On reflection… the legacy of First World War commemorations in Wiltshire

on Wednesday, 09 January 2019. Posted in Events, History Centre, Military

One hundred years ago people and politicians around the globe were contemplating a new world order following more than four years of war. In Britain, January 1919 and the following months were marked by strikes, civil unrest and military mutinies. The flu pandemic continued its deathly march. The month also saw the beginning of the Paris Peace Conference which lasted into the summer concluding with five treaties formally ending the war – including the Versailles Treaty signed 28 June – and the formation of the League of Nations.

As a nation we have spent the last four years commemorating the centenary of the First World War (FWW). A hundred years on from this cataclysmic event and we are living with its legacy – with regional conflicts that have their origins in the war; with advances in medicine (reconstructive surgery, improved anaesthesia); with the music, art, literature and poetry produced during and after the war; with universal suffrage; and with a landscape shaped by war.

But what of the legacy of these commemorations? What will future generations find when they delve into early 21st century archives and history books, looking for evidence of how we remembered? Without doubt they will find an amazing amount of new, high quality research that has changed our understanding of the Great War. But have the commemorations reflected this changed narrative or have they reinforced the myths and iconography associated with First World War and which are embedded in our collective memory? Some historians are asking whether the last four years have been a lost opportunity.

From a personal point of view it feels as though much of the national commemoration did focus on traditional themes and symbols such as the mud and blood of the western front, the experience of the war poets, the silhouetted soldier. There have been some stunning artistic responses to the centenary, commissioned by 14-18 Now, including Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red, Jeremy Deller’s We’re Here Because We’re Here, Danny Boyle’s Pages in the Sea and film-maker Peter Jackson’s They Shall Not Grow Old.

14-18 Now

But these have also drawn criticism. 14-18 Now estimates that 35 million people engaged with their commissioned events, but historians Professors Maggie Andrews, of the University of Worcester, and Sarah Lloyd, of the University of Hertfordshire, question whether people critically engaged or merely encountered them. Were these national events, exhibitions and installations sufficiently challenging of historical myths?

There has been much work on myth-busting over the past four years but it can be tough going up against advertising executives and picture editors who are not historians. An enduring myth, reinforced by TV adverts and wrongly credited photographs, is that the Christmas Truce of 1914 happened throughout the western front and that football matches were organised between German and British troops. Neither is an accurate picture of what happened. (Check out Dan Snow’s mythbusting articles for the BBC.)

At a regional and local level, however, I feel very positive about the projects and events that have taken place. Over the last four years much of my work as an education officer has focused on researching Wiltshire’s role in the First World War and passing on that learning to others, especially primary school teachers and pupils keen to make the most of the local history study that is part of their curriculum.

Forest and Sandridge Melksham Remembers

Another aspect of my work has been supporting other organisations in delivering the educational side of their FWW projects. My colleagues in archives and local studies have also been busy acquiring new collections and publications that support the study of the Great War.

WW1 Local Studies publications at WSHC

The number and range of FWW projects in Wiltshire has been impressive and sadly I cannot list all of them, but a good place to start is the History Centre’s own Wiltshire at War – Community Stories project.

Judging a book by its cover

on Thursday, 13 December 2018. Posted in Archives, History Centre

If you are anything like me you may be giving quite a few books as gifts this Christmas, and you might have spent a long time considering their content and choosing the right book for the right person. But have you ever looked at the structure of the book and thought about how it has been made? Although the process is mechanised today, the traditional skill of bookbinding is still practised and over the last few months some of the staff here at the History Centre have been giving it a go after work, guided by our Archives Conservator, Sophie. It’s been a lot of fun and certainly makes you appreciate the work, skill and time that it takes to create books by hand.

Much more interest and scholarship has been directed towards the decoration of books rather than their components or the processes used to create them. However, it is often the ‘forwarding’ of the binding (making it fit for the finishing or more decorative elements) that makes a book really pleasing to use.

Books can be bound in many different styles and vary according to age, value and the use to which the book will be put. Bookbinding first begins in the 4th century AD with a change from rolls to flat sheets, which, although easier to transport and store, required some kind of protection. The first bindings were simple folded sheets sewn together and wrapped in leather.

The development of the printing press created a surge in binding activity and prosperity for the bookbinder. In contrast to previous manuscript versions which were often richly ornamented with costly materials such as enamels and carved ivory, the printed book was often covered with plain leather, calf or deerskin, or occasionally parchment. Covers could also be wooden boards, sometimes backed with leather, which was drawn partly of wholly over the wooden covers, the latter usually fitted with clasps.

Ref D1/1/2 showing manicules (pointing fingers used to draw attention to sections of the text)

The above example is an early 14th cent. -16th cent. wooden covered Liber Evidentiarum B (the 'B' indicates that it belongs to the bishop, as opposed to a similar volume, 'C', belonging to the chapter). It contains copies of royal and other charters (including Magna Carta [1225] and the Forest charter, compositions, ordinances, etc., and was mostly written in the early 14th century, but with 15th and 16th century additions. We think the wooden cover is original but it has been rebound many times (you can see holes for previous binding, and where there used to be a clasp).

Ref 730/97/1 This churchwarden’s account book for Steeple Ashton (1542-1668) is a nice example of a tooled leather binding.

A faster form of decoration - blind stamping (creating an image, design or lettering formed by creating a depression) - became prevalent as the numbers of books increased in the sixteenth century. This was superseded by the more visually appealing gold tooling technique (decorating the cover and spine with gold leaf, impressed into the cover with a heated finishing tool). Around 1750 the construction process also changed, when many books began to be sewn on cords let into the backs of sections. This, in contrast to the usual practice of sewing on raised cords, gave a smooth back. The spines were often lined with many layers of paper, which gave a good surface for tooling work but could mean that they were difficult to open.

The demand for books and bindings increased following the industrial revolution, although the quality of hand-binding was poorer; the construction of the binding deteriorated and attempt was often made to conceal the poor quality with lavish gold ornament on covers and spines. With the industrial revolution also came mass production, and machinery for cutting, blocking, case-making and pressing. Later in the 19th century, techniques for machine decoration were also developed.

The arts and crafts movement countered this industrialisation and inspired individuals such as lawyer, T.J. Cobden-Sanderson to study the craft, and to experiment with binding construction and decoration. His designs continued the methods of gold and blind tooling, and often incorporated flowers, leaves or branches in a geometric design. The scope for originality and creativity also prospered following World War One, and artists, designers, and amateurs all made worthy contributions to the craft.

Endpapers are often highly decorative!

Our local studies and archive collections includes examples of different binding constructions. However, the tools and equipment of the trade can also be explored through looking at wills and inventories...

Praxell Alford Hinwood – Rebel with a Cause?

on Friday, 23 November 2018. Posted in Archives, Wiltshire People

“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?

Salisbury Journal 24 Jun 1843

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.

H15/201/1

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!

Archive to Survive!

on Tuesday, 20 November 2018. Posted in Archives, History Centre

My name is Annette and I am an Employer Engagement Officer with Wiltshire Council  working on a program called Building Bridges. 

Building Bridges is funded by the European Social Fund and the National Lottery, through the Big Lottery Fund.”

Several weeks ago, Wiltshire & Swindon History Centre & Building Bridges set out on a journey of discovery and learning with five would-be archivists with a love of all things past. You could say a real ‘Throwback Thursday’ as this is the day we came together to indulge in something we all love: history.

I can’t believe we have nearly come to the end of our first but I hope not last ‘Archive to Survive’ project.

After attending a learning symposium facilitated by Wiltshire Museum & Heritage Service and hearing a presentation from The Museum of London and the work they were doing with Autism in Museums I was buzzing - I couldn’t wait to do something similar.

Lucky for me I had already formed a working relationship with the fabulous Heather Perry -Conservation & Museum Manager who was nearly as excited as me, and completely on board.

We decided we wanted to target our project at those who may have found it hard to gain paid employment due to anxiety, depression, or other barriers. We wanted to promote confidence and skills learning that would support their journey, and give them a sense of wellbeing and inclusion. 

So along with my Building Bridges partners in crime Lorraine, Laura and the lovely Sophie, Conservator (Archives) at the History Centre, we set about putting our plan into action. 

If you are reading this it is possible you will know that in Wiltshire & Swindon we have an amazing purpose-built facility that holds the county wide archives. What you may not know is that the public can come in and research things from family histories, to who lived in your house 100 years ago. To do this every document held at the centre needs to be catalogued and this is where we came in.

We wanted to offer an opportunity for a group of people to come in and work with trained professionals to learn all about maintaining and cataloguing this amazing resource. Preserving it for future generations and so Archive to Survive was born.

We recruited five like-minded participants with a love of history and our journey of learning began back in August. Since then we have come together every Thursday and have been building on our confidence and skills, and form new friendships.

The group looking at one of Community History Advisor Ian Hicks’s favourite items in the archives (the Seymour Pedigree ref 1300/376L)

Details from the Seymour Pedigree (1300/376L) taken by participant Richard © R. Taylor 2018

Weighty tomes and slim booklets: Using Directories

on Tuesday, 30 October 2018. Posted in Archives, Wiltshire People, Wiltshire Places

W.G. Hoskins, the great pioneer of English local history, wrote in his ground breaking book, ‘Local History in England’ (1959), “Directories … give us a good start for reconstructing the kind of community which existed over a period of about a hundred years from the 1830s to the 1930s”. Admittedly, he was writing when only two of the Victorian censuses were available to use for historic investigation; modern researchers are spoiled for choice in having easy accessibility to no less than eight census returns, spanning the period 1841-1911.

Even so, directories – published lists of people’s addresses and occupations – continue to supply much useful information for family and local history researchers. Although hardly ever listing those of humble status (don’t expect your servant or labourer forebears to be mentioned), directories provide information on a more frequent basis than the census. In the nineteenth century, and right up to the decades following the Second World War, detailed directories appeared encompassing the whole country. Some national publishers (like Slater and the better-known Kelly) covered whole counties every couple of years, while other smaller local printers might concentrate on a single city or town, sometimes also including villages in the vicinity.  As they were produced by competing firms, one year might see several different directories produced for a given place, and the following two or three years, nothing at all.

Whether they are weighty tomes, or slim booklets, directories provide useful, contemporary descriptions of Victorian and Edwardian parishes, towns and cities. They may give details of population and geography, agriculture and industry, schools, charities, public institutions, details of conveyances (coaches and trains) .… but most people use directories to search for people. They will not provide up-to-the-minute information; because of the delay between collecting information and publication, directories may include information that was a year or more out of date by the time the publication date was finally reached. Despite that limitation, a directory can give a flavour of a place, conveying a sense of what a town or district was like to live in at a particular time, and identifying the main property owners, naming the shopkeepers and listing the tradesmen who gave a place its unique character.

They generally listed people whom literate or reasonably well-off people might want to find – clergymen, gentry, nobility, professionals, farmers, craftsmen and tradesmen. Directories may give exact street numbers where census returns do not. The lists often appear in sections, sometimes using a threefold division into ‘Court’, ‘Commercial’ and ‘Trade’ – where Court listed private residents alphabetically, Commercial listed trade and business people alphabetically and Trade broke the commercial list down into constituent professions and trades.

Corsham High Street Project Update

on Tuesday, 16 October 2018. Posted in Architecture, Wiltshire Places

On Friday 28th September Helen Winton and I gave a talk to the Corsham Civic Society at the Pound Arts Centre. Helen outlined how many fine 17th and 18th century stone houses there are in the High Street resulting from the wealth generated by the cloth trade. John Leland, when he visited in 1541 described ‘Cosham’ as ‘a good uplandisch toun’, which suggests that it was a thriving place even then. But what remains of this earlier town, if anything? Corsham seems to have sprung fully-formed in stone with no apparent trace of timber-framing.

After Helen had comprehensively set the scene, my half of the talk concentrated on a case study; a pilot study just to examine the potential for earlier building in the town. No.11 High Street is a stone building at the south end of the High Street listed as being later 17th century, now housing an optician. The opportunity to study this building came during re-roofing works. Larry La Croix of the project was given permission to clamber up the scaffolding to photograph the nooks and crannies of the roof – a position which was to prove extremely fortuitous as the remains of two separate smoke-blackened roofs, perhaps of the 15th century were revealed. The sooting had come from an open hearth of a once timber-framed building. None of this early structure is visible from the outside, now encased in stone, or the ground floor so we were very lucky to get this evidence. Helen Winton was also able to look at another High Street house and also reported smoke-blackening in its roof. We await the outcome of the bid to the Heritage Lottery Fund to explore further. If you would like to support this project by volunteering we would love to have you. Contact me on This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or come in for a chat at the History Centre on a Tuesday.

Dorothy Treasure
Principal Buildings Historian, Wiltshire Buildings Record

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