40 years at the Archives
In July 1980 I took up my first post as an Archivist at the Wiltshire County Record Office in Trowbridge having completed the post-grad course at Liverpool University – little did I think I would still be employed by Wiltshire Council 40 years later! – it was always assumed in the profession that to further one’s career that one should move on regularly- within Wiltshire staff have always stayed for long periods not through lack of ambition – more a reflection not just of the attractions of the county but of the good working relationships and atmosphere within the office. The Record Office, as we were known until our move in 2007 to the History Centre in Chippenham, has always been known for providing a friendly, helpful service – which we continue to be congratulated on today.
I alone have had the privilege of working under every County Archivist /Principal Archivist in the history of the service being the last member of staff appointed by the first County Archivist Maurice Rathbone (1944-1981) In this time I have witnessed many changes but the constant throughout has been the professionalism, support and friendship of colleagues. Many of our researchers/visitors over the years have become friends – on first name terms and with an interest in staff’s personal families and interests - long may this continue
So, what changes have I seen in all this time? Back in the 1980s we produced paper word catalogues of our collections- typed for the Archivists by a succession of secretaries – letters were also typed – emails didn’t exist – but enquirers did give more thought to their enquiries then – frequently today we have to ask for more information. Family history research was in its infancy – no Ancestry or FindMyPast – no online sources or digital copies. Prior to the Parochial Registers and Records Measure of 1978 which led to the deposit of non-current parish registers and records over 100 years old at the appropriate Diocesan Record Office (formerly the Salisbury Diocesan Office was at Wren Hall in Salisbury with the documents moved to Trowbridge in the early 1980’s) - family historians had to make appointments to visit individual churches around the country to make notes from registers. The Record Office had always had some parish material deposited by forward-thinking clergy – indeed the earliest registers from Maiden Bradley (ref 18) were brought in in 1947 but the Measure led to a vast amount of material coming in – and staff were required to visit and collect records around the county-with over 300 parishes to visit- opening up cupboards, chests and safes in a voyage of discovery – I have memories of accompanying colleagues on many such outings – acting as navigator in search of small village churches. Once catalogued visitors were able to use the original volumes in our searchroom, prompting many staff trips into the strongrooms. We had no photocopier on the premises and each morning we would take it in turns to help carry volumes with the mainstay of Doc Prod -David Mattock- across the road to the main County Hall printing dept.
In 1981 the Wiltshire Family History Society was founded and the work of their volunteers in transcribing initially parish registers extending to marriage licences and in recent times to manorial records, police registers, tithe schedules – their output has been truly prodigious. We have been fortunate to have had such a regular group visiting weekly and owe an immense debt of gratitude to them for their labours.
In the mid 1980s we welcomed the camera operators from the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-Day Saints who filmed all our pre-1900 parish registers to put on their International Genealogical Index (IGI) – later Family Search. The registers were subsequently withdrawn, and visitors were asked to use microfiche instead – we had a separate room for the fiche readers – a few of these remain in use today. A reader printer was installed to enable copies to be made of individual entries and requests for whole registers were sent to a local firm in Melksham.
Today fiche has been superseded by the digital filming of Ancestry – whose team re-filmed all our pre-1916 registers and early Bishops Transcripts – putting them on their site in 2017. Ancestry has revolutionized family history world wide – the quality of their images compared to the fiche is high however their indexing – done overseas – is not always reliable compared to the locally produced work of the WFHS.
Ancestry also completed the Wiltshire Wills project. The project started in 1999 with HLF funding and other donations to re-catalogue and replace 29 manual indices and digitize over 105,000 probate records. This was the first major team work with the Archivists under the guidance of project archivists Lucy Jefferis and Amanda Goode entering onto the CALM database full details of every record. The new catalogue was completed in 2006 and made available on our website however the digital imaging and conservation work lagged behind and Ancestry were brought in to finish the filming and in 2018 the entire collection was put on their website making another valuable resource available worldwide and generating income for the service.
Another example of change for family history has been the Census returns from 1841-1911 – now searchable online. Initially the census returns were only available on microfilm and visitors had to laboriously wind through reels to locate information. We were fortunate to have the 1851 census indexed by a team led by Dr Barbara Carter - Jean Cole, Nan Simmons – later censuses to 1881 were produced on microfiche. The ability to search by place and name has speeded up research – although today’s genealogists seem to expect everything to be online and not to appreciate how fortunate they are.
Project posts have been the way in recent years to tackle backlogs of large collections – a move that is reflected around the country -in this way we have benefitted from funding to list the Lacock (ref 2664), and Radnor (ref 1946) estate records and staff have been supported in this by volunteers. Volunteers continue to play a key role in the service – we have a whole army of people listing, sorting, cleaning, packaging under staff guidance – from GWR staff records, Westinghouse drawings, building plans, to the many WFHS projects
The way archivists work has changed radically over the years – hand written lists typed on word by secretaries to everything catalogued directly on a laptop by the archivist on CALM – the database used widely in the profession (for Archives, Local Studies Libraries and Museums) although at times it has seemed a misnomer when the system is down and staff are anything but calm!
Online catalogues are now the norm – ours first appeared in 2007 – with the team ably supported by the former County Archaeologist Roy Canham and later by our Access to Archives post-holder Claire Skinner – we had to grapple with the lengthy process of retro-conversion to convert word lists onto CALM- some of our larger older catalogues still remain to be ‘converted’. Fortunately the TNA project whereby institutions sent their paper lists to be indexed (abroad) – originally known as a2a – now Discovery – has meant that our early lists are available on this national site – although it has not been updated for around 10 years it remains a vital research tool
Types of research – I have already alluded to some of the changes for our core-user group the family historian. The popularity of TV series like Who Do You Think You Are ? which started in 2004 with celebrities assisted in tracing their family trees led to a spike in interest in genealogy – with every new series we get enquiries/ visits from people wanting to emulate the celebrity – of course the programme researchers have already spent many months doing background research using our services before the final filming and the Archivist is on hand to point out the exact entry. We have provided information over the years without knowing the identity of the ‘star ‘until filming - Countdown presenter Nick Hewer in 2013 and TV presenter Scott Cam for the Australian version in 2019 have been filmed at the Centre but we are sworn to secrecy until release date. My own brief TV appearance came in 2014 – on a Wall to Wall series for ITV called Secrets from the Asylum – I spent over 5 hours in the company of Christopher Biggins pointing out and explaining the case records of his great grandfather who was a patient at the County Asylum at Roundway - after editing I was on screen for less than 5 minutes! Biggins is a larger than life personality and endeared himself to staff by joining us for coffee in the staff room. I now have an entry on IMDb and the programme is on YouTube and catch up services.
My own love and fascination for lunacy records is well known to colleagues – we all develop areas of expertise – mine include nonconformist records (well, I have catalogued most of the material we hold)- looking for babies in the Cow & Gate collection, workhouses, prisons and Christmas celebrations. Local History research has really taken off in recent years from house history – how old is my house / who lived there? to boundary disputes /rights of way/footpaths to anniversary events.
Academic research poses special challenges to the staff and we are fortunate to have a dedicated Education Officer to deal with visits from school and college/university groups
We have all benefitted from being in the History Centre – the drawing together of teams means we can provide a better service and call on the knowledge of other colleagues – the Wiltshire Buildings Record, Archaeology and Historic Environment Record, Local Studies Librarians, Copy Certificates and Conservation
Some aspects of the role of the archivist – the cataloguing of original documents using one’s professional expertise, answering enquiries and helping visitors locate the information they need in our range of sources remain constant – however there are new demands on one’s time with increasing emphasis on outreach, talks, presentations, workshops and social media.
Many of our visitors come on a regular basis weekly or monthly and so become well known to the staff – but every day there will be someone new who has never been to the Centre or any similar facility and will require help from the Team. Lap tops and tablets are the new norm rather than pencil and paper and visitors may use their phones to take their own photographs – upon payment of course of the appropriate fee. We encourage visitors to check our catalogues online and pre-order documents to make the most of their time at the Centre particularly in the light of our new Covid guidelines.
Many visitors come from within the UK but equally we receive many from overseas – genealogists from Australia /US whose ancestors left as convicts or emigrants – to specialist students from Universities worldwide – Europe, Japan, USA whose range of topics reflect the wide variety of source material we hold with collections of international and national significance – Irish politics (Walter Long MP and Secretary of State ref 947); Florence Nightingale and the Crimean War (William Herbert Sec of State for War ref 2057) ; Boer War (Methuen ref 1742) not forgetting our woollen trade pattern books (Clark ref 927)
I feel both proud and fortunate to have enjoyed my work as Archivist at Trowbridge and now Chippenham and wish the service continued success in managing its collections and making the County’s history available to everyone.
- Tags: Ancestry, archive, CALM, career, Christopher Biggins, Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-Day Saints, Cow & Gate, Diocesan Record Office, Discovery, family history, Find My Past, Florence Nightingale, genealogy, heritage, Historic Environment Record, house history, local history, Local Studies Library, Nick Hewer, non-conformist records, Parochial Registers and Records Measure, Roundway, Scott Cam, Trowbridge, Walter Long, Who Do You Think You Are?, Wiltshire, Wiltshire and Swindon History Centre, Wiltshire Buildings Record, Wiltshire County Record Office, Wiltshire Family History Society, Wiltshire Wills project