Washington on 27th September, 1805. Madison, one of the founding fathers of the USA, became President in 1809 and later became known as the ‘father of the constitution’.
In 1815, Thomas Shorthouse received a second passport, this time signed by John Quincy Adams who was then the United States Envoy in London. Adams went on to be the 6th President in 1825.
We could have spent all our time in North America reading letters and documents about rebellion in the colonies, American Independence, the civil war and abolition of slavery, but other countries beckoned.
Our search for documents relating to the Opium Wars yielded instant and fascinating results in the Public and State papers of Sidney Herbert (1810-1861), Baron Herbert of Lea, who from 1841 to 1860 was successively Secretary to the Admiralty, Secretary of War and then Secretary of State for War.
His papers are part of Wilton House and Estate archive and are a fascinating insight into 19th century British political and military history. The journey into this immense collection was brief but rewarding as we discovered a wonderful document that summarised the issues surrounding the opium trade (“Neglect of Government to take steps as to opium trade”, WSA 2057/F8/I/G/1), and several letters and despatches describing the taking of the Peiho Forts – a joint British and French military action in China in the 1860s (WSA 20157/F8/V/B/192ee).
From China in the 19th century we ventured into the 20th century and a world at war.
On 5th September 1916, the idea of having a war memorial in Chippenham was discussed. It was asked if a record was being kept of the men who were being killed and there was. The Parish Church was keeping a roll of honour.
The next time the idea for a memorial was discussed was after the war in January 1919 at a council meeting. Here they created a sub-committee to discuss what the memorial should look like/be. In April 1919 the committee decided on buying Monkton Park house and grounds and giving it to the public as a memorial. This was a very controversial decision as many preferred to have a real memorial not just a ‘pleasure ground’. The proposal for the purchase was put forward to the council in May 1919 and was rejected however this was mainly due to cost.
The council put the design of the memorial down to a public competition. There were many entries but the most popular design had the names of the 160 fallen inscribed onto the memorial surface. It was decided that the memorial should be in the market place as this was a prominent place in the town. Everyone could see the memorial if they were on London Street. The existing fountain was to be used for the memorial. The money needed to build the memorial was to be raised through public subscription.
Every year the History Centre hosts work experience students from Year 10 to Higher Education. Alex, a year 10 student from Malmesbury School describes what he got up to during his week:
Recently I have had work experience at the Wiltshire and Swindon History Centre in Chippenham. On my first day I got shown around the strongrooms which they have lots of original documents, records and certificate etc. I actually saw King Henry VIII’s marriage deed with Jane Seymour. After that I saw Archives Conservation and got told how they restore letters, papers and maps, I also saw a small piece of Napoleon’s hair, and a really nice photo album. I also had a look at a newspaper by Swindon Advertiser in 1918 and 1919 which was really interesting to look at all the different stories they had at that moment in time.
On the second day for the morning I was copying and pasting wills onto a disc for a researcher. Then I got an original document from the strongroom and I had to find the names and occupations of people, where they lived and the year, but it was sometimes really hard to find some people because the writing was really hard to read and some documents did not give names. After lunch I went into the object conservation lab and saw a sole from a roman shoe in the wet room with a freeze dryer, also I went into an x-ray room. After that I saw a very old ceramic pot that had been damaged by a badger when it was digging, the people in the lab were trying to put it back together. After that I did community history and I had an introduction to the Wiltshire Community History website and was able to look at all the different parishes that they have written information about.
I recently spent a week at the History Centre in Chippenham for my work experience. On Monday 29th June, our first day, a course was planned that we would research the village of Lacock and study how it has been developed and also why certain bits have remained the same as the 1500s when they have not survived in other places. We looked at a selection of maps, old house plans and books and answered a list of questions which were relevant and would help us develop our knowledge further about Lacock. In the afternoon, we went to Lacock and had a tour round studying important buildings, the structure of buildings and looked at the features of the church and any old features which still remain. We arrived back at the History Centre at around half past four after a tiring day but I would recommend the course to anyone thinking about doing it as you learn a lot about the village itself, but you can also apply this knowledge to other places you visit which have the same or similar features.
On the second day, we were given an introduction to the Wiltshire Community History website with Mike Marshman and were able to look at all of the parishes which they have covered and written information about. I was assigned the parish of Milston to research and having never heard of it, was looking forward to finding out new information and having a challenge. On the Tuesday afternoon, I continued to research Milston and look at things such as its church, roads, and buildings and also the Domesday Book which I had never looked much into therefore I found that particularly interesting.
For my Year 10 work experience I chose to come to the History Centre. It has been an insightful experience into what the Centre actually does. I was lucky enough to get to do some sub-numbering - it helps prevent documents becoming lost. I was sub numbering the Earls of Radnor archives – which are also done by volunteers. These documents vary in age from the 17th century to the 20th century.
I have been able to do some cataloguing – both online and offline. The documents that had to be catalogued were the agendas and minutes of the meetings of the local Wiltshire councils. I began by sorting the documents by place, and noting their dates in Microsoft Excel. Then we had to go into a strong room, and place the meeting records with all of the others. These files are now accessible to the public. However the files have only been catalogued in draft form.
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.)