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.)
(*or what was held to be The Truth in the Middle Ages)
At the summer solstice, Stonehenge falls under the spotlight: in the solar sense and in the cultural sense. People all over the world find it fascinating and are reminded to ponder it when the sun is at its highest. Much of the appeal of Stonehenge may be attributed to its encompassing aura of mystery, its air of mind-bending antiquity. There is much about it we don’t understand, despite the advances made by ingenious researchers, but we are not the first generations to try to account for Stonehenge. So what did our forebears believe?
According to a twelfth-century author called Geoffrey of Monmouth, the ancient stone circle now known as Stonehenge was originally brought to mount Killarus in Ireland from Africa by a group of giants. It was known then as the Giants’ Dance and had healing properties. The stones came to Wiltshire with the help of a very young Merlin, at the behest of King Arthur’s uncle, Aurelius Ambrosius, to be reconstructed as a memorial to a group of Britons massacred during the reign of the malicious usurper, Vortigern. Some decades later the structure renamed Stonehenge becomes the final resting place of Uther Pendragon.
I studied this story while writing my PhD about an illustrated medieval manuscript containing an abridged version of Wace’s Anglo-Norman French translation of Geoffrey’s history: La Roman de Brut. Even in its shortened form, the episode in which the child Merlin guides the reconstruction of Stonehenge celebrates brains over brawn, great power despite littleness of stature:
“They grasped the stones behind, in front and sideways: they pushed and thrust them hard and shook them hard, but however much force they used, they could not find a solution. ‘Rise’ said Merlin, ‘you will so no more by force. Now you shall see how knowledge and skill are better than bodily strength.’ Then he stepped forward and stopped. He looked around, his lips moving like a man saying his prayers. I do not know if he said a prayer or not. Then he called the Britons back. ‘Come here,’ he said, ‘come! Now you can handle the stones and carry them into your ships.’ As Merlin instructed, as he devised and told them, the Britons took the stones, carried them to the ships and placed them inside. They brought them to England and carried them to Amesbury, into the fields nearby.” – Based on Judith Weiss’ 2002 translation of Wace’s Roman de Brut
To the medieval mind, the stone circle was a monument to human mastery of nature, as well as to the fallen Britons. Still today we measure ourselves by the power of our prehistoric ancestors to have created it. I recently created a linocut of the child Merlin guiding the reconstruction of Stonehenge. Both Geoffrey of Monmouth and Wace focus on the dismantling of the stones in Ireland, which is also the moment illustrated in the manuscript I worked on for my PhD. Instead, I depicted the moment when that iconic plain was undergoing its momentous transformation.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Each July I set myself a challenge – to find documents in our archive that support the GCSE and A-level topics studied by students who come to us on work placements.
The topics are wide-ranging and on the face of it have little to do with our wonderful county. But Wiltshire folk have always found themselves involved in, if not at the centre of, world events. Among the topics studied by students who have been with us this year are: the Crusades; Henry II; Black American history and Germany 1889-1989. That was just one A-level student.
At GCSE most students tend to study medicine through time, often with a more in-depth look at battlefield medicine in the First World War. Other topics that our students have studied include Weimar and Nazi Germany; international relations during the Cold War; settling of the American west; American politics and civil rights plus a bit of King John and the Magna Carta and a touch of Elizabethan politics, trade and war with Spain thrown in for good measure.
And yes – we can produce documents that relate to all of these topics. The Wiltshire and Swindon Archive is truly global in its coverage.
This year though, the particular challenge was finding collections that referenced the rise of Nazism in 1930s Germany. We searched using a variety of key words including ‘Hitler’. And it was this search that yielded some interesting results – letters written to author and diarist Edith Olivier by friends who were travelling in Europe in the 1930s or who had strong opinions about the politics of Germany and Italy.
We are privileged to have Edith’s archive as she was an inveterate diary and letter writer and our collection contains fascinating letters, notes and postcards from her large circle of friends who, post First World War, included nationally and internationally famous writers, artists, socialites and aristocracy associated with the ‘Bright Young Things’ and the ‘Bloomsbury Set’.
Three letters in this collection were particularly exciting – two were written in 1933 (WSA 982/116) and the third in 1938 (WSA 982/125), and all referred to events and people that are now key to our understanding of the interwar period.
Poet Siegfried Sassoon was a close friend of Edith’s and they wrote to each other regularly. A letter from him dated 28 February, 1933, highlights his fear that another war is imminent. He wrote it the day after the Reichstag – the German parliament building – was set on fire and a month after Hitler had been sworn in as German Chancellor.
Sassoon writes: “How miraculously opportune my poor little poems will be at this moment when there is all this horrible war feeling in the air. Everything seems leading up to a European war… & Hitlerism appears to be a very dangerous & explosive remedy for unrest!”
His letter also alludes to the political disagreements at home with some factions supporting the work of the League of Nations and others believing the organisation, formed in the aftermath of the First World War, was doomed to failure.
Sassoon goes on to say: “The Devil must rub his hands when he sees Winston baiting poor old Lansbury, who after all is on the right side, though he may be a bit silly.”
Lansbury was George Lansbury who in October 1932 became leader of the Labour Party. He was known for his belief in pacifism and unilateral disarmament; so it is interesting to read Sassoon’s support of Lansbury’s position. Sassoon is pessimistic about the future: “I have been thinking about it a lot, & I can’t help feeling that, given a bit of bad luck & people losing their heads, another war might be started just as the Reichstag has been set on fire. Isn’t it strange how some people seem definitely to hate the League of Nations for trying to safeguard the world?”
Four years ago I wrote a blog about the importance of archives, and I felt, with International Archives Day today (Saturday 9 June), it was timely to revisit this topic. Archives are often newsworthy, but not always for good reasons - I was saddened by the recent story on the BBC News website of adopted children in Ireland with falsified birth certificates. As the story shows, archives are meant to be authentic records of the past, vital for discovering our history, but they can be subject to human manipulation and distortion, like anything else. ‘Fake news’ is nothing new. Last week one of my colleagues informed me that a famous photograph showing an aeroplane over Stonehenge during the First World War is probably not genuine but a pre-Photoshop analogue amalgam of two separate photographs. I felt quite cheated! However, it is important to recognize that ‘fake’ archives are the exception not the rule, whatever some politicians – and countries - might have us believe. As a custodian of archives I think it’s important to reassure the public that archivists as a profession abide by a code of conduct and strive to behave ethically.
An archive is a record which has been selected for permanent preservation, and so it doesn’t need to be hundreds of years old but could have been created two months ago, two weeks ago, even two days ago. The key thing is that it has some kind of evidential value for the future, going above and beyond the purposes it was originally created for. One of our oldest documents - a charter for Stanley Abbey dating from c1151 - is evidence that such a body existed, and tells us what lands it once held, lands which are now owned by other people who can trace their descent over the centuries with the use of other archives such as title deeds and maps. It matters as part of the wider jigsaw of the history of Wiltshire’s communities. The format of such archives is irrelevant. The Council minutes being created electronically and published on Wiltshire Council website today are just as important as the large, leather-bound volumes in our strong rooms dating back to the formation of the Council in 1888. These archives matter because they act as crucial evidence of the decisions of the local authority which affect the lives of thousands of people, from planning and rights of way, to the care of children and vulnerable adults. Without publicly available minutes recording such decisions, local people would be unable to defend themselves against the local authority, businesses or individuals behaving in a corrupt, unlawful or self-serving manner. Bishop Desmond Tutu once stated: ‘Archives are the bulwark of a free society’ (speech by Tutu at a CITRA conference, Oct 2003.) You only have to look at the way archives and historical artefacts are often targeted during war, to see the justification for this. Evidence that could be used against an aggressive or inhumane regime is conveniently swept away, so that the narratives which prevail are those of the victor. Those who think this would never happen in the UK should look again at the earlier Hillsborough public inquiries where redaction was used by the police to distort the narrative of what happened – thankfully the unredacted records survived in the archives and were able to be used by the Hillsborough Independent Panel which published its report in 2014.
There has been a lot in the media recently about the centenary on 6th February 2018 of the Representation of the People Act 1918 but a lot of this has focused on female suffrage and of course this Act represented a big landmark in suffrage reform for men as well as women. The focus as well, understandably, has been on the national picture and I hope in this blog to shed a bit of light on Wiltshire’s story.
Background: the suffrage movement in the 19th century
The 19th century saw a great deal of progress in the movement towards votes for men and women which is useful background to the 1918 Act. At the start of the 19th century only a small minority of people could vote, based on freehold property ownership – this did, however, include an even smaller minority of women! In Wiltshire in 1831 there were 2 county MPs and 32 borough MPs, voted for by around 1200 people i.e. 0.5% of the total population of around 240,000. Some people had more than one vote and the system was unfair – large boroughs had the same number of MPs as smaller ones with fewer voters. Some Wiltshire boroughs were ‘rotten boroughs’ ie having a tiny number of voters who were in the pockets of a landowner who effectively bribed them to vote a certain way – Old Sarum is a notorious example cited for this, being in the pocket of the Pitt family from the 17th century to 1802. These local issues are symptomatic of the wider lack of the genuine democracy which many people wanted to see, and the example of revolutionary France (1789) was a cautionary tale of what might happen if reforms didn’t take place.
With the passing of the 1832 Great Reform Act Wiltshire lost 16 of its seats in Parliament, leaving 18 in total – 2 members for the northern division, 2 for the south; 1 each for Wilton, Westbury, Malmesbury, and Calne boroughs; and 2 each for Chippenham, Cricklade, Devizes, Marlborough, and Salisbury. The franchise was widened for men to include small landowners, tenant farmers and shopkeepers for the county vote. For the borough vote the irregularities and disparities were sorted out by the creation of a uniform franchise giving the vote to all householders who paid a yearly rental of £10 or more, and some lodgers. (Source: www.parliament.uk/reformact1832/) For women the result was catastrophic - total exclusion from the parliamentary franchise. However, it is very important to remember, as Dr Sarah Richardson has shown (https://victoriancommons.wordpress.com/2013/03/18/the-victorian-female-franchise/), large numbers of women continued to vote for and hold office for a range of local bodies, including overseers of the poor, surveyors of the highway and constables, due to paying poor rates.
Disappointed by the limitations of the 1832 Act campaigners called the Chartists were pressing for (amongst other things) a vote for all men over 21 of sound mind and not in prison; for secret ballots; for payments for MPs to allow ordinary working people to become MPs; and a fairer distribution of numbers of voters in constituencies – all things which seem very reasonable by modern standards! In 1839 and 1840 the Chartists had torchlight processions, fiery speeches, and threats to resort to arms in Bradford on Avon, Trowbridge, Westbury, Holt and Salisbury, and outright rioting in Devizes. Though the magistrates were undoubtedly alarmed by this they acted with restraint and managed to avoid too much bloodshed in their deployment of troops. The local ringleaders based in Trowbridge and Westbury were arrested and indicted of conspiracy with intent to disturb the peace. Three of the local leaders were sentenced to two years’ imprisonment, one with hard labour. Apart from a militant flare-up in Swindon in 1848, this was the end of militant Chartism in Wiltshire.
Between 1832 and 1867 the large landowners continued to have huge political influence in Wiltshire. The more open forms of bribery had been banned but other more subtle forms continued to exist – paying election expenses, or using precarious tenancies where a tenant farmer was unable to vote independently of his landowner for fear of losing the farm. This wasn’t sorted out till the 1872 Secret Ballot Act. However relations between the landowning and other classes were improving due to things like improvements in housing, sanitation and education. The growth of literacy among working class people helped fuel a demand for local newspapers - 35 newspapers started in Wiltshire between 1830 and 1911. Some of these represented the Tories, some the Whigs (Liberals). This growth in education helped to give working class men both greater aspirations to get involved in politics and the means to achieve it. 1866 saw the first mass petition in favour of votes for women, which was presented to Parliament (available online at: https://www.parliament.uk/1866) Only three Wiltshire women signatories are listed: Anne Cunnington of Devizes, and Miss Lanham and Miss Turner who ran a ladies’ boarding seminary, Claremont House, Corsham. The petition was unsuccessful but both the Tories and the Whigs could see that further parliamentary reform was needed and the 1867 Second Reform Act (www.parliament.uk/furtherreformacts/) widened the franchise to all male householders in the boroughs, as well as lodgers, who paid rent of £10 a year or more. It also reduced the property threshold in the counties and gave the vote to agricultural landowners and tenants with very small amounts of land. It is estimated that before the Act nationally only 1 million men (of a population of 7 million adult males) could vote; after the Act that was doubled. In Wiltshire that figure was 12,500 men, representing 3.5% of the total population. (Women were still excluded from the parliamentary franchise.)
In 1835 the Municipal Corporations Act had ended women’s right to vote for Guardians or in local elections. This right was returned to them in 1869 with the Municipal Franchise Act enabling female ratepayers to vote for local municipal councils and to elect, and stand as, Guardians of the Poor, although a court case of 1872 restricted this right to unmarried women or widows. The period 1869-1875 saw a lot of activity in Wiltshire relating to the campaign for female suffrage. 26 July 1869 saw a petition in favour of suffrage by Wiltshire women, led by the residents of Salisbury. A meeting about suffrage also took place in Salisbury in March 1871 but this was the last of its kind before 1909. Petitions in favour of suffrage also took place in 1870 and 1873 in Marlborough; in 1870 in Trowbridge and in Westbury (followed by a public meeting on the topic in 1874); and in Market Lavington in 1870 and campaigner Rhoda Garrett spoke at a meeting there in 1872. Suffrage speakers spoke at public meetings in Calne and Chippenham in the late 19th century, but no actual suffrage groups were formed in those towns. Bills in favour of women’s suffrage were placed before Parliament on an almost annual basis from now onwards but were repeatedly defeated before 1918.
The 1884 Reform Act (https://www.parliament.uk/one-man-one-vote/) was a big step in the campaign to expand male suffrage. It established a uniform franchise throughout the country and brought the franchise in counties in line with the 1867 lodger and householder franchise for boroughs, in other words all men paying an annual rental of £10 and all men holding land valued at £10 now had the vote. In 1885 the Redistribution of Seats Act was a big step forward in redrawing boundaries to make electoral districts more equal. Wiltshire was left with just 6 seats, one each for the north, north-east, north-west, west, and southern divisions, plus one parliamentary borough, Salisbury. Under the 1884 Act the British electorate now totalled over 5 million but this still only represented about 60% of men, and women continued to be completely excluded from parliamentary elections.
Women’s and Working Class Men’s Suffrage Campaign 1880s-1918
In the 1880s a large number of women began getting very involved in politics and local government, taking part as local organisers, canvassers and speakers for the different political parties, and serving on school boards and Boards of Guardians. The 1888 County Council Act gave female rate-payers the right to vote in Council and Borough elections. Feeling that the Liberal party were not doing enough to represent working people the Independent Labour Party was founded in 1893. In 1900 the ILP played a key role in founding the Labour Representation Committee which became the Labour Party in 1906. The party actively encouraged women to join, linking the quest for universal male suffrage and rights for working class men with the cause of women’s suffrage.
Putting things very simply, there were two main bodies of women campaigning for the vote: the suffragists, who from the 19th century up to 1918 pursued peaceful means to acquire the right to vote, and the suffragettes, formed in 1903, who took a more militant approach. In 1897 the suffragists grouped together to form the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies under the leadership of Milicent Fawcett. The leadership was middle class but many working class women joined the movement and the Union was affiliated to Labour in 1912. The Women’s Social and Political Union was set up in 1903 by Emmeline Pankhurst, who was impatient with the slow, gradual approach of the suffragists. Taking inspiration from the earlier Chartists, “deeds not words” was their motto and this escalated from occasional acts of vandalism and arson to the infamous instance of Emily Wilding Davison throwing herself under the King’s horse at the Derby in 1913. The suffragettes were punished in a draconian fashion by the government - when they went on hunger strike they were subjected to the terrible ‘cat and mouse’ regime of force-feeding, release and re-arrest which understandably won them a good deal of public sympathy. The suffragettes were led by the middle class Pankhursts but had many working class members. Sylvia Pankhurst, however, broke away from the WSPU in 1914 and formed a socialist splinter group.
This same mix of suffragists and suffragettes can be found in Wiltshire although it’s fair to say the former far outweigh the latter, at least as far as we can tell from the local newspapers which are one of the key sources. Of the suffragettes, we might think of Edith New, a school teacher born in Swindon, who became an activist for the WSPU. Edith chained herself to the railings at 10 Downing Street in Jan 1908, the first time that tactic had been employed by a suffragette. She resigned from teaching and devoted herself full time to the cause, ending up imprisoned and on hunger strike for her beliefs. (See Volume 1 of Swindon Heritage Magazine held at WSHC for an article about Edith by Frances Bevan.) It is perhaps no surprise that Edith came from Swindon as this town held important meetings about women’s suffrage at the Mechanics’ Institute in March 1875 and again in 1882, featuring speakers from the Bristol Society. Devizes had a branch of the WSPU, formed in 1911, with Katharine Abraham as Secretary, which organised a resistance to the 1911 census. In Trowbridge Lilian Dove-Willcox travelled from her home in Bristol to work as an organiser for the WSPU and was joint secretary with Miss B Gramlich of the West Wilts WSPU. Her entry in the 1911 census shows the use of it as a tool for protest by some suffragettes.
Dr Jane Howells has discussed the formation of the Salisbury Women’s Suffrage Society (SWSS) which began life in the summer of 1909 following an earlier meeting in February at the Godolphin School – the first meeting on the subject of female suffrage since 1871. “About 20 were present, all of whom were in favour of the object of the meeting though their opinions differed widely as to the best methods to pursue…” (Salisbury Journal 3 Jul 1909, reprinted in Sarum Chronicle volume 9) The Salisbury group was affiliated to the NUWSS, thus they were suffragists not suffragettes. By 1913 another NUWSS society had been formed in south Wiltshire, at Fovant, to serve the women in the south of Wiltshire outside the City. Swindon was the home of the Swindon and North Wiltshire Suffrage Society.
It is important to recognise that not all women were in favour of suffrage. The Women’s National Anti-Suffrage League was formed in 1907 and locally Edith Olivier is an example of a Wiltshire person who actively opposed suffrage. For example, on 4 July 1910 she writes in her diary:
“Monday 4th To see lots of ratepaying women asking them to write to Mr Bathurst [local MP] & tell him they are not in favour of women’s Suffrage. The bill comes on next week. He is said to be going to vote for it.” (982/44.)