History Centre

Celebrating 70... and a boy called Heritage

on Tuesday, 07 November 2017. Posted in Archaeology, Archives, Conservation, History Centre

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).

Heritage Cake - you can never have too much cake!

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.

A selection from the 70 favourite archives - and a wandering highwayman.

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!

Behind the scenes with the conservators

Looking Back To Our First Day

on Tuesday, 31 October 2017. Posted in Archives, History Centre

Thursday 31st October 2007 we opened the doors to the new Wiltshire and Swindon History Centre.

Six months had passed since we closed the doors for the last time at the Record Office in Trowbridge. In that time we had moved 30,000 boxes of archives making 91 lorry loads from Trowbridge to Chippenham and safely installing Wiltshire’s archives into the new purpose built facility.


It was a real mixed bag of documents that went out, with members of the Wiltshire Family History Society coming in to look at Parish Registers and Bishop’s Transcripts. Officers from the Rights Of Way Department based at County Hall were here first thing to look at the County Council’s files for rights of way. Naturally there was interest in the local area with several maps of Chippenham being produced.

We produced 85 records (5 Wills, 3 Parish Registers, 2 Bishop’s Transcripts 66 documents and 9 maps) and welcomed 230 visitors to the new office on that first day. 

In the subsequent 10 years we have retrieved and returned quarter of a million documents, engaged 210,000 visitors and issued 14,900 new readers cards.

Here’s to the next 10 years.

Ian Hicks, Community History Advisor

Paste Paper Fun!

on Monday, 23 October 2017. Posted in Conservation, History Centre

Paste paper making is an historic craft technique used in bookbinding to make decorative papers for books.

They are fun and easy to make and suitable for all ages

You can come and join our workshop at our Family Fun Day on Sat 28th October at the WSHC in Chippenham, but if you can’t make it you can always have a go at home!

Materials needed:

• Corn starch paste*/ Wheat starch paste*/ wall paper paste (*see online for easy recipes)
• Acrylic tube paint/watercolours
• Paper (sugar paper is cheap and colourful and works really well)
• Some ideas for tools for mark-making:
    o Paint brushes
    o Plastic combs
    o Lollipop sticks
    o Fingers
    o Wooden spoon

What to do:

1. Mix some paint and paste together  (you want the consistency to be thick but preferably smooth without lumps)
2. Brush the paste and paint mixture onto the paper covering the whole surface
3. Create patterns by using a tool such as a comb or paintbrush (or anything else that can create a nice mark on the paper) by dragging or drawing across the surface
4. Leave to dry

Here are some that we made:

Sarah used a lollipop stick and the non-bristle end of a paintbrush to create this one
Gabby used a comb to create the subtle flower shape
Sophie used glitter paint on black sugar paper and a lollipop stick and comb to create the patterns
Beth dragged a comb across different stripes of colour
Sophie Coles, Assistant Conservator

My year in archives

on Saturday, 12 August 2017. Posted in Archives, History Centre

As my Heritage Lottery Funded ‘Skills for the Future: Transforming Archives’ traineeship draws to a close, I find myself reflecting on all the new, unique and exciting experiences I’ve encountered over the past 10 months, which have made this time so memorable. My personal focus has been on learning and acquiring valuable skills to carry forward into a future career – and in this sense the traineeship has more than served its purpose. The fact that I’ve been able to undertake the journey surrounded by such kind, interesting and supportive people has been a bonus!

I still clearly remember the day I started at Wiltshire and Swindon History Centre. Completely new to the world of archives and heritage, I was briefed by the previous trainee, Jess, who provided me with tables, spreadsheets, logs and lists that she had kindly prepared to help me manage my day to day activities. (Jess is very good at this sort of thing). Despite nodding calmly in response to her, my internal state was one of sheer anxiety – ‘There’s so much to cram in!’. In hindsight, the year has been nothing but smooth, engaging and fun… there was really nothing for me to have worried about.

If you’ve read my previous posts about coming to the traineeship and some of the interesting insights I’ve had along the way, you’ll get a sense of all I was up to in those early days. In truth, the time hasn’t become any less busy! From attending a training week at the National Archives of Scotland to visiting the City of London Police Museum, with pit-stops at various digitisation conferences, fundraising training days, and of course, the (world-famous) Museum and Heritage show at Kensington’s Olympia.

Closer to home, I’ve continued my training in traditional archive skills, looking at the typical  content and uses of education records, parish registers, manorial documents, wills and testaments, local government records, and even lunatic asylum records. Whilst learning about the latter with archivist Margaret Moles, I decided to conduct a small project, researching a name which had come up in a separate oral history interview I’d conducted. My interviewee had shared the story of his great aunt, who had suffered mental health issues in the 1920’s and was hospitalized at Roundway Mental Hospital, Devizes. Using what I’d learned, I traced the patient’s actual medical records from the time – with permission - and read about her day to day experiences at the hospital. I was able to learn about the nature of her condition, what her doctors had to say, and even glean some information about her relatives at that time. From there I sourced a book in our local studies library called ‘Down Pan’s Lane’, written by Philip Frank Steele, a historian fascinated by Roundway Hospital. This enabled me to get a sense of what life was like for patients at the time – from their food and sleep routines to gardening activities, and even the programme of entertainment laid on by medical staff! It was absolutely fascinating, and proved a valuable resource for putting this one lady’s personal story into a wider historical context.

Over the course of the year I have also had the privilege of contributing to several Heritage Lottery funded projects: Lacock Unlocked: Community Archive, Wiltshire at War: Community Stories, and Creative Wiltshire: Collecting Cultures. The latter two are ongoing and have attracted huge publicity – even drawing interest from BBC Radio Wiltshire. (Watch this space!).

Time travel with the archives

on Friday, 11 August 2017. Posted in Archives, History Centre, Schools

Working at the History Centre a little bit like being a Timelord… with access to the archives you can be transported through time and space.

The strong-rooms are our very own Tardis (Time and Relative Dimension in Space) since despite their relatively small footprint they contain around eight miles of archives.

Over the last two months I have been joined in my “travels” by GCSE and A-level students who have been on work experience at the History Centre.

The first port of call for the youngsters as they ventured into the strong-rooms was 12th century Messina in Sicily. One of the earliest documents in the Wiltshire and Swindon Archive is a letter (with Great Seal attached) from Richard I – Richard the Lionheart – confirming a gift of land to Stanley Abbey (WSA 473/34PC).

It is dated 3rd April 1191 and was sent by Richard from Sicily just days before he set sail with a fleet of ships to the Holy Land. (He had set out in 1190 to join the Third Crusade.) The letter came at a busy time for Richard who was not only on crusade but was about to be married to Berengaria of Navarre who had made her own epic journey across Europe with Richard’s mother Eleanor of Aquitaine to be with her future husband.

The students’ introduction to the archives continued with a jump to the Tudor period via a grant of arms, followed by a brief stop in restoration England and a splendid portrait of Charles II on an illuminated document.

With each new group of students I set myself and the students the challenge of searching our collections for documents relevant to their particular GCSE and A-level courses. The two world wars, the Cold War, and the Tudors are well travelled historical paths but what of 19th century China and Japan or American history?

At A-level, students at the end of Year 12 are making decisions about coursework so a placement at the History Centre was an ideal opportunity to begin their research. We had students who were looking at the American civil rights movement, antisemitism in England during the 19th and 20th centuries, the opium wars in 19th century China and western influence on 19th century Japan and the demise of the Samurai tradition.

In our pursuit of the American civil rights movement we took a detour into the history of the fledgling United States of America. The archive has a number of collections that, through letters and other documents, connect Wiltshire with the English colonies in the Americas, the war of independence and the American civil war and trade with the USA.

We were all rather excited to be handling two particular documents signed by James Madison and John Quincy Adams who served as the 4th and 6th presidents of the USA. Both documents (WSA 1498/4) were passports for Thomas Shorthouse who became an American citizen in 1797. The Shorthouse family lived at Little Clarendon, Dinton and the passports, letters from Philadelphia and citizenship document for Thomas Shorthouse are part of the family papers (WSA 1498/1-6).

Passport signed by James Madison 1805
Thomas Shorthouse citizenship papers 1797

The citizenship document was drawn up in the Court of Common Pleas of Philadelphia County and instructs Thomas to “absolutely and entirely renounce and abjure all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign prince, potentate, state or sovereignty whatever and particularly the allegiance to the King of Great Britain to whom he was heretofore a subject.”

The passports show that Thomas maintained his connections with his family in Britain. The first was signed by James Madison, as Secretary of State, in Washington on 27th September, 1805. Madison, one of the founding fathers of the USA, became President in 1809 and later became known as the ‘father of the constitution’.

In 1815, Thomas Shorthouse received a second passport, this time signed by John Quincy Adams who was then the United States Envoy in London. Adams went on to be the 6th President in 1825.

Passport for Thomas Shorthouse signed by John Quincy Adams
John Quincy Adams signature

We could have spent all our time in North America reading letters and documents about rebellion in the colonies, American Independence, the civil war and abolition of slavery, but other countries beckoned.

Our search for documents relating to the Opium Wars yielded instant and fascinating results in the Public and State papers of Sidney Herbert (1810-1861), Baron Herbert of Lea, who from 1841 to 1860 was successively Secretary to the Admiralty, Secretary of War and then Secretary of State for War.

The opium wars in China documents from the state papers of Sidney Herbert

His papers are part of Wilton House and Estate archive and are a fascinating insight into 19th century British political and military history. The journey into this immense collection was brief but rewarding as we discovered a wonderful document that summarised the issues surrounding the opium trade (“Neglect of Government to take steps as to opium trade”, WSA 2057/F8/I/G/1), and several letters and despatches describing the taking of the Peiho Forts – a joint British and French military action in China in the 1860s (WSA 20157/F8/V/B/192ee).

From China in the 19th century we ventured into the 20th century and a world at war.

Malmesbury and the Evacuees of World War II

on Monday, 16 January 2017. Posted in Archives, History Centre, Schools

Two visitors to the History Centre, a grandfather and his grandson were very interested by what they discovered in the school log books of two Malmesbury schools during WWII. We were so impressed by Ben’s research on the topic, we thought you would be too, and he kindly agreed to let us publish it as a WSHC blog. Many thanks to Ben Tate, age 11.

Malmesbury and the Evacuees of World War Two

Westport Church of England Boys’ School

Westport CofE Boys’ School was a primary school for boys which was running during the second world war. This historical article on it includes many real accounts from the school’s log book in the time of world war 2, which can be located at Wiltshire & Swindon History Centre.

1939 In 1939 alone, 32 evacuees (and also their teachers) attended Westport, 14 of which were from London.

Due to the breakout of war, the term began a week late on September 11th 1939, rather than September 4th 1939.  Within 2 weeks of the start of term, 2 evacuees had already gone back home and 2 more had just arrived. This shows the real instability for schools managing evacuees.

At Westport they had separate registers and separate classes for evacuees and local children (as order of the attendance officer).

Something I found fascinating was that at the start of the term (September 1939) they had 32 evacuee pupils but by October 1939 they only had 16 left as the rest had gone home. This again shows the instability of schools trying to manage evacuees.

1940 The headteacher of Westport wrote in the school’s log book on 18th January 1940 that 9 local boys and 5 evacuee boys from Westport had sat a public examination.

A few weeks later in February, the headmaster wrote that Mr. Ellis (one of the teachers who had come with the boys) had had to go back to his house in London as it had been burgled.

In May that year, the headteacher wrote of how 2 evacuee boys were up against the court for crimes like robbery and vandalism.

I worked out that by May 1940 the evacuees had been integrated into one class with the local children at Westport. (That was only the first record I could find in the log book. It may have been earlier, but I haven’t found evidence).

Later that year, in June, the headteacher wrote that there was a possibility of more evacuees going to Westport but the headmaster had said that unless the top floor was brought into use, the school was going to have a real problem finding accommodation for the extra pupils. I failed to find out whether they ever opened the top floor, but I did find out that later in June, 71 evacuees and 3 teachers arrived at Westport, all from east London.

A couple of weeks later, the headteacher wrote about two evacuees who had tried to escape their foster parents and run back to London by road. He went on to say about how they had robbed their foster parents and had only got as far as Swindon when they got caught.

A couple of days after that, the headteacher recounted that Mr Murray (a teacher) had been called up for war service.

On 8th November 1940 the headteacher of Westport wrote about how he had had to keep getting new teachers as they were being called up for service and teachers who had come with the evacuees kept going back home. I found an account of this in June 1940 when the headteacher of Westport wrote, 4 new teachers arrived at the start of June: “The month isn’t even out and 1 of them has already gone back to his home in Essex”.

Something I found interesting in the Westport School’s Log book was on November 15th 1940 the headteacher wrote that bombs had been dropped on Hullavington (obviously due to the air base). He went on to say that a couple of children had been frightened but it was ‘quickly forgotten’. I was personally surprised at that.

1941   In January 1941 the headteacher of Westport wrote in the log book that all evacuees at his school currently had spent Christmas with their foster parents.

The headteacher wrote in the log book on 4th April 1941, that before the holidays the school had 130 evacuees, yet after 2 weeks holiday, they only had 117. On the 25th April 1941 he wrote about how 2 boys had gone back to their homes in Tilbury. He went on to say exactly: “It’s turning into a slow and steady flow”.

1942             I could find no references to evacuees, though I am not saying there weren’t any. I believe there were references to evacuees that I read, it was just that the headmaster had not specifically said the boy is an evacuee. I think this because by now evacuees were not a new thing and they were more integrated and accepted in the local communities.

1943 The same thing happened for 1943 as it had done in 1942.

1944 In 1944 again I had trouble finding accounts saying the child was evacuee although I found a reference talking about how the older boys at the school – some of whom must have been evacuees – were being allowed afternoons of school to help with the potato harvest.

1945 On 8th May 1945 the headteacher of Westport wrote in large writing – very unlike his usual, neat style – ‘VICTORY DAY! WAR IN EUROPE ENDED TODAY.’

Shortly after that (25th June 1945), he wrote that since the war in Europe was over, many evacuees had gone home. Therefore he had had to shuffle around the classes, as many of the students had been evacuees.

The last account that I found in Westport Church of England Boys School Log Book I’m going to tell you about was written on 10th September 1945 which simply said – in large handwriting – ‘THE WAR IS OVER. THE JAPANESE WAR IS OVER!’

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