Over three hundred Wiltshire parish registers, dating back to 1538, have now been digitised by Ancestry working in partnership with Wiltshire and Swindon History Centre, a service funded by Wiltshire Council and Swindon Borough Council. This will open up access to over 6 million names of ancestors who were baptised, married or buried in the county of Wiltshire. Ancestry.co.uk is a subscription based genealogical website which is available free of charge at the Wiltshire and Swindon History Centre, and in libraries in Wiltshire and Swindon.
Wiltshire has had its fair share of famous inhabitants over the years. Among the people born in the county are talents as diverse as musician James Blunt, born in Tidworth; the actresses Billie Piper and Diana Dors, both daughters of Swindon; comedian David Mitchell, born in Salisbury; and even the Youtube vlogger Zoella, born in Lacock!
Famous people were not just born here, but have lived and died here too. War poet Siegfried Sassoon lived in Heytesbury; the creator of ‘James Bond’, Ian Fleming, is buried at Sevenhampton; and Prime Minister Edward Heath had his ashes interred in Salisbury Cathedral, among many others.
A small selection of the famous Wiltshire inhabitants you can uncover in the Wiltshire parish registers are:
Sir Christopher Wren - the architect who designed St Paul’s Cathedral, was born and baptised in the village of East Knoyle, in Wiltshire. Son of the rector of East Knoyle, also called Christopher, Sir Christopher was not the first child with that name. The first Christopher was baptised 22 November 1630.
Sadly but fairly typically of this era, the first Christopher did not survive, although his burial is not recorded in the registers.
The second Christopher, who went on to become the famous architect, was baptised the following year, 10 November 1631:
“Christopher 2d sonne of Christopher Wren D[oc]t[o]r in Divinitie & Rector”
I found this particularly interesting as according to the Dictionary of National Biography Christopher was born 20 October 1632 – so the last year is incorrect in the latter. I did double check the baptism register for 1632 and 1633 and there is definitely no further baptism of a Christopher Wren in that period.
Wren spent the first eight years of his life at East Knoyle, where he was educated by a local clergyman. His family moved to Windsor when his father became Dean there, and Wren completed his education at the University of Oxford. A distinguished scientist as well as a gifted architect, he and his colleagues were responsible for rebuilding at least fifty two churches in London, after the devastation caused by the Great Fire of 1666. His masterpiece was St Paul’s Cathedral, still a key feature of the London skyline today despite modern development. Other major projects he worked on are the Royal Naval College, Greenwich and the south front of Hampton Court Palace. He was buried on the 17th March 1723 in St Paul’s Cathedral, London.
William Henry Fox Talbot is another Wiltshire inhabitant who achieved international fame.
Born in 1800 over the county border at his mother’s childhood home of Melbury, Dorset, Fox Talbot did not move to Lacock Abbey until 1828 (despite inheriting the estate at a very young age) as the property was leased to a tenant before this. While at Lacock William began to work on the project which has made him still famous today as one of the pioneers of modern photography – he developed the ‘calotype’ method of photography between 1837 and 1841. In 1842 he was rewarded with a medal from the Royal Society for his work, which facilitated the generation of any number of photographic prints from a single negative. Something of a renaissance man, Fox Talbot published various works on photography, botany, mathematics, astronomy and physics, as well as being a keen amateur archaeologist. He served as MP for Chippenham from 1832-1835, and was High Sheriff of Wiltshire in 1840. Fox Talbot died on 17 September 1877 and is buried in the churchyard of Lacock parish church. His burial is recorded in the parish registers of Lacock for 21 September 1877 thus:
Last but not least, I thought I would finish this survey of Wiltshire inhabitants with someone you may not have heard of but who perhaps deserves to be more well-known. Her name is Hannah Twynney (or Twynnoy) and she has the rare distinction of being the first person in Britain to be killed by a tiger! Hannah’s extraordinary death is recorded in both her tombstone in Malmesbury Abbey graveyard and in the parish register of burials, thus:
“October…24th Hannah Twynney Kild by a Tygre at the white lyon”
Her tombstone reads:
“In memory of Hannah Twynnoy Who died October 23rd 1703 Aged 33 years In bloom of life She’s snatched from hence She had not room to make defence; For Tyger fierce Took life away And here she lies In a bed of clay Until the Resurrection Day”
According to Athelstan Museum in Malmesbury there used to be a memorial to Hannah in Hullavington church which stated: “To the memory of Hannah Twynnoy. She was a servant of the White Lion Inn where there was an exhibition of wild beasts, and amongst the rest a very fierce tiger which she imprudently took pleasure in teasing, not withstanding the repeated remonstrance of its keeper. One day whilst amusing herself with this dangerous diversion the enraged animal by an extraordinary effort drew out the staple, sprang towards the unhappy girl, caught hold of her gown and tore her to pieces.”
Poor Hannah will be remembered for posterity for her foolishness, but who will spare a thought for the tiger, no doubt killed by its keepers soon after?!