The Covid pandemic has affected us all. Last year the Wiltshire & Swindon History Centre put out a call to arms, asking for contributions to a new collection that we are building; ‘Living in Lockdown: A Creative Response to Challenging Times’. We had an amazing response! A big thank you to everyone who has contacted us with material to include. It’s been exciting to look at the scope and variety of Wiltshire’s responses to the issues we face and continue to grapple with.
I’d like to share with you some of the material we have received to give an idea of not just the variety, but also to show how a collection is created, collated and preserved for the future here at the History Centre. We see our collections as the county’s treasures. The precious knowledge contained within them about you, our county’s residents and communities, and how we have faced the Covid challenge can now be discovered and studied by future generations thanks to your generosity and the facilities here at the Wiltshire & Swindon History Centre.
We began our collecting process by sending out details of the project Living in Lockdown via our website and social media channels, utilising the help of some of the other teams we work with, such as the communications team at Wiltshire Council. As soon as the material started to wing its way to us, we began entering it on a spreadsheet; basically an ‘accessions’ record to help us register all the material, document where it came from and where it is being stored at the History Centre. We soon built up hundreds of entries, with donations from History Centre staff and other teams within Wiltshire Council such as Wiltshire Libraries, plus local residents, groups, organisations and creative practitioners living and working in the county.
Many types of formats have been received (paper copies, digital images and documents, CDs) and types of material, from cards, booklets, local newsletters, official letters, drawings, newspaper articles, writing and poems - the list goes on…
The creativity that has come out of these dark times has been wonderful to see. From artworks to music, poetry, writing and photography – it shows how intrinsically intertwined creativity is within us as a positive response to challenge and change, and how valuable and essential culture is to us as human beings and communities. We feel honoured to play our part in this cultural experience.
The type of material will determine where it will sit within the collection. The History Centre is home to an archive and a local studies library. They have distinctive specialisms, for example on a basic level, the library deals with published material and the archive unpublished, but there are also some crossovers, for instance photographs could sit within the Local Studies Historic Photograph and Print collection but also within the archive collection too. We also have a new digital repository for born digital works. This is great for us, as it means the History Centre is well placed to welcome all sorts of material. The only items we can’t take are 3D items which are better placed in one of Wiltshire’s fantastic museums!
The next stage in the collection’s journey will be for myself as the County Local Studies Librarian and one of my Archivist colleagues to assess the collection and formally decide where everything should be placed (this is called ‘appraisal’). This usually involves a lot of excitement and quite a bit of time, as I know I always find so much of interest, but I must take a proper look at it all – we have to spend time getting it right, don’t we!
The documents and creative items will go into the archives, with the books and pamphlets that have been published finding their home in the local studies library. We have yet to make a decision on the digital material, but it is safe to say it will be stored in the most appropriate location. Anything left over after this process will make a valuable addition to the Ephemera collection in Local Studies. We usually define it as a miscellaneous collection of materials that you might often throw out, but believe me, in the future, these items will be a fantastic source of information…
The 1950s were wonderful years for science and engineering, where anything was possible. Sputnik 1 was launched into space, the first passenger jets entered service, and people apparently flew around on their own personal helicopters:
Alex Moulton was also very busy in these years. He might be best known for his work on the Mini (the suspension he designed for the Mini owed its roots to his work on ‘Flexitor’ suspension for the Austin Gipsy in the 1950s), but he was a prolific inventor who was interested in almost all areas of engineering design, from steam-powered cars to wheelchair suspension.
Moulton enjoyed novel or interesting engineering challenges, and the “Heli-Vector” personal helicopter above certainly caught his eye as he made a cutting of the article and filed it away for future reference. But Alex Moulton was as much a sportsman who enjoyed physical challenges as he was an engineer, and so when he read an article in a 1955 edition of The Aeroplane which talked of a pre-war German experiment with human-powered flight, the seeds of an idea took root.
Moulton’s personal papers contain a small file of material on human-powered flight. The material mainly consists of correspondence with scientists and engineers working in the field, and Moulton’s letters show his passionate enthusiasm for the concept. In fact, he joined the Low Speed Aerodynamics Research Association in 1956, and wrote to its Director of Research to say “I would like to support, in any way possible, activity in the direction of studying and achieving Man Power Flight”. The papers also include numerous studies and reports which aimed to prove that, theoretically at least, human-powered flight was possible.
A 1955 article in The Aeroplane set out the calculations: “a pre-war German design, the Haessler-Villinger, had an empty weight of 77lb and required only 0.82 bhp to fly at 30mph” whereas a new, more lightweight and aerodynamic, design could be flown at 30mph using only 0.68 horsepower. It was theorized that two people could produce just under 1 horsepower if power was generated by the pilot using their legs only (presumably their arms were being used to fly the plane!) and the co-pilot using both their legs and their arms. If you think that generating power using your legs sounds suspiciously like a bicycle, then you’d be right:
Early ideas for human-powered aircraft seem to have been based around creating what was effectively a tandem bike inside the cockpit, with the addition of a linked handcycle arrangement for the (presumably very fit) co-pilot. Perhaps it was the centrality of the bicycle that attracted Moulton’s interest. He began corresponding with several people involved in the Royal Aircraft Establishment’s Man Powered Aircraft Committee (MAPAC), principally a member of MAPAC called David Rendel. MAPAC considered two main designs for the aircraft: a fixed wing design, and an ornithopter (an aircraft with flapping wings, similar to those of a bird). Both were to be pedal-powered.
As an archive service, preservation is at the heart of what we do; together with collecting records and making them accessible, it forms the holy trinity of archival functions. Record keepers and archivists have been preserving records for centuries and if we were to examine boxes at random in our strongrooms, we would no doubt come across records on centuries old paper, parchment or vellum. Many of these records are still in perfect condition and will continue to be so in perpetuity as they are housed in climate-controlled conditions.
However, it is now widely accepted that paper records are created less and less these days, with many offices proudly proclaiming to be ‘paper free’. Yet the information and data must still be recorded, must still be collected, and most importantly must still be preserved. Herein lies the problem, the media on which digital records are stored are not nearly as stable as traditional record formats. For example, a hardback financial ledger stored in the correct conditions could last for centuries, whereas a thumb drive containing the same information may not last for a decade before it becomes corrupted. Not only this, with advances in technology comes the issue of obsolescence. For example, CDs were the ‘go to’ audio format as 15 years ago, though now how many of us even own a CD player? That’s before we even consider cassettes, audio reels, Betamax and cinefilm. All of these require specialist equipment to work with the content. Audio-visual material in these formats often gets donated to archives and we have plenty here at Wiltshire & Swindon History Centre and it is our responsibility to make them as accessible as possible. While this is sometimes impossible, we will always strive our best and explore all possible options. However, collecting the specialist equipment would not be the best course of action. When possible, it is best to have them digitised, as it is considerably easier to use a digital file, though this still does not solve the problem. We must now consider the concept of ‘bit rot’; that is, when the quality of a digital file diminishes over time and through overuse.
With so much to consider (the above barely scratches the surface), it is of little surprise that the discipline of digital preservation was born. It was clear that digital preservation practitioners would be required to monitor changes in technology and the affects this would have on the long-term preservation of digital material. The nature of their work, ensuring records survive in perpetuity, is inextricably linked to the work of archivists and it is of little surprise that many archivists now train in digital preservation.
While the majority of the records we receive here at WSHC arrive in paper format, we as archivists now need to be aware of this new discipline, as digital accessions are becoming more frequent. Indeed, some organisations now employ digital archivists, whose remit is solely focused on digital records and digital preservation.
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.
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!
We’ve recently reviewed the Integrated Pest Management (IPM) programme that we have in place at the history centre so that we can effectively protect the archives from the possibility of any damaging insect pests.
IPM is a multi-faceted approach to pest management and our program is used alongside a number of other preventative measures such as good cleaning and housekeeping routines, thoroughly checking new accessions for any hitchhiking pests before they are put into the strong rooms and maintaining a stable environment within the strong rooms so that pests do not feel at home. This way we can continue to protect our archives into the future.
Insects can cause a real problem for historic collections, which can be tasty treats for them to feast on, causing irreversible damage and loss of information.
It is really important to protect the archives against possible pest infestations. A small number can quickly increase to become a big problem if left unchecked and cause substantial damage to a collection.
During the pandemic some collections such as The National Trust have reported increased pest activity due to the reduction in footfall and reduced monitoring and cleaning of spaces, leaving areas undisturbed for pests to thrive. With such large numbers of documents held in repositories such as WSHC it is impossible to frequently check all items individually, so programmes to monitor and reduce numbers are put in place.
We have set up ‘blunder traps’ in the History Centre, strategically located around the strong rooms and other areas of the building, and by frequently monitoring them we are able to get a picture of any pests present and which areas they are visiting.
The traps we use do not control pest infestations they simply allow us to monitor levels of pests. If we find a pattern of large numbers of any particular archive pest, we can then look into dealing with any problems and target them specifically.