Did you watch this year’s series of the Great British Sewing Bee? Sewing has become a popular hobby again, thanks to a renaissance in crafts and resurgence in interest in the handmade.
The famous proverb ‘a stitch in time...’ was first recorded in Thomas Fuller's Gnomologia, Adagies and Proverbs, Wise Sentences and Witty Sayings, Ancient and Modern, Foreign and British, 1732 but is likely to be much older. The virtues of hard work, prudence and associated with this adage have long been affiliated with sewing and been seen as desirable attributes, particularly for women.
A traditionally female pursuit, sewing has been a source of enjoyment, income and protest for women over the centuries. As one of the few respectable trades women, particularly poor women, could engage in, it could provide an albeit low level of income. Most of this work was piece work completed at home by women and children. The below show receipted bills for sewing services:
The pay was not only low, but a deposit had to the paid to the overseer for the materials, which was repayable on completion of the work. The ‘Song of the Shirt’, published in Punch in 1843, took this as its subject and helped draw attention to the working conditions of the poor.
'Stitch! Stitch! Stitch! In poverty, hunger, and dirt, And still with a voice of dolorous pitch She sang ‘The Song of the Shirt!’
Aside from the principal cloth and woollen industries, both gloving and lace making have been important industries for Wiltshire. A prohibition on imported lace created a strong lace industry in Salisbury in the 18th century which continued after the prohibition was withdrawn. Nearby Downton was a lace-making centre with many of its cottagers engaged in it with some manufacturing continuing into the early 20th century. It also established in Malmesbury and was one of the principal occupations there in the late 18th century.
Inevitably the industry was by the competition of machine-made lace and the census records show the decline in lace-making occupations with 391 in 1850, 35 in 1871 and only 6 in 1900.
Gloving employed a large proportion of female outworkers and based on the number of references to it, it seemingly expanded in the 16th and 17th centuries. It has continued into the 20th century with both continuing and new firms. The oldest firm with surviving records is J. & T. Beavan Ltd. at Holt. Many of the cutters worked in the Great House (formerly the Spa Hotel) but outworkers living at Holt, Atworth, Melksham, Somerset and the Cotswolds completed the sewing work.
It is so unfortunate that such a terrible practice is still endemic in this country today. Slavery in more modern times, exploits many different nationalities in a period where there is a more fluid movement of people through borders. Despite having more rigid security procedures, innocent victims of slavery are still sneaked through into Britain. It is believed that there may be as many as 13,000 slaves living here, despite the new government law passed last year; the Modern Slavery Act 2015.
Many of the people who succumb to slavery today are deceived by broken promises of a new life of prosperity and safety. However, a few centuries ago, the slave trade was carried out in a very different and more brutal way. Most slaves were literally dragged forcefully from their villages by armed raiding parties, instigated by white Europeans. These slaves were predominantly taken from West Africa, from Senegal to Nigeria. Slave ships then transported them in the vilest and inhumane conditions imaginable, to North America and the West Indies.
Some of our records at the Wiltshire and Swindon History Centre show that we had a strong link to the slave trade. Bristol was a major and dominant port for importing goods which were a by-product of slaving. These commodities included Mahogany, sugar and rum.
One of the biggest slave plantation owners in Wiltshire were the Dickinson family of Bowden House near Lacock and of Monk’s Park near Corsham. This family of Quakers also had large estates in Somerset.
It is believed that the first member of the Dickinson family to arrive in Jamaica was Francis Dickinson during the ‘invasion’ by Penn and Venables in 1655, an attack which was supposed to have taken Hipaniola (on instruction of Oliver Cromwell). Francis was apparently rewarded 2000 acres by King Charles II for his part in taking the island from the Spanish.
The Second World War has always fascinated me, especially the home front – I’ve always been curious about what life was like for those away from the front lines, particularly outside of the major cities in largely rural places such as Wiltshire. In particular the story of immigrants (called ‘aliens’ at the time) living in these areas has always been a major interest of mine. It’s an often overlooked fact that there was a substantial European population living in Britain by the 1930s – including large and long-standing German, Austrian and Italian communities. There was also a considerable influx of people into the country after 1933 as those persecuted by the Nazis sought shelter here. Some of these people came to live in Wiltshire: by mid-1942, in addition to the wider immigrant population there were more than 200 people with official refugee status living in the county, about 75% of whom were German. When Britain went to war with Germany these people automatically became “enemy aliens”, and I wanted to find out more about what happened to them after this. I was surprised to discover that there was a suspected German Nazi party official living in Salisbury!
As the possibility of a major European conflict grew towards the end of the 1930s the government became increasingly concerned about the number of people living in Britain from potentially hostile nations, particularly Germany and Austria. These people fell under suspicion as potential spies and saboteurs and the government, particularly the Home Office and MI5, reacted by putting into place plans to arrest and imprison suspect enemy aliens should war break out, a process known as internment. Initially only those who the security services felt were a threat to national security were interned. In practice this was generally limited to those who were members of German political organisations, as there was serious concern that these people might help any German invasion. For example, pictured is the MI5 file card for Rudolf Habla, a Czechoslovakian living in Chippenham, indicating that he was a member of the Deutsch Arbeitsfront (German Labour Front) and as such was wanted as a potential saboteur.
Whilst MI5 drew up the lists of potential suspects, it was left to local police forces to locate and arrest these people, and in Wiltshire the process was no different. We are lucky enough to have the records of Wiltshire Constabulary here at the History Centre and these contain many references to the arrest and internment of Wiltshire’s enemy aliens. These documents tell the story of the internment process during the war, not just for Wiltshire but for the country as a whole.
Archaeological works on the areas for new housing that are part of the Army Basing Project have been going on for some time now. Two of the areas are for new housing at Bulford and Tidworth. All of the areas both inside and outside the camps have revealed interesting archaeological remains, from periods from the Prehistoric to World War 2. I thought I’d talk about the Saxon cemetery finds from two of the sites for this blog. Both of the sites were excavated by Wessex Archaeology. Due to the subject matter, there are photographs of human skeletons in this blog article.
The site for service family accommodation at Bulford had been evaluated by geophysical survey and trenched evaluation early on. When one of the trenches revealed nearly 17 possible grave cuts, we knew that we had a previously unknown cemetery. The graves in that trench were mostly aligned east-west and were laid out rather than crouched, so we knew that they were likely to be Christian, or at least from the period when Christianity was starting to have an influence. One of the graves was sampled at that point and a radio-carbon date told us that this was a mid-Saxon burial, around about the time when people were starting to convert to Christianity in this part of England. As the cemetery was in an area where houses were planned, it was agreed that the whole cemetery would be excavated. We expected there to be around 50-70 burials. However, when the area was stripped, as part of a bigger area, it became clear that there were a few more than that (just over 160 in the end)!
This picture shows the cemetery after the topsoil has been stripped off. It was taken from a drone. In amongst lots of other features are the regularly laid out groups of graves. Typically, we ended up with far more than we thought originally, as the evaluation trenches had sat neatly between some of the rows! The excavation has finished and so now all the post-excavation work is ongoing. We’ll know more about the dates of the burials, the people themselves and how they were related to each other after that is finished.
Not long after the Bulford cemetery was started, work on a small area of excavation at a site in Tidworth started. This was a planning permission that was much older, so the evaluation had been done more than 10 years ago. Based on the results of that work, we were expecting some Roman-British remains (which we did find). However, more of a surprise was that we started to find burials that looked a lot like the ones at Bulford. The excavation area was extended and revealed (eventually) just under 60 burials. Initial radio-carbon dates suggested that these were also mid-Saxon in date. The burial methods were similar to Bulford (although the cemetery was not so carefully laid out) and there were also similar items buried with some of them.
I recently finished cataloguing the archive of the Godolphin School, a girls’ only boarding and day school in Salisbury. I took the project on with glee, because I have been very interested in school archives for years and it was wonderful to get the chance to work on the archive. The archive came to the History Centre at two different times. The first accession of material was listed many years ago, but the much more recent second accession had not, although much of it had been indexed. It was my job to take the first accession, 2954, and the second accession, 4265, and amalgamate them into one new collection, 4312.
My first job was to do my own rough box lists of all the material from the different accessions so that I properly understood the material that we had from the school. This also allowed me to check that the 2954 listing was correct and there were no mistakes. Sometimes I think it’s lovely to have a blank canvas with archive collections and it’s great to have no work done on an archive before, so that you come to it with a fresh mind, but for Godolphin it was certainly useful for me to use the previous listings, although I tried to do my own description of the documents before referring to the lists.
Once I had got an idea of what we held, it was time to try and virtually amalgamate the two accessions. I drew up my proposed structure and put each document or bundle of documents from the two accessions into an Excel spreadsheet, which over time probably found itself multicoloured in every shade Excel allowed me to use. Once I had finished, thankfully every number and description was either a satisfying shade of green, to show they’d been put on the system and numbered, or an equally satisfying red to show they were being returned to the school. These returns were all duplicate items. It was then time to put the structure onto our database and begin the more detailed descriptions, which was a lot of fun as I began to know and understand the school history, location, structure and quirks. I loved the school before I even began the project, but I love it more afterwards.
Records for the school date back to 1709, in a letter from Sidney Godolphin, who died in 1712. The school itself was founded by the will of Elizabeth Godolphin, who had married Sidney’s brother Charles. Between them the couple founded many charities, including the school “for the better education and maintenance of eight young gentlewomen to be brought up at Sarum or some other town in the County of Wilts under the care and direction of some wise and prudent Governess or Schoolmistress”. Elizabeth made her will in 1726, but the school did not open until 1784 in the Cathedral Close. Now, the school’s site is in Milford Hill and teaches well over 400 children. The copy made of Elizabeth’s will is the second oldest document in the archive – although the copy itself is much more modern than the will. The most recent documents are from 2014, so the archive really does span the whole history of the school. The most common ones are from the turn of the 20th century: the school itself still holds most of the more modern records.
The most extensive part of the collection (in terms of number of records) is the five boxes we have of photographs, and it was these that I started cataloguing first. The hope was that having the visual impression of the school would help when I was cataloguing other material, and I think it worked. The part I loved most was looking at the turn of the century photographs, which include whole school photographs, staff, house and form photographs, and lovely images of sports. The earliest photograph in the Godolphin collection is one of Miss Polhill, who was headmistress from 1854-1857.
We’ve recently been enjoying the company of our Antipodean cousins visiting over the summer, here to explore back in time and research the histories of their families before emigration to the colonies. Wiltshire people have been making a new life overseas for many years and for many reasons, and I thought it was the ideal time to take a quick look at just some of them here.
In Australia the 19th century began with transportation to the colonies as an outlet for Britain’s prisons, and also for its asylums and workhouses, but it has been realised that these people had not made the most suitable workers for colonising and developing a country. In response an immigration policy tried to temp British people to Australia but it offered little financial support. In the early part of the 19th century, the decision to emigrate was either made for someone due to forced transportation, or it was a last resort, ‘the only escape from an intolerable situation’. As the years passed and communities became better established, the decision had more likely become one of a way to a better life with fewer worries over poverty. The British government had a policy of offering no financial aid except for some occasions of assisting the parish poor, and it meant the colonies were free to choose their potential emigrees. The British government were discussing a state aided scheme in both 1870 and 1886 but at least one province, Queensland, were adamant against losing control of their choice of settler. Private organisations also tried to set up schemes with little success and those who were trying to settle aided by guardians of the poor or public charities were also often refused at this time. By the end of the 19th century, the ‘quality’ of emigrants had much improved.
In the first part of the 19th century migration to America was from farmers; the Swing Riots of 1830 and fear of mechanisation may have affected this trend. It was during this period more than any other which saw the movement of people with other members of their families. The late 1820s had already seen a short-term rise in the number of workers from industry such as textile workers emigrating to America during the depression in the cotton industry. The majority of those emigrating at this time appear to have enough assets to sell to help them on their way, and for many it was not economic hardship, but a sense of concern over the changing economy and worries over their children’s standing and position in that society which affected their choices.