Since joining the team at Wiltshire and Swindon History Centre as a ‘Transforming Archives Trainee’ with The National Archives, life has certainly been full! Over the last 5 months I’ve been involved in several HLF funded projects, completed a university module on Education and Outreach, have undertaken various in-house training sessions on traditional archive skills, as well as attending training conferences in London, Bristol, Manchester, Warwickshire, Gloucester and Dorset. In a few weeks I’ll be off to Edinburgh for another ‘basecamp’ week, training with The National Archives and Scottish Council on Archives. How time has flown!
Something that has struck me deeply over the course of my traineeship so far, which I’d like to share here, is a realisation about the vast importance of learning from our history - particularly the individual lives and stories of people who have gone before us.
Working on the ‘Wiltshire at War: Community Stories’ project, which focuses on the lives and culture of Wiltshire and its residents during WW1, has brought this home to me most of all. Traditionally, when remembering the World Wars, historians tend to concentrate on military or political strategy, and we subsequently have a multitude of movies, books and magazines concerned with the armed forces and the battles they fought. Whilst this is all fascinating information, the Wiltshire at War project seeks to collect and share the stories and memories of the individual people across Wiltshire, who lived through the troubled times of 1914 -1918. We feel it’s equally important to understand how the Wiltshire community adapted during this time, how life continued, and what individual sacrifices were made. What support did Wiltshire provide to the war effort? How did people across the county ‘pick up’ their lives again, once peace was declared? How did they cope with so much change? The project seeks to bring all this community history back into the community, and to share those stories through our fantastic website and ongoing exhibitions.
Recently I was publishing a story which came to us via our Wiltshire at War Twitter feed. It’s the story of a young farmer’s son called Freddie Butler, who grew up on Rookhaye farm in Bowerchalke, and tragically died in a flying accident whilst serving with the Royal Flying Corps. I was looking at a photo of Freddie as a child feeding hay to one of the horses, happy as can be. I wondered about that child – his hopes, dreams, memories... In that one moment captured through a camera lens, he, like all the people around him, had absolutely no idea what was to come. I wondered too about Freddie’s mother, shown in a separate photo – how did life continue for her, after the loss of her beloved son?
Looking at some of the family photos that have come in with other recent stories - some dating back as far as 1905 - I find myself peering at each individual face, pondering the complex network of unique memories, life experiences, struggles, choices and relationships that each, single person represented. Was it even possible for those individuals to comprehend that, in the not so distant future, these photos and associated stories may be all that’s left to prove that they even existed? Questions then arise in me that are fundamentally about the human condition: What lessons can we learn from these people and their experience - fellow human beings who lived 100 years before us, in circumstances even more challenging than our own? If I consider that in another 100 years, researchers might be sitting at a desk and pondering photos of me and my family, reflecting on the lives we perhaps lived – might I now choose to live mine differently? What legacy would you choose to leave?
"My own life has been rather like a kaleidoscope", writes Matilda Talbot in her autobiography. For somebody who experienced the two world wars at first hand, travelled in three continents, and went on to unexpectedly inherit Lacock Abbey, her life was truly kaleidoscopic; a constantly changing sequence of patterns punctuated by bursts of colour.
It was perhaps due to her natural flair for languages, combined with her kind and down-to-earth manner, that many of these colourful experiences came about. She readily accepted invitations to visit old friends and new acquaintances in far-off places, sometimes travelling with her family, but never fearful of travelling independently. When she did travel on her own, she was never alone, striking up friendships with passengers and crew, on-board boats as she tried out her language skills.
Language learning was to become an important element when preparing for a trip abroad and she often came up with enterprising ideas in order make progress. Before spending Christmas in 1908 with Lord and Lady Methuen in their new home in South Africa, she went to the “Dutch Church in Austin Friars” to find a teacher: "I found a verger and asked him if he knew any lady of the congregation might be willing to give me some lessons in Dutch”. From there, her studies continued on deck, which must have made for a curious sight, for she and a new lady acquaintance sat down to read from a "big Dutch Bible" that she had brought with her from Lacock: "We sat together on the deck and I tried to talk, and she read to me. The captain was highly amused, when he found us reading the Psalms, verse about, in Dutch, but she really was a good help".
Earlier on she had turned her attention to Scandinavia after delivering some illustrated papers at the Scandinavian Sailors' Home, near the West India Dock, where she met a young Norwegian girl, Fredrike Betzmann. A friendship developed between the two young women and they met regularly in London, later holidaying together, first in Scotland and then in Norway. While Fredrike perfected her in English, Matilda and her sister Mary made good progress in Norwegian. "For nearly a month we stayed with Fredrike's family and were soon able to talk Norwegian quite fluently. […] Some of our pleasantest expeditions were in rowing boats up the little inlets of the fjord, going ashore and picnicking where we liked. Looking back, it seems to me that every afternoon was fine".
Besides Dutch and Norwegian, she understood French from an early age which she continued at a day school in London: "We always talked French to our French nursemaid, Emilie, and also to my mother, who spoke French as readily as English". During World War I she put these skills into practice when working for L'Œuvre de la goutte de café which ran a canteen for convalescent soldiers near Paris, and then later at Bussang in the Vosges where troops went to the trenches or returned from them.
A natural talent for languages was helped greatly by her indomitable spirit. While staying in Scotland in February 1925, she writes a letter in Italian despite of her deficiencies in the language: "Today Miss A asked me to help her write a letter in Italian: She recently received a letter from an Italian but still hasn't replied. I tried but it was awful. It's hard: Now everything I think is in Russian" . Undeterred and determined to help her friend, she goes on to explain that with the help of an Italian book and some difficulties, she was able to finish the letter in half an hour and give it to a "quite contented Miss A", who could copy it out in her own hand.
Out of all the languages she learned it was certainly Russian which required her to draw the most on that indomitable spirit. "[Learning Russian] was like paying court to a beautiful woman and capricious woman: she is maddeningly unreasonable and one is furious with her but all the same one cannot cease making love to her".
Although she never visited Russia or the Soviet Union, she learned the language to a high level. She describes the Estonian town of Pechory on the Russian border which she visited twice during the 1930s: "One day we went by train to the extreme south-east of Estonia, to a place called Pechora. There was a monastery there with a wonderful church. […] Everyone in Pechora spoke Russian and very few people spoke Estonian, but the notices were printed in both languages. […] We had a look round the monastery and went into the church for part of the service, but I could not understand a word for the Orthodox Service is always said in old Slavonic".
Also, while in Estonia she experienced a real steam bath where she is beaten with birch twigs to stimulate the skin. On leaving the bathhouse she notes "We had lots of little birch leaves clinging to us which had to be rinsed off. The Russians have a saying about the kind of person one cannot shake off: 'She clings to me like bath foilage'".
Whilst looking into the history of Pewsey during the First World War, I wanted to investigate whether the time honoured tradition of the Pewsey Feast and Carnival took place during the war years. As it turns out, it didn’t, though I have heard rumours that there may still have been some sort of collection for Savernake Hospital – If anyone has any information regarding this, it would be greatly received!
During my search for information I became intrigued by the feast and carnival, how they came to be and overlap with each other, and the traditions involved. There is some speculation and contention over exactly how the first Pewsey Feast came to be, but the one that seems to win the fight is the story of King Alfred in the 9th Century coming back safely from war and declaring that from then on the inhabitants of Pewsey had the right to an annual feast day. The various traditions have then sprung up over time, with a tea for older people, concerts and dances, various sporting events both the 'serious' and the comparatively frivolous, a large carnival procession, and most importantly of all, the raising of funds for charity, and in particular for Savernake Hospital. The main Feast Day Sunday has traditionally fallen on the closest Sunday to 14th September (Holy Cross Day), with the rest of the festivities following afterwards. The first carnival was held in 1898 and consisted merely of a group of people riding around on ornately decorated bicycles, collecting money for Savernake Hospital, and the events and procession grew from there. Originally taking place in one week, it is now spread across two weeks, with the occasional associated event taking place outside of those two weeks.
Clearly in 1906 the village viewed the festivities with great importance, in the school log book we can see it was closed to allow the children to join in. It's interesting to note in the log book that attendance was high in the last day before the festivities began, and rather bad the day after the carnival procession, one can only speculate as to why!
For this blog I have decided to give you a glimpse of the 1906 Feast and Carnival (16th-19th September) using an article written in the Marlborough Times and Wilts and Berks County Paper on the 22nd September.
The article is titled: "PEWSEY FEAST. INTERESTING CELEBRATION. A REMARKABLE SUCCESS. ALL PREVIOUS RECORDS ECLIPSED."
As you can tell from the title the author was clearly rather impressed with the feast and carnival, they go on to describe all the components of said feast and carnival in varying degrees of detail, but write so much that it fills a whole page of the broadsheet. I will do my best to summarise, trying to pick out the important and amusing parts.
The first section gives a general overview of Feast week and emphasises how warmly the author regards the celebrations as a Pewsey tradition. They take note and admire that the "predominant feature of the Pewsey festivities is their association with the church from the earliest times", stating that as long as people keep this in mind, "no one can conceive any aspersion upon the character of the festivities". The author believes this is why the festivities had been so successful up until that year, noting that the church was always full on Feast day (Sunday). I wonder if that is the same in this day and age. The festivities are then briefly listed in order to give the reader an idea of what is about to be described, beginning on Sunday with the church services, moving onto Monday for the cricket match, "old folk's tea", and evening concert, then Tuesday for the sports day. Then on to the carnival, the committee had wanted to raise £100 on the Wednesday, and due to the success of previous years, the "proprietor of this journal felt that they deserved every encouragement, and accordingly offered a silver cup to be competed for in the afternoon." The cup was donated to encourage people in the surrounding villages to also take part in the competitions, as a way to bring people together, and raise more funds. This was obviously successful, as they had already made £100 by the time the article was written and there were still more collection boxes to come in. The carnival procession on the Wednesday night was apparently one the county could be proud of, "one of imposing magnitude, and one not likely to be forgotten by those who saw it." The last sentence of the introductory section, a stand alone sentence, made me chuckle, as a sentence so very British in nature: "The weather throughout was of a very propitious character."
Now begins the day by day description of the 1906 Feast Week.
This year is one of commemorations, significant anniversaries and celebrations. Many people will have celebrated the Queen’s 90th birthday but last month it was the monarch who was leading the birthday celebrations for another long-lived institution – the Royal Artillery which marked its 300th anniversary on 26 May with a royal visit, parade and displays at Larkhill.
A rather more sombre commemoration this year will be the 100th anniversary of the Battle of the Somme – a battle that dominates Britain’s collective memory of the First World War in the same way the Battle of Verdun occupies French history or Gallipoli tends to define Australian and New Zealand participation in the Great War. All these landmark events have come together as I work my way through a single archive – a treasure-trove of sketchbooks, diaries, letters and photographs that belonged to Hetman Jack Parham.
Jack Parham was born on 27 July, 1895 at Norrington near Alvediston in Wiltshire. He was raised on the family farm, educated at Sherborne School, and pursued a long and successful career in the Army. He retired a Major General and went to live in Suffolk – at Hintlesham near Ipswich – where he died in 1974. He lived the Royal Artillery’s Latin motto – Ubique – Everywhere.
I never knew the man. I was eight when he died and it would be another 22 years before I found myself living and working in Ipswich and sailing the River Orwell just as Jack, a keen sailor, had done.
But that is the beauty of archives – I have been able to get to know something of Jack’s remarkable story. This collection of drawings, photos and letters has taken me on an amazing journey through the early years of manned flight and Jack’s passion for aeroplanes; transported me to the battlefields of the First World War; and given me a brief insight into the thoughts of a senior military commander on D-Day 1944.
That journey began 13 months ago with a single sketchbook that had been identified by a researcher back in 2013/14 among a whole host of First World War resources. When I joined the History Centre in May 2015 I embarked on a number of centenary projects and was directed to the ‘Parham sketchbook’ from 1915-17 as a great resource. And what a resource.
Young people involved in the Dancing Back to 1914 project visited the History Centre to gain an understanding of Wiltshire 100 years ago. They were captivated by the detailed sketches that somehow closed the yawning chasm of the century separating them from the young men and women who experienced the Great War.
I was just as fascinated. Each sketch had been annotated at the time of drawing, while further notes were added (by Jack) at a later date to clarify a location or situation. I wanted to know more and periodically have been able to dip back into the Parham archive. Opening up each box has offered up something new and amazing.
Since I started at the Wiltshire and Swindon History Centre in November 2015, the main project I have been working on has been Wiltshire at War: Community Stories. I would like to let you know what the project has achieved so far, what we would still like to do, and how you can get involved.
What is Wiltshire at War: Community Stories? Wiltshire at War: Community Stories aims to bring people together from across Wiltshire to discover, explore and share stories about Wiltshire’s response to the First World War. It is supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund.
What has been achieved so far? During 2014, enthusiastic people from museums and heritage organisations were trained to carry out oral history interviews and community engagement sessions relating to gathering stories about the First World War. Throughout 2014 and 2015 (and now into 2016) research has been carried out by museums, history societies, and individuals from all over Wiltshire who have donated the stories to the Wiltshire at War project. In January 2015 the Wiltshire at War website went live. Do visit the website and explore this growing archive of stories.
The Call to Arms, the first of the five exhibitions, launched in February 2015 and is currently on display in the Springfield Campus Library, Corsham, until 3 March 2016. The theme focuses on the soldiers called up to fight, and the preparations for war in Wiltshire. The second exhibition, Wiltshire Does Its Bit, launched in September 2015, and is currently on display at Chippenham Museum, until 27 February 2016. The theme focuses on the contributions of ordinary people to the war effort at home in Wiltshire. Both these exhibitions are currently touring Wiltshire, and are available to hire, free of charge.
There are four identical schools’ exhibitions that have launched, are touring, and can be booked free of charge. They come with a handling kit to bring the exhibition to life, and complimentary teaching resources for key stages 1-3 are available on the website. There were library talks in 2015 from the likes of Stewart Binns and Elizabeth Speller, in Corsham, Salisbury, Warminster, and Mere, and they have been accompanied by a comprehensive book display.
As part of our new Facebook page we have been running a weekly feature using local newspapers from 100 years ago, “The Times This Week”. This has provided a unique perspective on Wiltshire’s history, charting the development of events 100 years ago in real time, and revealing otherwise forgotten stories of Wiltshire’s past.
Lovely incidental stories have emerged such as the two Bradford workmen engaged in painting the Gasometer who neglected to note the vessel was charging and so increasing in height, and upon finishing the job found themselves stranded with their ladder some distance below them! Eventually their plight was noticed and they were rescued through the provision of a longer ladder.
Unsurprisingly, the primary focus for much of the newspaper was the War and the paper has revealed insights into lives on the front line and on the home front.
Letters to Home
In a letter to his aunt, Percy Howell gave a detailed account of Christmas in the trenches and the famous Christmas truce. The two lines of trenches only being 200 yards apart, Howell describes hearing the German band singing on Christmas Eve, of joining in with the singing and starting a conversation. He stated ‘they did not fire a round, and of course, we were not allowed to fire either.’ After continuing the conversation throughout the night, the Germans began to come out of the trenches. He describes how, ‘on the guarantee that neither side fired’ they met half-way, shook hands, and shared cigars. He states how they Germans are ‘as fed up as we are’ and that they were ‘as friendly on Christmas Day as if they belonged to the British Army’.
Howell ends with a sobering:
“I can tell you it seems good not to hear the roar of big guns. Anyone joining us today would hardly know there was a war on, but by this time tomorrow I expect we shall have to keep our heads under, or we may stop a bullet.”
Other letters home have a rather different tone, such as a slightly cheeky letter from Private W.P. Bright of the R.A.M.C., British Expeditionary Force to his former employer Mr. J.H. Buckle of the High Street in Chippenham.
Obviously on good terms, and taken in the right spirit, a football was duly dispatched by Mr Buckle.
Reports from Returned Soldiers: A Remarkable Story of Daring Escape
On Saturday December 12th 1914 The Wiltshire Times published a report from Sergeant-Major Burke stationed at Corsham with the 3rd Battalion, Scots Guards. It is a remarkable story and extremely vividly recounted and is worth describing in detail here. It tells of his escape through enemy lines, thanks to the kindness and bravery of strangers…