Last week we showcased our website and talked about how to continue accessing heritage at home. This blog is a continuation of that theme with a look at just some of the many online offers from our colleagues in heritage, arts and libraries in Wiltshire and across the UK.
For budding family historians, the closure of libraries and archives has made it more difficult to access the necessary documents and records; while there are many records online they are often behind pay-walls. However, in partnership with Ancestry the History Centre can now offer free home access to Wiltshire parish registers and wills. You can find out how to access these records from our archives home page. If you are new to family history there are plenty of free "how to" guides to help you with your research. Head to the History Centre’s own archives pages for free research tools and check out the National Archives research guide on family history. Another online genealogy resource is the Wiltshire site for Online Parish Clerks. The idea behind the project is to assist those who are researching their family history in a specific parish who might otherwise have difficulty accessing information at record offices. Also visit the Wiltshire Family History Society which has downloadable publications. (While the indexes are free, fees do apply to other publications.) Swindon Local Studies Library is able to offer free access to Find My Past for library members but downloads are limited and you do need to join the library. Watch this space for further updates on free resources.
If local history, historic buildings, or aerial photography are your thing then you are spoilt for choice. Combining local history with guided walks is historian John Chandler’s latest publication Salisbury, The History Around Us and he has made this available as a free download from Hob Nob Press. John has revised and expanded his book, which was originally published in 1992, in anticipation of the 800th anniversary celebrations of the founding of Salisbury Cathedral and City. John is a familiar face at the History Centre working on Victoria County History – VCH – volumes for Wiltshire and Gloucestershire, including most recently a volume on Chippenham. He is the author of a significant number of books on the history of the south west and promotes the work of local historians as publisher of Hob Nob Press.
Historic buildings and aerial photography are a feature of Swindon-based Historic England’s searchable online collections. Visit its archive and the home page where there are links to guides helping you explore heritage from the comfort of your own home. Part of the archive contains more than 4 million aerial photos of England, over 95,000 of which are viewable online via a dedicated website – Britain from Above. It is worth registering on this website – it is free – and this will allow you zoom in and explore the aerial photos in detail.
Another searchable database is the Wiltshire Historic Environment Record. This records all archaeological finds in the county and is a great way to discover what is under your house, road or home town. So whether it’s palaeolithic hand axes or Second World War pillboxes explore Wiltshire’s material history on the HER. And if you are interested in how buildings are dated then visit the Wiltshire Buildings Record website. Here you can learn about dendochronology (the study of tree ring growth and how it can be used to date buildings), the Wiltshire farmstead project and much more, including how to contribute to the work of the WBR.
Wiltshire is a county blessed with many wonderful historic houses and gardens, many of which are managed by the National Trust. While these beautiful spaces are currently closed to the public but the National Trust has been busy behind the scenes thinking of fun activities and challenges to carry out in our own homes and gardens. The organisation’s very popular 50 things to do before you're 11¾’ activity list has been adapted to meet the current requirement to stay at home with a selection of activities that can be done in the garden. There are wide ranging suggestions on things to do at home – for all ages – including exploring some of the National Trust’s collections on the theme of spring.
Also on an artistic theme, the Arts in Wiltshire blog has collated a number of online resources to help you take part in and enjoy creative activities at home. The blog is regularly updated so is worth checking out if you are looking for creative activities for yourself or your family. It also contains information for arts practitioners on where to go for help and guidance during this lockdown period.
Reading is hugely important for all ages and Wiltshire Libraries is making sure there is something for everyone available online. Check out Read and Rhyme on the Active Communities web page for information on Rhyme Time readings on Wiltshire libraries Facebook pages, eBooks and eMagazines, and titles for Reading Groups. The Reading Agency has also produced a toolkit to help us all stay connected during isolation, providing ideas on how to keep book groups going virtually, preparing for the Summer Reading Challenge and Reading Well which supports all ages in understanding and managing our health and wellbeing.
Continuing the reading theme, the British Library website is well worth checking out, especially its Discovering Children’s Books pages. These explore the history and rich variety of children’s literature and provide a host of great activities for all the family, from learning how to draw a Gruffalo, to making your own miniature book or even your own flying superhero. For those of you on Twitter you can keep up to date with more initiatives coming out of UK libraries by following #LibrariesFromHome. For those not on social media visit the Libraries Connected webpage.
In the previous blog we spoke about the Know Your Place website for accessing historic maps of Wiltshire and some of its neighboring counties. However, if you require access to nationwide collections then visit the National Library of Scotland maps website which has over 200,000 digital maps available for consultation. As with all new websites, getting used to the lay out and how it all works can take some time, but it does have some very useful orientation videos, which are well worth viewing before you get started.
We can’t finish this blog without a visit to The National Archives which has added some new resources following the nationwide lockdown. The boredom busters section is great for regular or new users and includes podcasts, videos, online exhibitions and more. Also, why not have a go at the online paleography (reading old handwriting) course. It is interactive, fun and will prove useful when you are able to get back into the search room to consult those all-important historic documents.
We hope this finds you all well, whether you are one of our regulars or are new to the Wiltshire & Swindon History Centre. Engaging with heritage, arts and culture really is a great way to encourage creativity and support wellbeing during these difficult times, so explore the links in this blog and keep an eye out for more material coming your way soon.
Max Parkin, Archivist & Ruth Butler, Heritage Education Officer
During a visit to Cricklade I was asked to pop in to see a cottage in Swindon. This cottage and another similar one nearby were all that were left of an ancient hamlet and were now surrounded by modern houses, giving a very suburban flavour to the area. The cottage had once been a prosperous farm but was subsequently divided into two cottages, a not unusual development for a farmhouse in the 19th century.
On the ground floor were two original rooms, the core of the cottage before it was extended. A heavy 17th century beam ran from the gable end fireplace to the cross wall and this immediately aroused my interest; when an open medieval hall with a central hearth is floored over, the beam supporting it often has one end lodged in the chimney breast, which is added at the same time.
By the time I got to the first floor I was excited to see the start of a heavily-plastered cruck blade with arched brace of what must have been a hall truss emerging from the stone wall, and disappearing through the ceiling. Crucks are a very distinctive form of timber-framing not seen in Wiltshire after about 1530: our dendrochronology project is collecting data on this very subject. Barely containing myself, I arrived at the attic floor via a steep, winding stair to be confronted with the massive and heavily smoke-blackened top parts of a 14th century roof. There were two main frames complete with characteristically skinny wind-braces, some original chunky rafters, and smoke-blackened battens, though the thatch had been replaced.
Image: Apex of one of the cruck trusses
The timbers had been cut about to allow circulation within the attic space, but originally the impressive cruck frames would have been only viewed from the ground. To get some idea of what a medieval dwelling house would have been like when built, go into an old tithe barn such as that at Lacock or Bradford-on-Avon and be impressed by the sheer scale and size of the timbers and height to the roof. A farmhouse would have been smaller, but still impressive. The hall truss over the open fire would have been the most decorative, with chamfered bracing, parts of which remain. In the 17th century the old hall was clad in stone, hiding or replacing the original timber-framing and its wattle-and-daub panels. Houses like this had to change with the times to stay useful, or be replaced. I suspect there are many more hidden medieval halls out there just waiting to be discovered, even in the most unlikely places!
Secret Swindon by Angela Atkinson Amberley Press, 2018 95 pages, includes bibliography, paperback ISBN 9781445683386 £14.99
The aim of this colourful publication is to prove that Swindon is so much more than you might think; a multi-layered, unique and vibrant town. As a reader you are invited to discover things you never knew, aided by ‘Did you Know’ fact boxes to guide the way.
The book begins with an interesting synopsis of the history of the town before the railway. The stories of Swindon’s major families, writers such as Richard Jefferies, Edith New, Swindon suffragette and houses now lost figure here, alongside secret locations and tips on how to while away a happy hour in the town on a historical theme.
Travel back with the GWR and the amazing feats of its employees to create a healthcare system and some wonderful works of culture; also included are the origins of the Mechanics Institute and Swindon’s aviation history for good measure. Modern Swindon is not overlooked, with architecture, the magic roundabout and the strength of today’s cultural activities being investigated.
Angela’s style is witty, snappy and easy to read, weaving information with a conversational tone reminiscent of her origins as a successful blogger.
The content is a lovely mix of old and new on a multitude of topics that goes to the heart of the character of the town. The images reflect the content and complement the text well.
The aim of the book has indeed been met. It will prove an eclectic revelation to both Swindonians and non-Swindonians alike.
It is available to view at here at the History Centre under ref: SWI.940
I have been asked to write a few words about the participation of Wiltshire Buildings Record in the ‘survival’ of a suburban library in Swindon. To partly fulfil the requirement in WBR’s constitution, that is, to provide information to those who have any interest in Wiltshire’s heritage building stock, an ‘outreach’ policy has been pursued for the past few years, when volunteers and opportunities have been available. With a fixed location like a local library it is a situation where the public comes to a WBR source for advice or research resources. So the base is an intermediate role between archive and buildings of the area.
Wiltshire being a geographically large county contains a diverse mix of vernacular building styles, so the libraries’ resources need only reflect its own close vernacular characteristics. Volunteer-run village museums could offer the same opportunities but do not have as many communal facilities. Aldbourne on the Marlborough Downs, provides a very well-run active Heritage Weekend in March from their own created museum including tours. There was a large scale village street map on which almost every building was dated, a very creditable achievement. Purton to the west of Swindon has long had a museum in the same Victorian building as their County Library. The WBR’s published book stock is on sale at Beechcroft Library providing some basis for research. There are four schools within a half a mile radius, but with restrictions of all sorts weighing down on the education system they rarely use the facilities. Display boards of the history of Stratton buildings are on show with the contents eventually going to the WBR archive.
Clive Carter, Wiltshire Buildings Record Volunteer
“But here, on the downs, you are not compassed about with trees and boughs, and locked fast in rich meadows… Instead there are bareness, simplicity, and spaciousness, coupled with a feeling of great strength and uncontrolled freedom, an infinity of range, and an immortality of purpose.”
Alfred Williams is better known for his poetry, having gained the title ‘Hammerman Poet’ whilst working for the Great Western Railway in Swindon.
Williams wanted to sketch a view of the people and landscape covering a whole locality rather than just one village or parish. The site was well known to him; along the ridgeway overlooking the Vale of the White Horse which extends into Oxfordshire, now part of the North Wessex Downs AONB.
Alfred’s attempt was successful and what remains are a collection of stories and imagery that takes you from community to community over a 20 mile area. Alfred notes that the characters he writes about are exactly as he found them, and he paints a good picture, describing their clothes, their speech, their backgrounds and trades, but the picture appears to have always been so rosy… perhaps possible artistic licence makes for a more nostalgic read?
The downs are described in detail including how they were cultivated and the flora and fauna that could be found. There were also the buildings; where they were located, what they looked like and their uses. The journey is fondly itinerated, from village to village, up slopes, through thickets and coombs, beside springs. Information on the history of the locations as Alfred knew it is recorded, along with tales of poaching, thieves, smugglers and ghosts. Time was spent talking about local sports such as cockfighting and backswarding and their importance in the community, the relationship between locals and their bees, and the customs that bound these traditions together. Williams presents a unified picture of old village life with ballad sheets in every house and many songs sung in pubs; fairs and revels; village ales. He also vividly notes the changes in the area from the first threshing machine, the first train, the arrival of telegraph poles, the decline of village trades.
Alfred encapsulated the lives of a number of local craftspeople such as the carter, the sawyer, the weaver, the tailor and the basket maker to name a few, describing who they were and how they worked. He also went into great depth regarding how to make certain products, from soap and candlemaking to watercress and elderflower products. Elderflower wine stood high in the estimation of the villagers. The famous north Wiltshire bacon could not be excluded.
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.)