This week is #MuseumWeek – a worldwide festival for cultural institutions on social media. So it seems a perfect time to talk about some of the amazing museums that can be found across Wiltshire. Whatever your interests - from archaeology to transport to modern art - you will find something that appeals and inspires.
Like many other spaces, museums have been closed for much of the last year due to the pandemic. They are now able to re-open and have been looking forward to welcoming back the public once again, having made all the necessary arrangements to ensure a safe and enjoyable visit following the latest national lockdown. You can find out more information about museums in the county by visiting the Museum in Wiltshire website.
There are so many great museums it’s difficult to know where to kick off, so to quote The Sound of Music, ‘let’s start at the very beginning, a very good place to start’ by looking at some of the earliest objects from Wiltshire.
To find out about more about Wiltshire’s prehistory, you can’t beat Wiltshire Museum, Devizes and Salisbury Museum. Both are home to collections designated as having national or international importance, which tell the story of Wiltshire over the last 500,000 years.
Wiltshire Museum has beautiful gold items from the time of Stonehenge, some of my other favourites items on display are these exquisitely worked bronze age arrowheads.
Salisbury Museum’s award-winning Wessex Gallery includes the Amesbury Archer and finds from Stonehenge.
Redevelopment of a former tannery site into a mix of housing and business use prompted research into the business that had previously existed there. In the centre of the village of Holt is a local business that provided employment from the 1770s until the latter part of the 20th century. The business was based on tanning and the use of leather as a material. The earliest use of leather can be dated to the Palaeolithic period and is depicted in cave paintings in Spain, showing its use as a material for clothing. The strength of the material also meant that it had other uses, including for buckets and bags, horse tack, fastenings and jewellery to name a few.
The business of J. & T. Beaven Ltd. was at one time a major employer in the village of Holt and generations of local families provided their workforce and passed down their skills. Their story begins with Christopher Beaven who bought the property in 1758, which later became the administration offices for the business. His nephew, Thomas Beaven, moved from Semington to Holt to work in the business, which was then described as a ‘Woolstapler, Fellmonger and Leather Dresser’ Business. Through his marriage he also had a stake in a Fellmongering yard at Westbury, a separate branch of the Holt business. Thomas’ sons, James and Thomas, took over the business after their father’s untimely death in 1810 by drowning in the Semington Brook near Whaddon. Sadly, James discovered his father’s body after he failed to return home. The ‘J’ and ‘T’ in the business name refers to these two sons and they continued the business by purchasing fleece wools from farms in Wiltshire, Dorset and Gloucestershire. They were later joined by the sons of Thomas junior; Albert, who was a sailor and worked in the business after twenty years at sea, Frederick Thomas who worked in the business from a young age and Edwin Charles who really wanted to become a lawyer but returned to Holt to work in the family business. It was very much a family concern and in 1935 could proudly boast that 14 male employees plus the chairman had all served the business for 50 years or more. The local Usher family had over 100 years of uninterrupted loyal service to the firm. This gives an indication of the importance of Beaven’s as a local employer during the 19th and 20th centuries.
Asked to do a piece for Local History Month I was considering various buildings and people of Warminster. Then with the ongoing Covid virus affecting us all I remembered my lunch time walk through the town park. A glorious spring day, people were meeting friends and family. A joyous sight, seeing grannies and grandads meeting up with young grandchildren, not seen for weeks, friends were picnicking from a distance. There was a lot of smiles and laughter. A real tonic for people after a long lockdown. We are so lucky to have this lovely environment to go to. Long may it be a place for meeting friends and family, for children to play in the playground, and paddle in the paddling pool. For friends to sit on bench’s round the lake, admiring the ducks on the lake, the glorious trees and lovely flowers. The Smallbrook Nature Reserve to walk through with lovely wildflowers and lots of birds, what’s not to like!
The History of the Park
The idea for the Town Park was originally suggested and designed as a Remembrance of the Coronation of King George V in 1911. This did not happen then, but was brought up again in 1922. After the First World War unemployment was high so it became a work creation scheme. A loan was received from The Ministry of Health in the December, and the Unemployment Grants Committee also paid an unemployment grant. Half the £8,000 cost of scheme was wages for the workers.
The site chosen was the town’s Old Refuse Tip in Weymouth Street, a boggy area, and the need for a major removal of soil, then levelling the site.
In his book on Wiltshire Gate Lodges James Holden states that: ‘The obvious purpose was to provide accommodation for the people protecting the entrances to estates, but they had a second role also. From the 18th century on, the grand houses of the gentry were often built out of sight in secluded locations. The passer-by could not see and admire the big house; only the lodge was visible. So the lodge stood in for the house, its appearance designed to make a statement about the wealth and good taste of the owner’.
Seend, near Devizes is a village of two halves. As you drive through the one long main street the north side of the road is lined by pretty cottages and respectable, solid Georgian houses. The opposite side is a different matter – a series of high brick walls mainly obscures the view south. However, behind these walls are a series of large and palatial mansions taking advantage of the spectacular views across Bulkington, Poulshot, Bratton, Edington and other villages right to the foot of the Salisbury Plain.
These are the houses of wealthy clothiers such as Thomas Bruges, the owner of Seend Green House in 1798, who built himself another mansion soon after 1805, now known as Seend House (you need to keep track of the several similarly-named houses here!). Although much of the construction material came from the just-demolished Seend Row House, there was nothing second-hand about the rather lovely classical, ashlar-faced Seend House with its pedimented centre bay and paired-column portico when it was finished, complete with twin Tuscan Lodge-houses at each end of the looped drive joining to the High Street. The growth of vegetation fronting the road means that the house is not visible. The only indications of the hidden architectural jewel are the themed lodges with their porticoed stone fronts in emulation of the house they served.
Local Studies Library – the elderly volumes that might surprise you!
I can’t believe it’s been 5 years this month since I was lucky enough to become the County Local Studies Librarian here at the Wiltshire & Swindon History Centre. In this time, I’ve had the exciting opportunity to learn a lot more about Wiltshire’s fantastic Wiltshire Studies collection, both at the History Centre and in the county’s many local libraries. You could spend a lifetime delving into the items we hold; there is never enough time in the day to enjoy looking at the collection and the many and varied topics, people and places that span hundreds of years.
The items in our collection have found their way to us through many different means. Some have been purchased, others gifted or donated by kind individuals, many local residents who share our belief that Wiltshire’s treasures should stay in the county for everyone to access and enjoy. Others have been in the ‘library’ system much longer, from reading rooms at places such as the Mechanics Institute in Swindon, historically part of the Wiltshire local authority before Swindon became unitary in 1997.
Local Studies libraries are classed as a ‘special collection’, and within Wiltshire’s are items dating from the 17th century to today. You would be surprised to learn how robust the most elderly items in our collection are; the acid in modern paper makes modern books more troublesome to keep safe. Even so, we like to keep an eye on our oldest items to ensure they are well looked after. I am currently conducting a condition survey to check on their wellbeing and the process has been very informative, opening my eyes to the rich variety of items we hold.
Our journey begins with some of our oldest items; Civil War and Commonwealth pamphlets from 1647-1658 (ref. AAA.946). These include the impeachment of members of the House of Commons by Sir Thomas Fairfax in 1647, an account of the speech of King Charles I on the scaffold in 1649 and a copy of the Commonwealth Mercury dated 25 November 1658, describing the removal of the body of the late Oliver Cromwell from Whitehall.
I decided start with Know Your Place to find my location and settled on Canon Square in Melksham. Know Your Place is always a good starting point for researching local or building history, the historic maps can be easily compared with the modern day map, and there is the added benefit of information layers including monuments, community pins and Wilkinson postcards for additional insights. You can find a guide on our website on how to make the most out of the Know Your Place.
The 25 inch Ordnance Survey map from the 1880s showed the street layout of Canon Square was much the same at that date as it is today.
Going a little further back in time, Know Your Place also hosts Tithe Maps (above). The tithes were a tax levied by the Church which required one tenth of agricultural produce to go to support the local church and clergy (or lay owners who inherited these entitlements with land following the Reformation). The 1836 Tithe Commutation Act required these tithes to be converted into monetary payments and the Tithe Survey was established to assess which areas were titheable, who owned them, how much was payable and to whom. This information was recorded in an accompanying apportionment, making them a fantastic source for understanding land use, and also who owned and lived where!