By the end of 1939 and the early part of 1940 most of the 70,000 ‘aliens’ – immigrants – living in Britain had been sent before a tribunal which assessed their loyalty to Britain, after which less than 600 were classed as high threats to British national security and imprisoned, usually as a result membership of a Nazi organisation. This relatively tolerant policy was to change dramatically in May 1940.
Between the outbreak of war and early summer of 1940 the military situation of Britain and its allies had gone from relatively optimistic, to precarious, to potentially disastrous. The Norwegian Campaign had been a failure, France and the Low Countries had been invaded and overrun, the British Expeditionary Force had been trapped and nearly destroyed at Dunkirk, and a German invasion attempt seemed highly likely. To make matters worse, Italy joined the war against Britain on 10 June 1940.
Nationally, this sudden change in the outlook of the war exacerbated already simmering anti-alien tensions. It was not thought possible that the Germans could overrun France and Belgium so quickly under normal circumstances – that they had collapsed so soon was taken as proof that they had been undermined from within by German agents posing as immigrants. Combined with Britain’s difficult military situation these (unfounded) accusations led to a hysteria in which any alien, even those previously classed as loyal, was seen as a potential traitor. The government responded to this panic by ordering the arrest of all enemy aliens: when discussing what to do about Italians living in Britain, Winston Churchill is said to have demanded that the police “collar the lot!”.
The files of the Wiltshire Constabulary here at the History Centre show how this mounting hysteria gripped the county. On 28 May 1940 the Chief Constables of England and Wales wrote to the Home Office to say that: "It is not felt that the slightest reliance can be placed even on those aliens who have produced the most excellent credentials and whose conduct has hitherto been apparently innocuous, as it seems reasonable to expect that that any enemy agent ... will be extremely circumspect until the time comes for him to take action."
What’s interesting about this letter is the way that the language used to describe aliens living in Britain had changed since September 1939. Whereas at the start of the war aliens were deemed innocent unless specific evidence of disloyalty was found, by late May 1940 the police were suggesting that aliens should be assumed guilty of subversion unless proven otherwise. The best response to this, the security services felt, was simply to arrest all enemy aliens in Britain: “under the present circumstances the County Chief Constables feel that the only safe plan is to intern every enemy alien”.
The effects of this suspicion were soon felt in Wiltshire. On 29 April 1940, the Home Office wrote to Wiltshire Police instructing them to begin preparations to deal with Italians employed in sensitive locations within the county; in the event of hostilities between Britain and Italy these people were to be off immediately on receipt of a coded Home Office telegram. In response, the police began to draw up lists of all Italians then in Wiltshire; police records here at the History Centre show that 17 Italians were identified, 5 men and 12 women, giving their names, addresses and occupations.
"My own life has been rather like a kaleidoscope", writes Matilda Talbot in her autobiography. For somebody who experienced the two world wars at first hand, travelled in three continents, and went on to unexpectedly inherit Lacock Abbey, her life was truly kaleidoscopic; a constantly changing sequence of patterns punctuated by bursts of colour.
It was perhaps due to her natural flair for languages, combined with her kind and down-to-earth manner, that many of these colourful experiences came about. She readily accepted invitations to visit old friends and new acquaintances in far-off places, sometimes travelling with her family, but never fearful of travelling independently. When she did travel on her own, she was never alone, striking up friendships with passengers and crew, on-board boats as she tried out her language skills.
Language learning was to become an important element when preparing for a trip abroad and she often came up with enterprising ideas in order make progress. Before spending Christmas in 1908 with Lord and Lady Methuen in their new home in South Africa, she went to the “Dutch Church in Austin Friars” to find a teacher: "I found a verger and asked him if he knew any lady of the congregation might be willing to give me some lessons in Dutch”. From there, her studies continued on deck, which must have made for a curious sight, for she and a new lady acquaintance sat down to read from a "big Dutch Bible" that she had brought with her from Lacock: "We sat together on the deck and I tried to talk, and she read to me. The captain was highly amused, when he found us reading the Psalms, verse about, in Dutch, but she really was a good help".
Earlier on she had turned her attention to Scandinavia after delivering some illustrated papers at the Scandinavian Sailors' Home, near the West India Dock, where she met a young Norwegian girl, Fredrike Betzmann. A friendship developed between the two young women and they met regularly in London, later holidaying together, first in Scotland and then in Norway. While Fredrike perfected her in English, Matilda and her sister Mary made good progress in Norwegian. "For nearly a month we stayed with Fredrike's family and were soon able to talk Norwegian quite fluently. […] Some of our pleasantest expeditions were in rowing boats up the little inlets of the fjord, going ashore and picnicking where we liked. Looking back, it seems to me that every afternoon was fine".
Besides Dutch and Norwegian, she understood French from an early age which she continued at a day school in London: "We always talked French to our French nursemaid, Emilie, and also to my mother, who spoke French as readily as English". During World War I she put these skills into practice when working for L'Œuvre de la goutte de café which ran a canteen for convalescent soldiers near Paris, and then later at Bussang in the Vosges where troops went to the trenches or returned from them.
A natural talent for languages was helped greatly by her indomitable spirit. While staying in Scotland in February 1925, she writes a letter in Italian despite of her deficiencies in the language: "Today Miss A asked me to help her write a letter in Italian: She recently received a letter from an Italian but still hasn't replied. I tried but it was awful. It's hard: Now everything I think is in Russian" . Undeterred and determined to help her friend, she goes on to explain that with the help of an Italian book and some difficulties, she was able to finish the letter in half an hour and give it to a "quite contented Miss A", who could copy it out in her own hand.
Out of all the languages she learned it was certainly Russian which required her to draw the most on that indomitable spirit. "[Learning Russian] was like paying court to a beautiful woman and capricious woman: she is maddeningly unreasonable and one is furious with her but all the same one cannot cease making love to her".
Although she never visited Russia or the Soviet Union, she learned the language to a high level. She describes the Estonian town of Pechory on the Russian border which she visited twice during the 1930s: "One day we went by train to the extreme south-east of Estonia, to a place called Pechora. There was a monastery there with a wonderful church. […] Everyone in Pechora spoke Russian and very few people spoke Estonian, but the notices were printed in both languages. […] We had a look round the monastery and went into the church for part of the service, but I could not understand a word for the Orthodox Service is always said in old Slavonic".
Also, while in Estonia she experienced a real steam bath where she is beaten with birch twigs to stimulate the skin. On leaving the bathhouse she notes "We had lots of little birch leaves clinging to us which had to be rinsed off. The Russians have a saying about the kind of person one cannot shake off: 'She clings to me like bath foilage'".
I’ve just finished reading the fascinating book ‘My Own Life’ by Ruth Scurr about the life of the 17th century Wiltshire antiquarian John Aubrey. It has left me with such a great impression of both his life and the times he lived in, that I thought I’d share them with you.
Aubrey was born on St. Gregory’s Day, 12th March 1626, the eldest son of Richard, a gentleman, and Deborah. His cousin and patron was Sir John Aubrey, 2nd Baronet, who had homes in Buckinghamshire and the Vale of Glamorgan.
His love of Wiltshire was derived from growing up at Broad Chalke and Easton Piercy, and through his years spent at school at Leigh Delamare, but also from association with some of the county’s major landowners such as the Pembrokes of Wilton House, spending time at their estates. His father’s death caused financial difficulties. Over time Aubrey had to sell off his property, spending the majority of his time moving between friends, patrons and lodging houses.
Aubrey had many, many friends, some of whom appear to have taken advantage of his good nature and his genuine wish to help further their work. Aubrey loved science and learning, becoming a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1662, only two years after it had been founded, but he also loved nature and the world around him, especially the Wiltshire landscape, and folklore. He had a belief and interest in astrology, and had correspondence with Edmund Halley.
John was particularly interested in springs, and noted many in Wiltshire, testing their composition and presenting them to the Royal Society. He also had a surprising ability for the age; the ability to talk to anyone and show interest in their views, from Kings to lowly peasants.
Aubrey lived in turbulent times and worried about the lack of care given to historic material, seeing stonework looted, ruins uncared for, old manuscripts used in kitchens and to cover school books. His sense of caring for the past for the future was evident in his relationships with men such as Mr Ashmole who was instrumental in the founding of the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford. He also paid for the etching of the Osney Abbey ruins by Hollar; concerned to document them before they were lost forever.
In the past I carried out some research on behalf of Salisbury City Council into Thomas Edwin Adlam, a native of Salisbury, who won the Victoria Cross in 1916. In the course of my research I uncovered a fascinating story, which I thought I would share with you, although I am sure there is a lot more still to be learned, in family papers not yet deposited at the History Centre.
Tom (as he preferred to be known) was born at 14, Waterloo Gardens in Salisbury, on 21 October 1893 to a coach-builder, John Adlam, and his wife, Evangeline. Tom began his education at St Martin’s school, Salisbury, then gained a scholarship to Bishop’s Wordsworth’s School, for which we hold the school admission register showing his admittance on 12 September 1906:
Tom was training to be a teacher when he joined the Territorial Force (precursor to the T.A.) in September 1912, and had only spent one month as assistant master at a Basingstoke School when war broke out, and he was mobilised. Originally stationed in India, he applied for a commission and became Second Lieutenant in the Bedfordshire Regiment in November 1915. At school he had excelled at sport, including cricket, which benefitted him in the war owing to his ability to throw bombs further than many of his peers! On 21st June he got married to Ivy Mace, a month before he arrived at the Western Front on 18 July 1916, having, fortuitously, missed the 1st Battle of the Somme on 1st July in which his battalion received heavy casualties. He received his VC for his part in the assault on the Schwaben Redoubt at Thiepval, at the end of September 1916. This well-guarded defensive position had been held by German forces for several months, and they did not give it up without a fierce and bloody fight.
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.