Articles tagged with: Salisbury Plain

A Force of Nature: The Papers of Beatrice Gillam

on Tuesday, 29 May 2018. Posted in Archives, Wiltshire People

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Beatrice’s Illustration of the Anatomy of a Bat (from 4313/2/3)

Alongside our parish, ecclesiastical and local government collections, the History Centre is also home to many fascinating personal archives. I have recently completed cataloguing one such collection; the papers of the ecologist Beatrice Gillam (1920-2016). Beatrice was a dedicated observer of wildlife, and a vociferous advocate for the county’s natural history. As the cataloguing project comes to a close this seems a timely opportunity to celebrate the life and achievements of this local hero. 

Early Years

Beatrice’s interest in ecology began in her childhood, partly spent in Exmouth where she enjoyed exploring the local countryside. She began her career as a teacher of natural history and physical education in Somerset and later became an occupational therapist. But Beatrice never lost her interest in wildlife and in the 1950s took evening classes in natural history through Bristol University. This led to the award of a mature scholarship at London University to study zoology and botany in 1963. In 1966, she gained a Certificate of Proficiency in Natural History. Beatrice’s study notebooks give us an insight into the teaching of natural history at this time.

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Beatrice’s Drawing of a Whinchat (from 4313/10/1)

Observer and Campaigner

Beatrice devoted many hours to observing wildlife at numerous sites across the county, and used diaries and notebooks to record species sightings and their behaviour. Beatrice also took part in many national and local wildlife surveys. Even when she was well into her seventies, Beatrice was out in the field, contributing to initiatives by the British Trust for Ornithology, such as their survey of skylarks (1996-1997) and annual Winter Farmland Bird Census (in the years up to 2000). Thanks to her long-standing commitment to many such surveys we can develop a picture of the changes to species population over time. Another component of the collection are the reference files which Beatrice compiled on butterflies, snails, ladybirds, deer, bats, grasses and many other species. These files typically contain printed articles, correspondence with conservation groups and habitat surveys.

Snappers and Gunners: behind the scenes at the Fox Talbot Museum and the Royal Artillery Museum

on Wednesday, 31 May 2017. Posted in Museums

One of the best things about my job is visiting different museums around the county, seeing behind the scenes and finding out about all the exciting things that are happening. Last week I was lucky enough to go to two museums and get a peek at things not normally seen by visitors.

First up was a visit to the Fox Talbot Museum https://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/lacock-abbey-fox-talbot-museum-and-village/features/learn-about-the-history-of-photography in Lacock, with the Wiltshire Museum Group. The Museum tells the story of the history of photography, from the very first photographic chemical processes to the modern smartphone. It also celebrates the life and work of William Henry Fox Talbot who lived in Lacock Abbey. A Victorian pioneer of photography, Fox Talbot created the earliest surviving photographic negative, taken in 1835, of a window of the Abbey. Upstairs there’s a gallery with a changing temporary exhibition programme, which explores photography as an art form.

The Fox Talbot Museum
‘Plants in a different light’ www.nationaltrust.org.uk/lacock-abbey-fox-talbot-museum-and-village/features/plants-in-a-different-light-by-jan-ramscar by Jan Ramscar is the currently temporary exhibition at the Fox Talbot Museum. It features botanical projection photograms, in the spirit of those created by Fox Talbot himself.

Curator Roger Watson, told the group about a current project to acquire and manage the Fenton Collection. Thousands of photographs from the 19th and 20th centuries were collected by James Fenton, along with a wide range of photographic technologies – including cameras, exposure meters and stereoscopic viewers. He displayed them in his own Museum of Photography on the Isle of Man, before donating them to the Museum of the Moving Image in 1986. All the items had been in storage since the museum closed in 1999 and last year the British Film Institute had donated them to the National Trust’s Fox Talbot Museum.

Funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund www.hlf.org.uk and the Prism Fund www.artscouncil.org.uk/funding/prism  the project has brought the collection to Lacock, where it is being catalogued and cared for, including being re-housed in a newly created store.

Store in a barn

The new store is built inside one of the traditional buildings in Lacock – from the outside you wouldn’t be able to tell what’s kept within. A room has been built inside the barn to house the objects. This is insulated to help keep the environment stable and the conditions the best possible to ensure the preservation of all the treasures kept within.

The new store
Volunteers Ros and Annette cataloguing photographs from the Fenton Collection at the Fox Talbot Museum. In the public area of the museum, they are happy to chat to visitors about what they’re doing and help people understand how museum collections are looked after.

First World War Tunnels at Larkhill

on Tuesday, 25 April 2017. Posted in Archaeology, Military

I have written before about some of the amazing finds at the site that will become the Larkhill Service Family accommodation. Archaeologists from Wessex Archaeology and White Young Green have been ensuring that the archaeology has been excavated, with archaeologists from the Wiltshire Council Archaeological Service (mostly me!) helping to ensure that anything affected by the development is properly excavated and recorded. We’ve had Neolithic, Bronze Age and Iron Age finds, including a Neolithic causewayed enclosure, a new (probable) henge and an enclosed settlement (with associated roundhouses). I’ve also mentioned before that we have the remains of a First World War training battlefield, with what has turned out to be over 8km of trenches that have been excavated by the archaeologists and unexploded ordnance specialists that have been working on the site (an example of some of these trenches are shown in this picture – the trenches are white from the excavated chalk being backfilled into them. The second photo shows part of the trench system).

In addition to the trenches, we can now reveal that the practice battlefield also included tunnels and dugouts. On battlefields, dugouts were used for lots of reasons, including troop shelters, medical posts, headquarters and stores. Their position underground meant that they were less likely to be affected by bombs, shells or bullets. We have a number of these at Larkhill, along with a number of tunnels. Both sides dug tunnels into no-man’s-land in order to lay mines that could blow up the other side’s trenches. Counter trenches were also dug to try to stop this. Tunnels were also used as listening posts (listening for the sound of the other side’s digging).

(These pictures show the entrance to one of the dugouts, with steps leading down, and another with a cob wall and doorway forming a room inside.)

The presence of these tunnels and dugouts (along with the trenches, ammunition, grenade fragments and food containers – amongst other things!) show that the troops training here were learning to undertake all aspects of trench warfare. They may well have come from all over the Commonwealth, but we know for a fact that we have people from the Wiltshire Regiment, drafted West Yorkshire coal miners, Manchester Scouts and troops from Australia. We know this thanks to the over 100 pieces of graffiti that have been found written on and carved into the chalk of the defences. Sometimes the graffiti was written in soot from candles, but more often if was written in pencil on the chalk.

Conservation of a rare Visigoth Brooch

on Thursday, 23 March 2017. Posted in Archaeology, Conservation

Conservation has been undertaken on a rare Visigoth Brooch here at the Wiltshire and Swindon History Centre. We were honoured with a visit by the finder of the artefact Matt Smith, who came for a tour of our facilities and to view the work being undertaken.

Matt Smith holding the brooch

Thought to be only the second of its kind found in the country the iron and copper alloy brooch has been identified as a late 5th, early 6th-century AD type, predominantly found in southern France and central Spain. The brooch was uncovered during excavations undertaken by Operation Nightingale and Wessex Archaeology at Barrow Clump on Salisbury Plain.

The brooch formed part of the grave goods associated with one of the female burials on the site, and Matt’s first solo grave excavation. Significantly, well preserved organics remain on the surface of the object with the weave of the fabric visible through the microscope.

Image of the brooch after conservation
Microscope view of the fabric weave

The brooch arrived at the conservation labs after x-radiography revealed the decorative copper alloy inlay. Still covered in corrosion products and soil from the burial environment, clues to the presence of preserved organics were just showing through the soil covering. Cleaning started slowly with scalpels and pins under the microscope to remove the soft chalky soil and reveal the extent of the organics.

An Autumn Tour

on Friday, 16 October 2015. Posted in Museums

Now that summer fades away and crisp/wet autumn arrives, one would expect the museum staff in Wiltshire to take advantage of the impending winter months and retreat into their archives until spring. However, there is still much to see and visit throughout the county – indeed an intrepid traveller could embark on a grand circular tour this weekend, starting at Royal Wootton Bassett, then heading south west towards Trowbridge, due south to Mere and return via Market Lavington.

The museum at Royal Wootton Bassett is an iconic site in the town. Half-timbered, supported on fifteen pillars and dating from 1690, the former town hall was a gift from Lawrence Hyde, MP, (later the Earl of Rochester) to the citizens and incorporated a store room and a lock up or Blind House for drunks and other undesirables, used before local police stations contained their own cells. The building has seen many uses, including a school and a courtroom. After extensive restoration in 1889 the town library was based in the town hall and since 1971 it has housed the museum.

Currently, the museum is marking the closure of the Wootton Bassett railway station back in 1965 with an exhibition and marvellous scale model depicting the station in the 1960’s. Visit the slide show telling the story of the station and its various buildings and its early links with Isambard Kingdom Brunel. Look at railway life through the eyes of a signalman and discover the impact of the Swindon rail works on Wootton Bassett.

Royal Wootton Bassett Museum is open every Wednesday and Saturday (10-12).

Travelling across the county we reach the administrative centre of Trowbridge and its wonderful museum which is situated in The Shires Shopping Centre. The museum collection covers Trowbridge and outlying villages and contains a multitude of artefacts relating to the history of the town including its past industries and notable townspeople, one of which was Sir Isaac Pitman, developer of phonetic shorthand. Trowbridge Museum is located on the second floor of Salters Mill, the town’s last working woollen mill which closed in 1982. The cloth industry was a huge factor in the town’s development and in 1820 the place was nicknamed the ‘Manchester of the West’ with over twenty cloth-producing factories - the museum possesses one of only five Spinning Jennies left in the world.

The Return of the Great Bustard (Otis tarda)

on Friday, 25 September 2015.

As a self–taught, amateur bird watcher, I am always eager to spot unusual birds, especially if they are in Wiltshire. I am yet to book a date with the Great Bustard Group (a dedicated band of Bustard enthusiasts), who provide an escorted trip out on Salisbury Plain for a reasonable fee. If you want to just go out and spot yourself a Great Bustard, it is very much discouraged. These birds are very private and shy- very easily alarmed. It is best to be guided by the experts so as not to upset the slowly expanding Wiltshire population.

Wiltshire has always been quite partial to the Great Bustard. Not only was it a palatable bird but also popular, especially in Georgian times, as a trophy to hang on ones wall. Even in the early 19th century, when numbers were considerably dwindling, naturalists were still bagging themselves a specimen; this was to prove to others of their sighting to avoid being scoffed at in scientific circles.

Until recently, it was understood that the Great Bustard had been native to Britain for thousands of years. Archaeological evidence has been found in various parts of the country and previous examinations of skeletal remains have been passed off as those of the Great Bustard. Now, with the advance of science and DNA screening, the specimens which have been re examined have been found to be those of the Common Crane (Grus grus). It is now believed that the first migrants came from the Iberian Peninsula during the late medieval period and not before the 16th century. This conclusion has been deduced from the lack of historical documentation ie. household accounts, feast lists and market prices. Also, there is no name for the Great Bustard in Saxon.

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