Articles tagged with: Second World War

Happy Memories of the Royal School at Longleat

on Friday, 19 June 2020. Posted in Schools, Wiltshire Places

Since 1994 I have organised an annual village reunion in Horningsham, attended by residents past and present. Each year has a theme and an accompanying display, using material lent to me by the people who attend. In 2008 I was lucky enough to be given a photograph taken in 1947 showing all the pupils, teachers and those employed to look after the school. I was also fortunate enough to be put in touch with a lady living in Warminster who was a pupil there. Along with seven friends, she was able to give me a lot of help and they all came to the reunion. Here are some memories of Elizabeth Fosbroke-Hobbes and Vivienne Bateman-Champain (maiden names).

The Royal School for daughters of officers of the army was founded in 1864 at Lansdown on the outskirts of Bath. The school's mission was to provide practical and religious education for the daughters of army officers who might otherwise be unable to afford it. In 1939 the school was warned that it might be requisitioned, and in early September the Admiralty's Hydrographic Department took over the Lansdown premises. Fortunately, Lord Bath had heard that the school was looking for a temporary home and offered them Longleat. On 29th September, the pupils boarded a train to Frome, not knowing that it would be eight years before they returned to Bath.

Royal School pupils at Longleat

Elizabeth takes up the story: “The new girls arrived at Frome station. Those of us who were aged 14 or over had to walk to Longleat. I remember it was a very wet night and we were faced with a five-mile walk! The younger girls and the ‘first night’ suitcases went to Longleat in a bus.”

Many of the girls in the bus did not know what Longleat looked like. As they passed through the stone archway and between the double avenue of trees they fell silent for a moment. There before them stood Longleat, rectangular, symmetrical and immensely dignified, looming up in the dusk. When they trooped into the hall and up the front stairs they were abashed by the imposing portraits; they found themselves whispering. They followed large cardboard arrows painted in House colours and sorted themselves out into dormitories. Every available room upstairs was filled with beds, from the thirty ranged under the painted ceiling of the Salon to the six or seven in the smaller bedrooms. 1

Elizabeth’s bed was underneath the enormous Adam fireplace in the Salon, overshadowed by a very large statue of Hercules in marble. It was very scary in the moonlight! She remembers that in the beginning, Longleat was not on the main electricity grid, and had its own generator. The supply became weak in the afternoons and evenings. When the girls had lessons and prep the candles were lit down the dining room table. They sat round the table and the teachers read from text books as the pupils tried to write in semi-darkness.

Elizabeth was one of a team of girls who were fire fighters. “Sixteen girls were chosen for this task (I was one of them), who it was considered were not likely to become hysterical. When the ‘Green Alert’ went up in Bath, the two ARP wardens on the roof of the House rang a bell. The school all went down to the cellars except us, who had to stand at our fire stations in the various corridors in the House. We were in pairs and had a water cart and a stirrup pump, waiting for the bombs and the incendiary bombs! Although we had several ‘dog fights’ over the House and grounds fortunately there were no bombs.

“We had training sessions with the stirrup pumps and one day I hit the PE mistress (who was in charge of the firefighting gang) with the hose water. She was not amused and allocated me the spookiest area as my station. This was the south corridor at the top of the House, which was supposedly haunted. This was my punishment!”

Food was of course very important to growing girls and Vivienne vividly remembers what they were given! “Our main cooked meal was at lunch time and was eaten in one of the three dining rooms. I still remember the menu, which never changed! Sunday was a roast, Monday grated vegetables. On Tuesday we had shepherd’s pie and Wednesday was stew. I don’t remember Thursday, but Friday was fish and Saturday cold meat.

“Every day we had a pudding, usually treacle or currant. Each dining room also had an extra rice pudding. Unfortunately, there was only enough for one table, so your turn didn’t come around very often! Saturday tea was eaten in the cellars and we were served by the senior girls. We had bread and margarine with pilchards, followed by bread and treacle – all on the same plate!”

The arrival of the School also brought change for the village of Horningsham, as there were opportunities for employment, particularly women. Lionel Marsh and his mother both found work at the school. “I can remember singing in the church choir when the Royal School girls used to attend the church morning service in Horningsham. The church always seemed to be full of them. From what I can remember, they used to walk to and from church along the footpath from just above the Longleat Lodge gates, past the front of Mill Farm, and joined the main road above the almshouses.

“My mother used to work for the School. Most of the time she rode her bicycle, but sometimes she would walk there and back, along White St and across the Park. Sometimes she would carry home a fire wood limb on her head.

“I also worked at the School in the evenings. My job was to load the dirty crockery on to a four-wheeled trolley and to take it in the lift down to the washing up room. Here the women from the village used to load the crockery into metal containers which were then passed through a washing machine. Six school girls did the drying up. I then took the crockery back upstairs to the maids, who returned it to the dining rooms. I was paid 2s 6d for around two hours work each evening. I did this job until I was called up for National Service in August 1946.”

Lord Bath enjoyed sharing his home. Only a couple of months after the School’s arrival he wrote to the headmistress: “I am quite honest that I am enjoying every moment. It is twenty-five years since I had children running about the house. I have enjoyed my life even when alone, but I never realised how lonely I have been, and I love hearing the children all over the place – in fact I keep my door open on purpose.”  When a girl celebrated her birthday, a slice of cake was always given to Lord Bath. It was therefore a huge shock when he died suddenly on 9th June 1946. For two days he lay in state in the Great Hall. The day of his funeral the girls in their blue capes with red-lined hoods formed a guard of honour on the steps while men from the Estate carried the cedar coffin down between their ranks.2

The Royal School remained at Longleat for another year, finally leaving on 30th July 1947. It was time to return home to Bath, leaving the 6th Marquess of Bath able to take full possession of his home.

Helen Taylor, Senior Community History Advisor

1 and 2. H Osborne,  A History of the Royal School for Daughters of Officers of the Army 1864-1965.

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

From ice cream to internment

on Tuesday, 17 September 2019. Posted in Archives, Wiltshire People

It’s funny what you end up discovering in the archives. A couple of weeks ago a researcher, Dr Kate Luck, came to me in the reading room and asked if I had come across a man named Andrea Cavacuiti during my research on internees in Wiltshire. I hadn’t, but it turns out that it’s possible to find out quite a bit about him from the police files held here at the History Centre and from the internee records held at The National Archives (now available on Ancestry).

Andrea was an Italian who settled in Chippenham in the 1930s and was eventually sent to an internment camp on the Isle of Man during the Second World War. Andrea was born in a village between Bardi and Palma in northern Italy. He came to the UK in 1934 and worked as an ice cream vendor (like most Italian migrants) in Burnham on Sea. Eventually he married a woman from Bristol and the family settled in Chippenham. Andrea opened his first shop, selling ice creams, at 25 The Causeway. The building had previously been a butcher’s shop and so already had a large freezer – ideal for an ice cream seller.

Cavaciuti’s entry in the 1939 Kelly’s Directory

He later opened a fish and chip shop and then moved at least some of his business to the Market Place, opening up the Waverley Café in the area.

After the Second World War broke out and Italy looked likely to enter the war against Britain, MI5 asked the Wiltshire police to keep an eye on all Italians living in the county. They eventually produced a list of these people, which survives in our Constabulary records.

List of Italians in Wiltshire prepared by Wiltshire police – F5/530/7

You can see Andrea’s name on the list about a quarter of the way down – interestingly he’s listed as female, presumably because whoever wrote the list didn’t realise that Andrea is a male name in Italy. It does give us a little insight into how much effort the police expended in drawing up the list – presumably it didn’t extend to actually observing the people involved!

F5/530/7

Like most Italians Andrea was arrested and interned the night that Italy entered the war against Britain.

Telegram to Wiltshire Police ordering the internment of all male Italians in the county, 10 June 1940. F5/530/7

Elephants and the Moon: Unexpected Wiltshire

on Tuesday, 30 July 2019. Posted in Archives, History Centre

One of the many joys of our archive is how it encompasses not only the county’s history – its people and places – but also world events as witnessed and experienced by Wiltshire folk through the centuries.

Each year I am in the privileged position of being able to take young historians on an archival journey round the world thanks to the extensive collections held by Wiltshire and Swindon Archive. These youngsters come to the Wiltshire and Swindon History Centre for work experience and for a week they get to explore the archive and local studies collections, as well as learn about the work of the conservators, archaeologists, civil registration certificates team and business support staff.

During five weeks of work placements – this year we took 14 students from six schools –the archives have transported us through time and space. We have crossed continents and centuries, catching a glimpse of the ordinary and extraordinary lives of people from another time.

As Education Officer at the History Centre there are types of documents that I frequently use because they make great classroom resources – maps, photographs, diaries, personal letters, school log books. And then there are the topics for which we have excellent collections – Tudors, Victorians, canals and railways, the First and Second World Wars and the Cold War.

But with the arrival of work experience students I have the opportunity to explore the archives at a more leisurely pace and in broader terms – and I am always finding new things to look at or seeing familiar documents in a different way. A good example is Siegfried Sassoon’s February 1933 letter predicting war. This year was the third time I produced the document for students and it was as they were practicing their transcribing skills I finally made out a word that had been eluding me all this time – ‘entente’. It was so obvious that I’m slightly embarrassed to admit that I had not worked it out sooner.

Although we often begin by digging out documents related to topics being studied at GCSE and A-Level, the challenge is to find the more unusual and quirky among them that don’t always see the light of day but which take us on wonderfully unexpected journeys.

One of the quirkiest set we produced this year concerned the gift of an elephant to Queen Charlotte (wife of George III) in 1794. Three letters (WSA 9/34/42) contain hints and allegations of an East India Company man, who acted as an intermediary in delivering the elephant, claiming back the cost of the animal despite it being a gift.

The East India Company is well documented across a number of significant collections within the Wiltshire and Swindon Archive, including archives from Wilton House, the Earls of Radnor (Longford Castle), the Seymour family (Dukes of Somerset), politician Walter Hume Long and the Money-Kyrle family.

But I was not expecting to find any further reference to elephants… Yet in the Lacock archive, among documents belonging to the Davenport family, is a cache of letters, invoices, receipts and company accounts detailing goods being shipped – including elephants’ teeth! (WSA 2664/3/2B/125 & 139 and WSA 2664/3/2D/79 et al.)

My dear Edith… letters from the Bloomsbury Set and Bright Young Things

on Wednesday, 18 July 2018. Posted in Archives, Wiltshire People

Each July I set myself a challenge – to find documents in our archive that support the GCSE and A-level topics studied by students who come to us on work placements.

The topics are wide-ranging and on the face of it have little to do with our wonderful county. But Wiltshire folk have always found themselves involved in, if not at the centre of, world events.
Among the topics studied by students who have been with us this year are: the Crusades; Henry II; Black American history and Germany 1889-1989. That was just one A-level student.

At GCSE most students tend to study medicine through time, often with a more in-depth look at battlefield medicine in the First World War. Other topics that our students have studied include Weimar and Nazi Germany; international relations during the Cold War; settling of the American west; American politics and civil rights plus a bit of King John and the Magna Carta and a touch of Elizabethan politics, trade and war with Spain thrown in for good measure.

And yes – we can produce documents that relate to all of these topics. The Wiltshire and Swindon Archive is truly global in its coverage.

This year though, the particular challenge was finding collections that referenced the rise of Nazism in 1930s Germany. We searched using a variety of key words including ‘Hitler’. And it was this search that yielded some interesting results – letters written to author and diarist Edith Olivier by friends who were travelling in Europe in the 1930s or who had strong opinions about the politics of Germany and Italy.

We are privileged to have Edith’s archive as she was an inveterate diary and letter writer and our collection contains fascinating letters, notes and postcards from her large circle of friends who, post First World War, included nationally and internationally famous writers, artists, socialites and aristocracy associated with the ‘Bright Young Things’ and the ‘Bloomsbury Set’.

Three letters in this collection were particularly exciting – two were written in 1933 (WSA 982/116) and the third in 1938 (WSA 982/125), and all referred to events and people that are now key to our understanding of the interwar period.

Poet Siegfried Sassoon was a close friend of Edith’s and they wrote to each other regularly. A letter from him dated 28 February, 1933, highlights his fear that another war is imminent. He wrote it the day after the Reichstag – the German parliament building – was set on fire and a month after Hitler had been sworn in as German Chancellor.

Sassoon writes: “How miraculously opportune my poor little poems will be at this moment when there is all this horrible war feeling in the air. Everything seems leading up to a European war… & Hitlerism appears to be a very dangerous & explosive remedy for unrest!”

His letter also alludes to the political disagreements at home with some factions supporting the work of the League of Nations and others believing the organisation, formed in the aftermath of the First World War, was doomed to failure.

Sassoon goes on to say: “The Devil must rub his hands when he sees Winston baiting poor old Lansbury, who after all is on the right side, though he may be a bit silly.”

Lansbury was George Lansbury who in October 1932 became leader of the Labour Party. He was known for his belief in pacifism and unilateral disarmament; so it is interesting to read Sassoon’s support of Lansbury’s position. Sassoon is pessimistic about the future: “I have been thinking about it a lot, & I can’t help feeling that, given a bit of bad luck & people losing their heads, another war might be started just as the Reichstag has been set on fire. Isn’t it strange how some people seem definitely to hate the League of Nations for trying to safeguard the world?”

Christmas Behind the Wire

on Saturday, 16 December 2017. Posted in Archives, Military

George Sweetman’s Diaries, 1942-1945 (3560/10/22/2)

When we think of the Second World War, we often think of the Home Front or the front lines, Dunkirk and D-Day. It’s much less often that we think of those who spent their time behind enemy lines as prisoners of war. As I was looking through the archive catalogue recently I came across an entry for Trooper George Sweetman, of the Royal Wiltshire Yeomanry, whose diary recounts his time as a PoW. As we get close to Christmas and begin to think of spending time with our family and friends, I thought about what life must have been like for men like George at this time of year as prisoners of a hostile nation so far from home. George’s diary gives us a fascinating insight into the lives and emotions of captured British soldiers, how their morale ebbed and flowed with the course of the war, and how important Christmas was to their wellbeing.

On 2 November 1942 George’s unit went into action in North Africa, as part of Operation Supercharge, part of the Second Battle of El Alamein. The Royal Wiltshire Yeomanry, operating within the 9th Armoured Brigade, lost a large number of tanks during the action, partly as a result of a counterattack led by the 21st Panzer Division. In his diary, George recorded the action: “Went into action at dawn. B Sqd. first in, one shot up A.T.G [anti-tank guns], lorries & tanks, & then Jerries’ main armoured force came & a big fight started”, and his unit took heavy casualties.“We lost B Sqd., lost all our tanks, we got wiped out.” George was taken Prisoner of War (PoW) during this action, and was to spend the rest of the war in a PoW camp.
 
From El Alamein George was taken through Egypt to Libya and from there he and other PoWs were shipped to Greece and onwards to Italy, arriving in southern Italy on 22 November 1942. The prisoners’ journey was far from easy. The day after his capture George’s convoy was attacked by the RAF: “coming up the Mersa road from Darla we got bombed and machine gunned to hell with our own planes. Several of our mates got wounded & one got blown to bits. A hell of a day that was”. Relative to what was to come in the last years of the war conditions in the Italian camps were fairly good, though life there was apparently rather boring. The prisoners’ main complaint was about the quantity and quality of the food, which came to a head in George’s first Christmas behind the wire.

Trooper George Sweetman (3560/10/22/2)

As you might expect for men held prisoner in a foreign, enemy, country there wasn’t much in the way of a build up to Christmas in the camp. In fact even Christmas cards were a luxury: there weren’t enough available for each man to send one home, and the prisoners had to draw lots to see who would be given a card. Luckily for George he won one, and sent it home on the 8th of December. Post to and from the camps during the war was slow, and George would not receive his first letter from home until March 1943. Apart from this there do not seem to have been any Christmas activities in the camp until Christmas Eve which was, for George and the others, a disappointment: after sports in the morning and afternoon, “we had a meat meal in evening. We had a concert in our hut in the evening it was very good, finished with a blind boxing match so that ended Xmas eve, of course we missed the beer and food. Just went to bed”.

If anything, Christmas Day was an even greater disappointment. Throughout the war the Red Cross distributed parcels to PoWs containing food, tobacco and hygiene items. The parcels were meant to supplement the rations that PoWs received in the camps which were usually insufficient in terms of both calories and nutrients. The parcels often came infrequently due to the circumstances of the war, but when they did arrive they were the highlight of the men’s week. Even more than these deliveries, though, the men hoped for one particular parcel. Every year at Christmas the Red Cross delivered Christmas dinner in a parcel to the PoWs, including everything from Christmas pudding to chocolate and sweets. Unfortunately for George and the other prisoners, in December 1942 their Christmas parcel never arrived.

On Christmas Day the men woke early and made a cup of tea, allowing themselves a ration of 2 or 3 biscuits from their remaining ordinary Red Cross parcel. After finishing this the day continued much as any other, with a parade and count of the prisoners, followed by a church service at 9 o’clock and the standard lunch ration “just the same as any other day”. In his usual understated style George simply recorded in his diary “The Red Cross Xmas parcel which we expected never turned up, a great disappointment”. In the afternoon the men received a small Christmas gift from their Italian captors: one orange for each prisoner. Later, it started to rain. At 4pm the men had their ordinary hot meal, with no Christmas extras. After a “sing song” in the evening their Christmas ended. George’s diary reveals his bitter disappointment: “and so to bed hungry & that was how we spent Christmas Day 1942 in our P.O.W. camp. I thought of home, all the good food. That’s all we think about hear [sic] is food”. Morale in the camps was often low, a consequence of having little to do but sit and think, and the missing Christmas parcel crushed the men’s spirits. This continued into Boxing Day – it rained constantly, and the men were forced to sit in their huts all day, with the same standard food ration that they had on any other day. George simply recorded in his diary “and so to bed, that was Boxing Day and Christmas once again over. Wonder where we shall be next Christmas”.

Over the next week life went on as normal until, in the New Year, a rumour ran round the camp that the Christmas parcels had arrived. On Monday 3 January George recorded in his diary “the tale was true – some Xmas parcels had come in but not enough for one each, so we are keeping them till Wednesday in case some more come in … Roll on Wednesday”. By Wednesday the missing parcels had still not come in, so the men had to share one between two. George copied the contents of his parcel into his diary:

Contents of George’s Christmas 1942 Red Cross parcel (3560/10/22/3)

Quite a feast for men used to one hot meal a day, which was often a ‘soup’ of a small amount of vegetables in water; by April 1945, when George was imprisoned in Germany, it was a distant luxury. In 1943, though, the men made sure to savour their good fortune. “We had our Xmas pudding hot”, George wrote in his diary, with “jam & Nestlé’s milk after it”, with an apple given to them by the Italians to mark Epiphany. Compared to his mood on Christmas Day, George was ecstatic: “this is my happiest day since P.O.W. the best food I had … a good day”. The next day the men finished off the remainder of their Christmas parcel, eating their cake, marmalade, butter, and beef & tomato pudding.

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