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.)

Getting students to have a go at transcribing documents is a great way to highlight one of the problems with primary sources – having to transcribe or translate the content and the errors that can follow. The exercise also encourages perseverance, patience and teamwork.
This year three students from Sheldon School in Chippenham, two GCSE students and one studying A-level history, had a go at transcribing a letter from Elizabeth I to Edward Seymour, Duke of Somerset. My palaeography skills are slowly improving and having recently got my head round mid-17th century script I felt more confident about tackling a Tudor document. I did quite well, but not as well as the A level student who made excellent progress and, with a little help from our archivists, we transcribed every word. Elizabeth’s letter, dated to the fourth year of her reign (1562) and sent from Greenwich Palace, summonsed Seymour to a meeting being planned ‘betwixt me and good sister and cosin the Queen of Scotte’ at Nottingham Castle. The meeting never took place.

One of the collections I make no apology for returning to is that of Edith Olivier – author, diarist and confidante to many of the Bright Young Things. Her extensive circle of friends held wide ranging social and political views and their steady flow of correspondence provides fascinating insights into the politics and social attitudes of the interwar years. Poet Siegfried Sassoon, a frequent letter writer and visitor to Edith’s Wilton home, sided with the views of Labour Party leader George Lansbury in his February 1933 letter while other correspondents wrote from Germany and Italy describing the rise of Hitler and Mussolini.

Yoi Maraini – born Cornelia Edith Crosse – was married to Italian sculptor Antonio Maraini who had close associations with Mussolini and was the head of the Fascist Guild of Arts and Crafts. In letters several letters Yoi expresses her admiration for Mussolini and in December 1925 writes about Mussolini’s “sincerity and goodness”. (WSA 982/91; 7 Dec 1925.) Another letter from Yoi in May 1938 describes her excitement at the visit to Florence by Hitler.
Our last set of work experience students came from Hardenhuish School and their tasks provided background information for a live piece I did for BBC Wiltshire’s afternoon show on the once ultra-secret Government bunkers at Corsham, and helped the History Centre mark the 50th anniversary of the first moon landing.

The students searched through Wiltshire’s local papers to see what coverage there might have been on the Apollo 11 mission. Although there were only a handful of news items, it was the advertising that stood out. Wiltshire brewery Gibbs Mew knew how to make the most of the upcoming moon landings. It launched a competition to name a new pub it was opening on Bemerton Heath in Salisbury and on 24 July 1969 “The Conquered Moon” welcomed its first customers. A tweet about the adverts on the History Centre twitter feed proved exceptionally popular with more than 36,000 impressions!

Ruth Butler
Heritage Education Officer

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