History is fun, but it’s even more fun with archives which provide us with that tangible connection to fascinating stories of amazing people and places who have shaped our history.
And this year we have so many reasons, if reasons were needed, to go searching through the Wiltshire & Swindon Archive to see just how connected the county is to some of the major national commemorations that are taking place in 2020.
Already garnering national attention are the 800th birthday celebrations for Salisbury cathedral and the city of Salisbury. And Salisbury can also lay claim to ties with another 800th anniversary – that of the unveiling of the shrine to St Thomas Becket at Canterbury cathedral. This year is also the 850th anniversary of Becket’s murder.
In a busy year Wiltshire will also be marking the bicentenary of Florence Nightingale’s birth. Most people will know of her as ‘the lady with the lamp’ – a phrase and image made famous in her lifetime following her pioneering work during the Crimean War – but how many know of her connections to Wilton House and the Pembroke family?
Florence was born in Florence, Italy, on 12th May 1820 and named after the city of her birth. (Her older sister Frances Parthenope was named after her birthplace of Parthenope in Naples.) The family moved back to England in 1821 and Florence grew up at Embley Park in Hampshire, just 15 miles from Salisbury. She wanted to be a nurse from an early age and had hoped to take up the career at Salisbury Infirmary – then in Fisherton Street – but her family opposed the idea, believing nursing to be an inappropriate activity for a young woman of her social standing.
She spent much of her twenties travelling and it was in Rome, in November 1847, that she met Sidney Herbert, the younger son of the Earl of Pembroke, and so began a lifelong friendship that was to prove so important to her work.
In 1853 Florence began her nursing career as the superintendent of a women’s hospital in London but it was the outbreak of war in the Crimea in 1854, and reports of horrendous conditions endured by sick and injured soldiers, that propelled Florence into spotlight.
With the support of Sidney Herbert, the minister for war, Florence Nightingale led a group of nurses to the Crimea and so began her campaign to improve conditions at Scutari hospital. Her work, alongside the work of a government Sanitary Commission, transformed the survival rates for the soldiers treated at Scutari.
Accounts of her work in her own words and the words of others are held here at the Wiltshire & Swindon History Centre and form part of the Pembroke archive (WSA 2057). There are two series of correspondence and documents – 2057/F4 and 2057/F8 – which include letters sent by Florence to Sidney Herbert and others.
In a letter written from Scutari in January 1856 (WSA 2057/F4/64), Florence attempts to explain to “dear Mr Bracebridge” how she will use the money given to the newly established Nightingale Fund. “The people of England say to me by their subscriptions ‘We trust you, we wish you to do us a service’. No love or confidence can be shown to a human being greater than this – and as such I accept it gratefully…” She goes on to say: “And if I have a plan in me, which is not battered out by the constant ‘wear and tear’ of mind and body I am now undergoing, it would be simply this – to take the poorest and least organised hospital & putting myself in there, see what I could do…”. She concludes that she is “overwhelmed at present not with plans but work.” And adds that she wishes she could say “how much I feel the love & confidence of the people of England, in whose service I have lived, so I shall die.”
Florence’s work, and that of her nurses, had made headline news in Britain and the public began giving money for a gift honouring her efforts, but so much money was given that the Nightingale Fund was created, with her friend and support Sidney Herbert its honorary secretary.
Florence’s uncertainty about the details of what to do with the fund did not last long and in July 1860 the first school of nursing was opened at St Thomas’s Hospital in London. As well as transforming and professionalising the training of nurses, Florence also influenced the design of new hospitals, introducing the eponymous Nightingale Wards.
Following on from her work during the Crimean war, Florence campaigned for improved sanitary conditions at home and went on to work on improving conditions for the British army in India. Florence was an effective social reformer and campaigner, making the most of her friendship with Sidney Herbert and not afraid to use the media of the day. But she was also careful to support her work with evidence, especially statistics, and became the first woman elected to the Royal Statistical Society.
The Florence Nightingale letters in the Pembroke archive, and letters written by others about Florence’s work, are a fascinating insight into one of Britain’s most iconic Victorian figures and it is fitting that we mark the bicentenary of her birth on 12th May this year.
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).
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.
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.
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.