Four years ago I wrote a blog about the importance of archives, and I felt, with International Archives Day today (Saturday 9 June), it was timely to revisit this topic. Archives are often newsworthy, but not always for good reasons - I was saddened by the recent story on the BBC News website of adopted children in Ireland with falsified birth certificates. As the story shows, archives are meant to be authentic records of the past, vital for discovering our history, but they can be subject to human manipulation and distortion, like anything else. ‘Fake news’ is nothing new. Last week one of my colleagues informed me that a famous photograph showing an aeroplane over Stonehenge during the First World War is probably not genuine but a pre-Photoshop analogue amalgam of two separate photographs. I felt quite cheated! However, it is important to recognize that ‘fake’ archives are the exception not the rule, whatever some politicians – and countries - might have us believe. As a custodian of archives I think it’s important to reassure the public that archivists as a profession abide by a code of conduct and strive to behave ethically.
An archive is a record which has been selected for permanent preservation, and so it doesn’t need to be hundreds of years old but could have been created two months ago, two weeks ago, even two days ago. The key thing is that it has some kind of evidential value for the future, going above and beyond the purposes it was originally created for. One of our oldest documents - a charter for Stanley Abbey dating from c1151 - is evidence that such a body existed, and tells us what lands it once held, lands which are now owned by other people who can trace their descent over the centuries with the use of other archives such as title deeds and maps. It matters as part of the wider jigsaw of the history of Wiltshire’s communities. The format of such archives is irrelevant. The Council minutes being created electronically and published on Wiltshire Council website today are just as important as the large, leather-bound volumes in our strong rooms dating back to the formation of the Council in 1888. These archives matter because they act as crucial evidence of the decisions of the local authority which affect the lives of thousands of people, from planning and rights of way, to the care of children and vulnerable adults. Without publicly available minutes recording such decisions, local people would be unable to defend themselves against the local authority, businesses or individuals behaving in a corrupt, unlawful or self-serving manner. Bishop Desmond Tutu once stated: ‘Archives are the bulwark of a free society’ (speech by Tutu at a CITRA conference, Oct 2003.) You only have to look at the way archives and historical artefacts are often targeted during war, to see the justification for this. Evidence that could be used against an aggressive or inhumane regime is conveniently swept away, so that the narratives which prevail are those of the victor. Those who think this would never happen in the UK should look again at the earlier Hillsborough public inquiries where redaction was used by the police to distort the narrative of what happened – thankfully the unredacted records survived in the archives and were able to be used by the Hillsborough Independent Panel which published its report in 2014.
As many of you are no doubt aware, the Festival of Archaeology was held from 11th to 26th of July 2015. This celebration of the diverse and intriguing archaeology present in the British Isles was 25 years old, and comprised a series of events to allow people a chance to engage with all aspects of archaeology. As part of this, the Wiltshire Council Archaeology Team held two guided walks to explore different parts of the county, and to show off some of the spectacular sites that can be enjoyed here in Wiltshire!
The first walk was held on 11th July at Cherhill, which lies between Calne and Avebury, and principally investigated Oldbury Hillfort and the White Horse hill figure. The day dawned sunny and bright and a party of 30 or so enthusiastic visitors (complete with several dogs!) set off up the hill to explore the Iron Age hillfort and the surrounding landscape and monuments. The intrepid walkers learnt how the distinctive Cherhill White Horse is one of 13 such hill figures in Wiltshire but is the second oldest having been created in 1780, possibly to imitate the Uffington White Horse in Oxfordshire.
Once the steep climb to the top of the hill was complete, there was a discussion of the Landsdowne Monument, the 120ft high obelisk that many of you will have seen from the A4 Bath Road in your journeys across the county! This was built in 1845 by the Landsdowne family as an ‘eye-catcher’ to commemorate their adventurous relative, Sir William Petty, who made his fortune through trading, banking and ownership of land in Ireland during the 17th century. Looking down to the road also brought to mind the infamous Cherhill Gang; a group of notorious highwaymen that robbed stagecoaches in the 18th century. The group were amused to learn that the robbers carried out their crimes entirely naked so as to conceal their identity – but even this didn’t prevent them from being caught and executed at Devizes!
Among the numerous national anniversaries we are commemorating in 2015 (which includes those for World War 1, World War 2 and, of course, Magna Carta) is one that perhaps will get less attention, which is the 50th anniversary of the death of Winston Churchill who died on the 24th January 1965. The Wiltshire and Swindon History Centre has received a few enquiries on possible Churchill connections with Wiltshire and so I thought I would dig a little deeper by doing what all good Archives & Local Studies Managers do … ask my colleagues if they knew of any! So here is what they have come up with so far.
Clearly as a man with connections Churchill no doubt visited numerous notable friends and families in the county that we do not yet know of, perhaps including those whose archives we hold. However, the earliest reference appears to be in 1914 with a more unexpected connection. Churchill was a keen early aviator and despite his family’s fears of the danger of airplanes at that time, he was one of small group of people to learn to fly these machines and certainly the first politician. There is an image held by the Science Museum of Winston Churchill preparing to fly at Upavon, home to the Army Flying Corps. You can find out more about his love of flying and view the image at:
During and following the First World War Churchill was a prominent politician. He had become an MP in 1900 and having first attached himself to the Conservative Party he crossed the floor of Parliament to join the Liberal Party in 1904. He served at various times as Under-Secretary of State for the Colonies, President of the Board of Trade and First Lord of the Admiralty. In 1915 he resigned from government to serve on the Western Front, but returned to government in 1917 as Minister of Munitions, then Secretary of State for War in 1919 and Secretary of State for the Colonies in 1921 in the coalition government.
We have several letters within our archives at the History Centre to and from Churchill that can be found in the political papers of Viscount Long of Wraxall, who was an MP and, like Churchill, held several prominent positions during a long political career.