Last year I completed a dissertation that looked at how archives and archival activity could help tackle the widespread issue of elderly loneliness. As an archive professional I wanted to see what was being done within the profession that could aid the mental and physical well-being of those experiencing loneliness, but also to ask what else could be done. My research showed archival institutions are well placed to contribute to tackling loneliness, indeed they are already actively doing so. This blog hopes to highlight the positive effect of using archives during lockdown (and beyond!), and update readers on our work behind the scenes.
Anyone who frequents an archive may note its popularity with those of retirement age; retirees may have more time to undertake research and so may visit an archive more often. However, it should be emphasised that archives are friendly, welcoming places for anyone with an interest in history or any form of local history research to conduct: be it students researching for their degrees, house historians searching historic building applications, or family history enthusiasts. Anyone and everyone is welcome: provision of access to historic documents is at the forefront of our work, and we would encourage anyone to visit Wiltshire and Swindon History Centre, regardless of age and, furthermore, that feelings of isolation and loneliness are universal and not confined to any one demographic!
So, in these unprecedented times, where isolation and loneliness for all age groups is more prevalent than ever before, Wiltshire and Swindon History Centre is looking at new ways of serving all of our community. While we’re unable to carry out any physical outreach work during lockdown, promoting and ensuring continued access for as broad an audience as possible is still a fundamental and highly enjoyable part of the work of the archive team at WSHC, except now we must find new ways to reach out to anyone unaware of what we can offer!
In terms of our ability to interact with the community, our intrinsic knowledge of the local area ensures that we are well placed to do this. Archivists can relate to tales of old and offer suggestions on how to find out more on such subjects, but we can also bring to light fascinating new stories, that were hitherto forgotten or hiding in the strongrooms. In Wiltshire, our County Local Studies Librarian, Julie Davis, does exactly this with her ‘Memory Box’ reading groups – follow this link to see some of her recent isolation sessions from her living room. Julie’s work shows how heritage professionals are adapting to fulfil their duties during this period. Not yet available on the website, but done in preparation for the VE Day celebrations is her extract readings on the event. This is available here.
The entire nation would normally be planning events to commemorate the 75th anniversary of VE day. However, new and innovative ways are being sought to celebrate and mark the occasion during lockdown. The talk we had planned at WSHC has been made available online, again by Julie Davis, and is available here (you may need to sign in to Google for this).
Of course it is a great shame not being able to celebrate with our family, friends and neighbours, but Wiltshire Council has put together a VE Day Toolkit, that will hopefully provide inspiration on how best to celebrate this momentous occasion at home or in the garden.
Even if we cannot be in the immediate vicinity of our friends, family or community, we can continue to be connected, and being connected can contribute to people’s well-being. Did you know that there is evidence to show that tracing your family tree can have a positive effect on your mental health? Indeed, any form of research that engages the mind will be positive during these times, so why not take a look at some of the fantastic online resources that are available and start a new research project or learn about the local area? You can find out more about these resources here in our recent blogs.
Connectedness does not need to be confined to the present. Relating to the past, be it family members researched as part of a genealogy project, or even past occupiers of your house, can help ease feelings of isolation. Documents usually consulted in the searchroom, are increasingly available as online resources, for example: Wiltshire parish registers and wills are now temporarily available for free on Ancestry. Follow this link to see what’s available and for guidance on how to proceed. So, if you’re at home struggling for things to do, why not start your family history? We have starter packs available here too!
There are multiple agencies working locally and nationally to assist us in these difficult times. If you, or anyone you know, is struggling in isolation in Wiltshire, check out the Wiltshire Wellbeing Hub. Charities are naturally at the forefront of the effort to keep loneliness and isolation at bay. At a local level, Celebrating Age is a fantastic project aimed at tackling the issue of loneliness by delivering arts and heritage events in community settings for frail, vulnerable older people unable to access concert halls or theatres. Their current programme of events has understandably been called off, however they are looking at ways of delivering digital programme. Follow this link for 90 minutes of live music and storytelling from the comfort of your living room! Also, keep an eye on their website when lockdown is over because they are doing great things across the county.
At a national level, the Campaign to End Loneliness website has a really useful section specifically for Corona virus related issues and anxieties, as does the Age UK site.
I’d just like to sign off by wishing all of our readers well. Do share, re-tweet or pass on this message with family, neighbours, colleagues or anyone you know who may be struggling with loneliness during lockdown and whose well-being may benefit from some of the suggestions here.
Follow us on Twitter, friend us on Facebook and keep a close eye on our website for more information, as well as updates on re-opening. Happy researching!
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
Exciting and unexpected archaeological discoveries show how no evaluation process for sites is fool proof. What happens next shows how important cooperation and communication is, particularly for the County Archaeology Service, who are tasked with supporting development AND safeguarding heritage. The critical concept is “significance” – how important are the remains; what is their potential to inform us about the past? Rachel Foster, Assistant County Archaeologist reports:
In 2017 Wessex Archaeology excavated a new housing development north of Bitham Park in Westbury. I had requested this work as a condition of planning permission, based on limited evaluation results. Unexpected discoveries demonstrated the challenges faced by Planning Archaeologists in understanding the significance of archaeological sites based on the results of trial trench evaluation.
The 2018 National Planning Policy Framework states that local planning authorities should identify and assess the particular significance of any “heritage asset” that may be affected by a proposal. In line with this advice, we often ask for sites to be investigated before the determination of a planning application, so that we have that information. Evaluation usually this consists of geophysical survey followed by trial trench evaluation. The Wiltshire and Swindon Historic Environment Record which contains detail on archaeological sites, buildings and finds, informs our decision making.
Archaeological evaluation can feel like a game of battleships. When geophysical survey goes well, and reveals features that look like potential archaeology, we ask for trenches to be dug and the features investigated by commercial archaeologists. The aim is to understand the significance of the site by investigating features within the trenches, which is not always so easy: if geophysical survey has not been carried out or is unsuccessful, then trenches are placed either systematically or randomly across a site and there is potential to miss remains. Today, the trenching is usually a 3-5% sample of the development site but in exceptional circumstances, up to 10% may be carried out. That sample of trenching should find archaeological remains within a site and provide enough information to understand the importance, extent and significance of any remains. Results of evaluation will then inform our advice to the planning officer on the impact of the development on archaeological remains. Remains considered to be of national significance are likely to be preserved in situ and not developed, but other remains are likely to be investigate. Early knowledge about archaeology and its potential effect helps the developers manage their risk and adequately budget for excavation costs, as well as post-excavation work and publication.
The geophysical survey results at Bitham Park didn’t show much other than a few lines representing ridge and furrow remains across parts of the site and a few other possible linear features. This image gives an example of the greyscale plot of the geophysical survey results (magnetromotry).
Geophysical survey isn’t always reliable, so I asked for trial trench evaluation prior to determination of the planning application: in some cases, later ridge and furrow can hide earlier remains. As the geophysical survey indicated, there were remains of medieval/post-medieval ridge and furrow cultivation; however, my assessment that there might be more archaeology was correct. Archaeological features were discovered across several trenches, mostly concentrated in the western part of the site. They included ditches, gullies and pits containing small, worn pottery fragments from the early/middle Iron Age and Romano-British periods (150BC onwards). Nevertheless, the significance and extent of the remains could not be fully understood, so I asked for a second stage of evaluation to provide more data. The extra information would help me define an area for archaeological mitigation – the full excavation of important features. The results confirmed prolonged and intensive agricultural use from the medieval period (1066- 1540). This had truncated and displaced features and artefacts from the earlier Iron Age and Romano-British periods; however, theses features included and arrangement of post holes representing a possible structure (see trench locations of two evaluation stages below).
On the basis of the two evaluations I asked for an area of excavation within the vicinty of where the most significant archaeological features were recorded, in the western part of the site and along a north-south trajectory.
In advance of the housing development an initial area was stripped with contingency and here’s an aerial view of the site below, can you spot anything interesting?
Walk into the search room at the History Centre and you will notice a couple of objects not normally associated with archives – a bodice made out of maps and a bathtub.
A closer inspection reveals they are two of 17 pieces of artwork produced by students from Wiltshire College’s Chippenham campus who explored the archive and various aspects of the county’s heritage.
The exhibition of 2D and 3D work – on display in the foyer as well as the search room – is already prompting questions from visitors and is encouraging people to engage creatively with our collections.
The project came about when art and design course tutor Alyson Minkley popped into the History Centre to see whether her students could use the archive as a stimulus to creating artwork. She wanted the class to explore the concept of archiving and create pieces that reflected aspects of Wiltshire’s heritage.
We were delighted to be involved in the project as it was another way of encouraging young people to engage creatively with archives. People often think that being the heritage education officer means that my work begins and ends with helping deliver the history curriculum in schools. But archives offer so much more.
For this project I delivered a facilitated session at Wiltshire College where the students were introduced to the concept of collecting and archiving with the help of a handling collection. This was followed by a tour of the History Centre and an opportunity to see behind the scenes as well as explore the practicalities of accessing the archives.
The afternoon generated a huge range of questions and it was clear the students went away inspired. We were delighted to see many of them return to the History Centre in their own time to request documents and carry out detailed research. The result of those visits is the thought-provoking artwork on display in the foyer and search room.
The individual pieces of work explore a wide range of topics including family history, Wiltshire’s asylums and how patients with mental health problems were “treated” in the 19th century, the county’s role as a training ground for the army and its iconic chalk figures – all of which are represented in our archives and local studies collections.
Thursday 31st October 2007 we opened the doors to the new Wiltshire and Swindon History Centre.
Six months had passed since we closed the doors for the last time at the Record Office in Trowbridge. In that time we had moved 30,000 boxes of archives making 91 lorry loads from Trowbridge to Chippenham and safely installing Wiltshire’s archives into the new purpose built facility.
It was a real mixed bag of documents that went out, with members of the Wiltshire Family History Society coming in to look at Parish Registers and Bishop’s Transcripts. Officers from the Rights Of Way Department based at County Hall were here first thing to look at the County Council’s files for rights of way. Naturally there was interest in the local area with several maps of Chippenham being produced.
We produced 85 records (5 Wills, 3 Parish Registers, 2 Bishop’s Transcripts 66 documents and 9 maps) and welcomed 230 visitors to the new office on that first day.
In the subsequent 10 years we have retrieved and returned quarter of a million documents, engaged 210,000 visitors and issued 14,900 new readers cards.
Students like a word search, a little bit of light relief from the rigours of normal lessons, and teachers like them as a sneaky way to revise subject specific vocabulary. We decided on a word search with a difference to introduce secondary school students to archives and working with primary sources. It was part of a new schools’ session developed by Salisbury Cathedral in partnership with the Wiltshire & Swindon History Centre. While the History Centre is open to the public, and has extensive experience using its archives in educational settings, the Salisbury Cathedral archive has not been so accessible. This is changing thanks to the hard work of Cathedral archivist Emily Naish and her band of volunteers, and the willingness of the Dean and Chapter to open up this amazing resource. Members of the public have already enjoyed behind-the-scenes tours of the library, located above the cloisters, and now it is the turn of school children to work with documents from the archive and enjoy the benefits of this cultural education.
Archivist Emily joined forces with the Cathedral’s teaching & community officer Sally Stewart-Davis and the History Centre to develop the school session which we ran in the cathedral on 27 February.
The 13th century Papal Bull that gave permission for the building of a new cathedral on the water meadows by the River Avon, so moving the settlement of Old Sarum to New Sarum. Students from Stanchester Academy near Yeovil are shown the original cartulary, or register, which contains the 1219 Papal Bull from Pope Honorious III.
Emily chose a document in abbreviated Medieval Latin to introduce the difficulties that can arise when working with primary sources. Written in 1219, the document is an official copy of the Papal Bull from Pope Honorious III giving permission for the church authorities to build a new Salisbury Cathedral on the water meadows by the River Avon. As a starter activity we asked the students – aged 11-14 – to identify a list of words that they might find familiar, even though they were in Latin. Among the words they were looking for were Sarum, benedictionem, aquam, castellani and hominum (Salisbury, benediction, water, castle and men/people).
It was a challenge, but a challenge that was well met. The students realised that even when faced with a document in a foreign language, with abbreviations and in a difficult script, there was information they could extract.
While a Papal Bull in Medieval Latin does not immediately spring to mind as the most accessible archive for school children or adults, the youngsters from Bishop Wordsworth School in Salisbury and Stanchester Academy, near Yeovil, really engaged with the document and the activity. This was real and relevant – and they were working in the building that ultimately resulted from this Papal document.
The second document the students worked on was a 1599 letter from Elizabeth I to the dean and chapter at Salisbury Cathedral and relates to Sir Walter Raleigh’s request that he be given the estate of Sherborne Castle which had belonged to the Church. Although in English, the students still faced the challenge of deciphering the handwriting and getting to grips with Elizabethan grammar and spellings. This they did with amazing success.