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.
As my Heritage Lottery Funded ‘Skills for the Future: Transforming Archives’ traineeship draws to a close, I find myself reflecting on all the new, unique and exciting experiences I’ve encountered over the past 10 months, which have made this time so memorable. My personal focus has been on learning and acquiring valuable skills to carry forward into a future career – and in this sense the traineeship has more than served its purpose. The fact that I’ve been able to undertake the journey surrounded by such kind, interesting and supportive people has been a bonus!
I still clearly remember the day I started at Wiltshire and Swindon History Centre. Completely new to the world of archives and heritage, I was briefed by the previous trainee, Jess, who provided me with tables, spreadsheets, logs and lists that she had kindly prepared to help me manage my day to day activities. (Jess is very good at this sort of thing). Despite nodding calmly in response to her, my internal state was one of sheer anxiety – ‘There’s so much to cram in!’. In hindsight, the year has been nothing but smooth, engaging and fun… there was really nothing for me to have worried about.
If you’ve read my previous posts about coming to the traineeship and some of the interesting insights I’ve had along the way, you’ll get a sense of all I was up to in those early days. In truth, the time hasn’t become any less busy! From attending a training week at the National Archives of Scotland to visiting the City of London Police Museum, with pit-stops at various digitisation conferences, fundraising training days, and of course, the (world-famous) Museum and Heritage show at Kensington’s Olympia.
Closer to home, I’ve continued my training in traditional archive skills, looking at the typical content and uses of education records, parish registers, manorial documents, wills and testaments, local government records, and even lunatic asylum records. Whilst learning about the latter with archivist Margaret Moles, I decided to conduct a small project, researching a name which had come up in a separate oral history interview I’d conducted. My interviewee had shared the story of his great aunt, who had suffered mental health issues in the 1920’s and was hospitalized at Roundway Mental Hospital, Devizes. Using what I’d learned, I traced the patient’s actual medical records from the time – with permission - and read about her day to day experiences at the hospital. I was able to learn about the nature of her condition, what her doctors had to say, and even glean some information about her relatives at that time. From there I sourced a book in our local studies library called ‘Down Pan’s Lane’, written by Philip Frank Steele, a historian fascinated by Roundway Hospital. This enabled me to get a sense of what life was like for patients at the time – from their food and sleep routines to gardening activities, and even the programme of entertainment laid on by medical staff! It was absolutely fascinating, and proved a valuable resource for putting this one lady’s personal story into a wider historical context.
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?
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.
Firstly let me introduce myself, and then I’ll tell you about what I’ve been up to over the last couple of weeks. My name is Jessica Smith and I've just started a year-long 'Transforming Archives' traineeship (part of the Heritage Lottery Fund Skills for the Future programme), through the National Archives (TNA), but based here at the History Centre. I’ve taken over from the previous trainee Matt, who I know did great work, and wrote quite a few blogs while he was here! The focus of my traineeship is Outreach and Engagement, and Collection Development. Large parts of my year will involve training (unsurprisingly), in a lot of aspects of archives management, both in-house training and some offsite courses. I'll also be undertaking an undergraduate module in Archives Outreach and Engagement through the University of Dundee, as well working here at the History Centre on whatever tasks they give me to do, so there’s a lot to keep me busy! The two projects I’ll be mainly working on are Lacock Unlocked (continuing where Matt left off) and the Wiltshire at War project; both of which are incredibly interesting and I look forward to getting stuck into them. If you don't know what the projects are, I highly recommend you follow the links and find out, you won't be disappointed!
My First Day My first day at the History Centre was Friday 6th November, and as I walked in for the first time since my interview I was incredibly nervous, but I received a lovely welcome from Jan on reception, and then Claire, my trainer and Principle Archivist here. Claire gave me a great tour of the building, and I was struck by the number of different departments: archives, local studies, archaeology, museum advisory, conservation, Buildings Record, and business support, amazing. I was very impressed with the building itself, purpose built and state of the art, nothing like my previous (albeit limited) experience of archive strong rooms. I was particularly happy to discover that if there is a fire, although the strong rooms will lock, the powder released to put out the fire (so as not to damage the records) is not harmful to humans (phew)! As I was taken around I was introduced to many of the different people who work here, all of which I remember the faces of, but am struggling a bit with the amount of names. I'm sure I'll pick them up quickly enough though, and each person I was introduced to was incredibly welcoming and put me at ease immediately, which always helps.
My tour ended in what seems like the unofficial hub of the history Centre, the staffroom, and I was introduced to the complex system of the tea, coffee, sugar and milk supply, which means that everyone pays their share (quite right too), though I'm still not quite sure how the milk one works! Claire then spent time explaining some of what I'll be doing over the next year and going through a few workplace policies etc.; later I had a meeting with Terry, the Archives and Local Studies Manager, who explained the staffing structure at the History Centre, and spoke some more about my year to come. I finished off the day browsing the websites for Lacock Unlocked and Wiltshire at War, to try and help familiarise myself the projects.
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.