Wiltshire's Orator Henry Hunt and the Peterloo Massacre

on Thursday, 15 August 2019. Posted in Wiltshire People

Henry Hunt portrait taken from: Peterloo Massacre, containing a faithful narrative ... Edited by an Observer Manchester : J. Wroe, 1819.

16 August 2019 marks the 200th anniversary of the 1819 Peterloo Massacre where 60,000 people demonstrated in St Peter’s Field, Manchester demanding parliamentary reform. Eighteen people were killed and hundreds injured when the Manchester and Salford Yeomanry and the 15th Hussars were sent in to disperse the crowd and arrest the leaders.

Politician, Henry ‘Orator’ Hunt, a principal speaker at the St Peter’s Field meeting, was born at Widdington Farm in Upavon, Wiltshire on 6 Nov 1773.

Henry Hunt, Upavon Baptism Register

Hunt was educated at Tilshead on Salisbury Plain by a Mr Cooper and later in Hampshire. In his memoirs Hunt recounts he was ‘sent to boarding school at Tilshead in Wiltshire, at five and a half years of age… This school, which was situated in a healthy village upon Salisbury Plain, consisted of a master and an usher, who had the care and instruction of sixty-three boys. The scholars were better fed than taught’.

Although his father hoped he would go into Holy Orders, he was inclined towards farming, and began work on the farm aged 16. His experience of the local poverty and rural administration is what has been posited as the driver towards his radical views.

He married a Miss Halcomb, daughter of the innkeeper of the Bear Inn, Devizes and had two sons and a daughter, but the couple separated in 1802, and he eloped with a friend’s wife, Mrs Vince.

He farmed at various locations in Wiltshire, Sussex and Shropshire, and became involved in politics and became a noted public speaker. His rousing speeches at the mass meetings held at Spa Fields, London gained him his ‘Orator’ nickname.

He was invited by the Patriotic Union Society to be one of the key speakers at the scheduled meeting in Manchester on 16 August 1819.

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.)

A Bratton Wool Loft?

on Friday, 19 July 2019. Posted in Architecture, Wiltshire Places

Wiltshire Buildings Record held its 40th AGM in Bratton on the 22nd June. The weather was beautiful and a miraculous interlude in a succession of grey, stuffy days that had come before. After the business meeting Mike Manson of the Bratton History Association gave us a Powerpoint presentation on the origins and development of Bratton, which was apparently once three separate settlements. The wealth of fine houses hidden down picturesque lanes were derived from the woollen industry in the 17th and 18th centuries.  West Wiltshire was dominated by a small group of entrepreneurs who controlled the woollen industry as landholders, buyers and employers. The most prominent family in Bratton and Westbury was the Whitakers; wool merchants whose impressive home was the Courthouse in Court Lane, dating from the medieval period and onwards. Iron replaced wool in the 19th century, as Dennis Gardner, another BHA member explained in a separate presentation. Reeves ironworks produced agricultural machinery and was the largest employer in Bratton until the early 20th century.  We went out, fuelled by much cake and tea, down a positive rabbit-warren of unexpected leafy lanes, guided by Mike. Owners of houses were moved to come out and investigate at the sight of a large bunch of strangers all staring steadily in their direction. All were friendly though, and a mine of information. Much of the timber-framing we saw appeared to be 17th century, or 17th century improvements of earlier buildings which in at least two cases included a chute at the front, possibly to load fleeces directly into a wool loft at the top of a house (as found in a WBR recording of Court Lane farmhouse a few years back).  There was much speculation over this, with the conclusion that many villages had their own peculiarity in building which was influenced by the prevailing economic activity, in Bratton’s case, its woollen industry in the 17th century and possibly later. As usual though, more research is needed to prove this link.

Dorothy Treasure

Principal Buildings Historian, Wiltshire Buildings Record

Taxidermy Conservation

on Tuesday, 02 July 2019. Posted in Conservation

Having reached the milestone of 10 years in my current place of work, I have been reflecting on the development of my career. I think my greatest fear as a conservator is stagnation: for my work to have lost its vibrancy and draw, for my relationship with my career to have become stale.

Thankfully, even after a decade I still find daily challenges and opportunities to develop and thrive within the sector. The importance of Continuing Professional Development (CPD) is emphasised within the conservation arena; viewed as integral to the maintenance of professional standards by organisations such as ICON, the Institute of Conservation.

Being an accredited conservator (ACR), maintaining CPD is essential to retaining my accredited status. 

The CPD format encouraged by ICON allows conservators to reflect on where they have come from, focusing their aims for the future. Through a candid analysis of the strengths and weaknesses within both my team and my own armoury I was able to identify a need to improve specialist knowledge of the care of natural history specimens.

The generous award of a True Vue professional development grant allowed me to secure a place on an intensive 3 day course focusing on the care and conservation of vertebrate taxidermy specimens with Simon Moore, a subject specialist with 50 years experience.

Conservator at work

The 3 day course kindly hosted by Reading Museum allowed experience of a broad range of materials and techniques. From the art of opening historic glazed cases, without which you’d never access the specimens; to the cleaning of feathers, repair and replication of birds toes and the creation of hair plugs for a balding otter!

Otter before conservation work
Otter after conservation work

The course created a relaxed welcoming environment in which I felt able to voice my previous anxieties about tackling such materials from the risk of shattering historic glass to fears of using the wrong materials and my work ending in a terrible taxidermy publication!

The natural history collection at Reading Museum is extensive and allowed course attendees the irreplaceable opportunity to put theory into practice.

Social History Before The Census

on Thursday, 27 June 2019. Posted in Archives, Wiltshire People

The census records from 1841-1911 are one of the first sources we turn to in the quest to find out more about our ancestors and where they lived. The censuses are a wonderful source, presenting us with a complete family, their ages, relationships, occupation and place of birth. But what happens when you want to go further back in time? What sources are there, and will they survive for your parish? In fact, there are lots of documents you can try. Some will only provide a small piece in a very large jigsaw, but they will all help to build up a bigger picture of your family, town or village. Here are ten sources you can try….

Wills and Inventories. These are fascinating, particularly if you are researching a parish. They may mention relatives, the name of the property occupied by the deceased and their occupation. The opening phrases of the will may suggest which religious denomination they followed. Inventories often describe each room in a house and the goods found in them. The History Centre’s collection of wills proved in Salisbury dates back to 1530 and is available on Ancestry.

Overseers of the Poor. Before 1834 people who fell on hard times were supported in their own parish by the ratepayers. Account books will give details of the payments made and to whom. The overseers would only pay for people they believed to be legally settled in the parish. Any family who had recently arrived and were unable to find regular employment would be sent back to their home parish. Surviving poor law documents may include removal orders, settlement certificates and settlement examinations. These will indicate a family’s movements, or, in terms of a whole parish, will give an idea as to the number of families moving in or out and the economic conditions. These documents have been transcribed and indexed by the Wiltshire Family History Society and are available at the History Centre.

Tax Lists. The first official census was taken in 1801, but 1841 was the first census where every individual was named. There are a few surviving earlier censuses produced privately which are available at the History Centre. Tax records will give an indication as to the number of people in a parish and their names, but bear in mind that the poor did not always pay tax. Taxes paid in 1334 and 1377 are recorded in volume 4 of the Victoria County History of Wiltshire. The Wiltshire Record Society has published lists for 1332, 1545 and 1576. Land Tax records survive from approximately 1780-1830 for most parishes in Wiltshire. 

Churchwardens’ Accounts. The churchwardens were usually leading members of the community and were named in the accounts. Some accounts name the rate payers and the amount each person paid. The payments made will show the maintenance work carried out on the church and the name of the man who was paid. Payment for wine will indicate how many times a year communion services were held. There may be a mention of bells, both for maintenance and the special occasions for which the ringers were paid to ring.

Churchwardens’ Presentments. It was the duty of the churchwardens to make annual ‘presentments’ which were documents sent to the Bishop or Dean of the Diocese. They were expected to report on the fabric of the church, the conduct of the minister, the morals and religious inclinations of the inhabitants. The collection for the Salisbury Diocese goes back to 1720 (with just a few surviving 17th century examples) and can be consulted at the History Centre. The early presentments are the most detailed and interesting; by the mid 18th century the wardens often contented themselves with reporting ‘omnia bene’ – all well. They are, however, worth searching, as they might mention a serious repair needed to the church, a rector who neglected to preach sufficient sermons, fathers of illegitimate children who were ‘named and shamed’, parishioners who did not follow the Church of England, schoolmasters teaching without a licence.

The Truth about Stonehenge*

on Wednesday, 19 June 2019. Posted in Archaeology, Traditions and Folklore, Wiltshire Places

(*or what was held to be The Truth in the Middle Ages)

At the summer solstice, Stonehenge falls under the spotlight: in the solar sense and in the cultural sense. People all over the world find it fascinating and are reminded to ponder it when the sun is at its highest. Much of the appeal of Stonehenge may be attributed to its encompassing aura of mystery, its air of mind-bending antiquity. There is much about it we don’t understand, despite the advances made by ingenious researchers, but we are not the first generations to try to account for Stonehenge. So what did our forebears believe?

According to a twelfth-century author called Geoffrey of Monmouth, the ancient stone circle now known as Stonehenge was originally brought to mount Killarus in Ireland from Africa by a group of giants. It was known then as the Giants’ Dance and had healing properties. The stones came to Wiltshire with the help of a very young Merlin, at the behest of King Arthur’s uncle, Aurelius Ambrosius, to be reconstructed as a memorial to a group of Britons massacred during the reign of the malicious usurper, Vortigern. Some decades later the structure renamed Stonehenge becomes the final resting place of Uther Pendragon.

I studied this story while writing my PhD about an illustrated medieval manuscript containing an abridged version of Wace’s Anglo-Norman French translation of Geoffrey’s history: La Roman de Brut. Even in its shortened form, the episode in which the child Merlin guides the reconstruction of Stonehenge celebrates brains over brawn, great power despite littleness of stature: 

“They grasped the stones behind, in front and sideways: they pushed and thrust them hard and shook them hard, but however much force they used, they could not find a solution.
‘Rise’ said Merlin, ‘you will so no more by force. Now you shall see how knowledge and skill are better than bodily strength.’ Then he stepped forward and stopped. He looked around, his lips moving like a man saying his prayers. I do not know if he said a prayer or not. Then he called the Britons back.
‘Come here,’ he said, ‘come! Now you can handle the stones and carry them into your ships.’ As Merlin instructed, as he devised and told them, the Britons took the stones, carried them to the ships and placed them inside. They brought them to England and carried them to Amesbury, into the fields nearby.”
 – Based on Judith Weiss’ 2002 translation of Wace’s Roman de Brut


To the medieval mind, the stone circle was a monument to human mastery of nature, as well as to the fallen Britons. Still today we measure ourselves by the power of our prehistoric ancestors to have created it. I recently created a linocut of the child Merlin guiding the reconstruction of Stonehenge. Both Geoffrey of Monmouth and Wace focus on the dismantling of the stones in Ireland, which is also the moment illustrated in the manuscript I worked on for my PhD. Instead, I depicted the moment when that iconic plain was undergoing its momentous transformation.

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