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!
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.
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.
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!
Like most Italians Andrea was arrested and interned the night that Italy entered the war against Britain.
Richard I was not particularly interested in England, only spending a few months out of his 10 year reign in England, but he was interested in his crusades which needed to be financed. A new way of collecting tax was needed as the current system of “holding the pleas of the crown” in which the King’s itinerant Judges toured the country and held courts in villages to settle disputes and levy fines was inefficient at actually raising revenue for the crown. The problem was it took so long for the Judges to complete their circuit that the sheriffs were able to pocket the fines and not pass them onto the king.
In 1194 new reforms were set up, which included new county officers called the Coroner (or Crowner as they were originally called – Coronam is Latin for crown). They were tasked with “keeping the pleas of the crown” which meant they had to document cases before the justice court rolled into town. Their role was simple, to generate as much income for the King as possible. Sudden deaths were of particular interest to the new Coroner, because if the death was proved to be suicide (“self murder”) then the goods of the deceased would be forfeited to the crown. Buried treasure (treasure trove), goods washed up on shore and shipwrecks all belonged to the king. It was now the job of the Coroner to record these events and to make sure that any revenue due to the King went in to the royal coffers.
By 1194 the Saxons were still in a habit of killing Normans, if a dead person was found, the village in which it was found would be heavily fined, as it was presumed to be Norman unless it could be proved otherwise by a plea of Englishry. The fine was known as “Murdrum”, from which the word murder derives. Coroner’s inquests dealt with these cases and the revenue from the fines imposed went to the King.
Every County elected three Coroners with many boroughs having their own coroner. A clerk was employed to carry the pen, ink and “Coroner’s Rolls” and would have walked behind the horses. The clerk was later dropped in favour of a fourth Coroner. As “Keeper of the Crown Pleas” it was the Coroners job to record the pleas on parchment called the “Coroner’s Rolls” and present to the King’s judges when they rolled into town. These rolls mostly survive and are held at The National Archives. They record, amongst other things, details of sudden and unnatural deaths, giving information surrounding the circumstances of deaths.
A pre Norman practice that appears in the Coroner’s Rolls was the fine of a deodand, “Deo dandum” or “given to God”. The idea was that the object which caused the death of sinful and had to be given to the church to be expurgated. The Normans saw this as a nice little earner for the crown, as the Coroner would value the object and the crown plea judges would decide if the deodand was to be forfeited to the crown or given to the victim’s family as compensation for their loss.
All sudden deaths were investigated by the coroner, whether murder, manslaughter, accidental, natural or suicide. It was the coroner’s job to record as much information about the death as possible, witnesses, time, date, where and of course the primary interest was property and chattels were written down ready for the Justices court. There were strict rules for when a body was discovered and heavy fines imposed if they were not followed. The finder of a body had to raise the alarm and was liable to be fined for inaction. Many bodies might be ignored or hidden, or even moved to another village or tithing in an attempt to avoid responsibility.
“As sure as fate I will burn down all your house and your farm things, and no one shall keep me from it…” This horrific threat was made in March 1845 by a 30 year old woman from Codford St Peter, with the unusual name of Praxell Alford Hinwood. She addressed these words to the prosecutor at the Wiltshire Assizes, where she was on trial for the felony of writing a threatening letter. The upshot of the trial was a sentence to transportation to Tasmania, or Van Diemen’s Land, for ten years. So how did Praxell come to this unhappy fate, and what happened to her next?
Praxell was born on 29 May 1815 and christened on 15 August 1815 at Codford St Mary church. She was one of the daughters of William, a labourer and afterwards a blacksmith, of Codford St Peter, and his wife Sarah. She had six siblings and her eldest brother was also a blacksmith. Her unusual name is possibly a corruption of ‘Praxis’, a Classical name meaning “Action”, which is highly appropriate in the light of her life thereafter! At some point in her childhood she learnt to read and write – possibly locally at a day school in Codford St Peter, or at a Sunday School. (There were Sunday schools associated with the Codford Congregational Chapel which opened in 1811, which would have taught reading and writing as well as scripture.)
In the 1841 census we find her living in the Warminster Union workhouse together with her illegitimate one year old son, Francis John Hinwood. Warminster Union workhouse was built in 1836 on a site in Sambourne, south of the town, as a place where up to 300 paupers from local parishes could be placed to carry out hard work such as breaking stones. This was designed under the ‘Poor Law Amendment Act’ of 1834 to be a deterrent from becoming a burden to their parish in terms of claiming assistance known as poor relief. Segregation of the sexes resulting in splitting up of families meant that many people hated and feared the workhouse in equal measure. For agricultural labourers in particular, who were used to being in work on a seasonal basis and using ‘outdoor relief’ from the parish to help them during the winter when work was sparse, the idea of the workhouse seemed unfair, irrational and the source of much anger. Praxell clearly shared this anger, as her later actions reveal.
Rebellion was in the air more widely at this time - in 1843 the Rebecca Riots were in full flow in rural Wales, and there were Chartist uprisings elsewhere. In June 1843 Praxell wrote a letter to the Master of Warminster workhouse, Benjamin Merchant, as follows: ‘Bloody Merchant, I have sent you a few lines to inform you that sooner or later shall be your blood or ours for there are more than two window breakers on the look out for you, so you must look out for we are determined to do it and you shall not walk out in Warminster streets but a very few more times for you may depend on it shall be your blood or ours, and we don’t care for none of you[r] damn’d police nor you neither for it is time the Devil had you and he shall, for you are not fit to live on the earth nor you shall not damn’d purse-gut bloody bugger, and that is your name, and that is what you are, so mind what is said as a thief in the night sudden destruction shall come upon you” Signed: two symbols of rakes.
I find the use of “we...” interesting here – was Praxell the ringleader of a group of discontented inmates or was she acting alone?
The sentence was six month’s imprisonment for Praxell at Fisherton Gaol although the Quarter Sessions archives show she spent the time in Devizes Prison.
Imprisonment did not crush Praxell’s spirits, and she was up to her old tricks again in Feb 1844 when she broke some workhouse windows, although she was discharged for this crime. The Guardians’ minute book for 6 May 1844 (H15/110/7) simply states that they had received a letter from the Women’s Penitentiary at Bath refusing to admit Praxell, with no comment on what she’s done to deserve admission. Then in October 1844 in the Quarter Sessions Calendar of Prisoners (A1/125/70) we find her back in Devizes Prison for two months, for “misconduct in a workhouse.” I had a look in the Guardians’ minute book for this period but I couldn’t find anything explicit – the entry for 2 Dec 1844 states that owing to the “continued insubordination of the inmates at the workhouse” a special meeting was to be held. At that meeting the fact that “so many women having scaled the walls of the workhouse with the Union clothes” had taken place was raised, but no names were given, frustratingly. The answer from the Guardians was to put spikes on top of the walls!
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.
Archives and archivists, artists, archers and archaeologists – all were on hand to make our annual open day an event to remember. In fact it was a triple celebration when we welcomed the public to the Wiltshire and Swindon History Centre in Chippenham. Celebrating a decade in the “new” building would have been excuse enough for us to organise a special birthday open day, but 2017 is also the 70th anniversary of the county-wide archive being established, so we were really keen to pull out all the stops. The icing on the cake – there’s always cake at the History Centre – was the official presentation of our Archive Service Accreditation from The National Archives (TNA).
So at 10am on 28th October we opened our doors to the Family Fun Day and a host of activities designed to show off the wide-ranging work we do at the History Centre. The stars of the show were a selection from the 70 favourite archives that have been featured on our website this year. It was difficult for staff and volunteers to choose their favourite archives – especially as it takes almost eight miles of shelving to house the archive collection – but all had a certain wow-factor. The display featured Kings, Queens and Presidents; artists and architects; nurses, soldiers and engineers; magnificent illuminated manuscripts and simpler texts. All had a story to tell and visitors on the day were fascinated to discover some of the gems of the collection.
There were displays and activities showcasing all the work that takes place in the History Centre and this year for the first time our colleagues from the Copy Certificates team put on a display explaining their job. The team provides certified copies of birth, marriage and death certificates but it’s not always modern day certificates that they handle. They were able to show some of the more unusual girls and boys names from more than a hundred years ago – Lemon Maud and a boy called Heritage!