History's 'Hidden Wealth'

on Wednesday, 08 March 2017. Posted in Archives, Wiltshire People

Since joining the team at Wiltshire and Swindon History Centre as a ‘Transforming Archives Trainee’ with The National Archives, life has certainly been full! Over the last 5 months I’ve been involved in several HLF funded projects, completed a university module on Education and Outreach, have undertaken various in-house training sessions on traditional archive skills, as well as attending training conferences in London, Bristol, Manchester, Warwickshire, Gloucester and Dorset. In a few weeks I’ll be off to Edinburgh for another ‘basecamp’ week, training with The National Archives and Scottish Council on Archives. How time has flown!

Something that has struck me deeply over the course of my traineeship so far, which I’d like to share here, is a realisation about the vast importance of learning from our history - particularly the individual lives and stories of people who have gone before us.

Working on the ‘Wiltshire at War: Community Stories’ project, which focuses on the lives and culture of Wiltshire and its residents during WW1, has brought this home to me most of all. Traditionally, when remembering the World Wars, historians tend to concentrate on military or political strategy, and we subsequently have a multitude of movies, books and magazines concerned with the armed forces and the battles they fought. Whilst this is all fascinating information, the Wiltshire at War project seeks to collect and share the stories and memories of the individual people across Wiltshire, who lived through the troubled times of 1914 -1918. We feel it’s equally important to understand how the Wiltshire community adapted during this time, how life continued, and what individual sacrifices were made. What support did Wiltshire provide to the war effort? How did people across the county ‘pick up’ their lives again, once peace was declared? How did they cope with so much change? The project seeks to bring all this community history back into the community, and to share those stories through our fantastic website and ongoing exhibitions.


Young Freddie Butler. Shared with permission from Sarah Reay ©

Recently I was publishing a story which came to us via our Wiltshire at War Twitter feed. It’s the story of a young farmer’s son called Freddie Butler, who grew up on Rookhaye farm in Bowerchalke, and tragically died in a flying accident whilst serving with the Royal Flying Corps. I was looking at a photo of Freddie as a child feeding hay to one of the horses, happy as can be. I wondered about that child – his hopes, dreams, memories... In that one moment captured through a camera lens, he, like all the people around him, had absolutely no idea what was to come. I wondered too about Freddie’s mother, shown in a separate photo – how did life continue for her, after the loss of her beloved son?

Looking at some of the family photos that have come in with other recent stories - some dating back as far as 1905 - I find myself peering at each individual face, pondering the complex network of unique memories, life experiences, struggles, choices and relationships that each, single person represented. Was it even possible for those individuals to comprehend that, in the not so distant future, these photos and associated stories may be all that’s left to prove that they even existed? Questions then arise in me that are fundamentally about the human condition: What lessons can we learn from these people and their experience - fellow human beings who lived 100 years before us, in circumstances even more challenging than our own? If I consider that in another 100 years, researchers might be sitting at a desk and pondering photos of me and my family, reflecting on the lives we perhaps lived – might I now choose to live mine differently? What legacy would you choose to leave?

Wedding of Thursa Webb and Robert Kibble, Brinkworth, 1905. Shared with permission of Ellis Webb ©

Of course, with the advent of modern digital technology a simple smartphone could provide a veritable goldmine of information about our lives, for future historians. As a part of the Wiltshire at War project we’re definitely harnessing the power of technology to share the stories that we collect: we have our successful Twitter feed, YouTube channel and comprehensive website where you can learn more about the work we’re doing and even upload your own stories to our online archive.

We’ve also launched a series of exhibition displays, which are loaned out free of charge to community groups, libraries, schools and for specific events. Each exhibition has its own theme, and so far we’ve covered ‘The Call to Arms’, ‘Wiltshire Does it’s Bit’, ‘A Child’s War’ and ‘Keeping the Home Fires Burning’. The fifth and final exhibition, to be launched in 2018, is based on ‘Peace and Aftermath’. This will look at what happened across Wiltshire as troops returned, demobbed, and families attempted to pick up the lives they’d dropped more than 4 years before. We’ll also be sharing stories relating to Wiltshire’s many memorials, for those men who sadly never returned home to their families.

Exhibition 3, ‘A Child’s War’

It’s safe to say that my learning will continue for the remaining 6 months of this traineeship, with myriad courses and training events to attend, all giving me the knowledge and skills for a successful career in the heritage sector. What I hadn’t quite anticipated, though, was the cultivation of this inner connection to the personal lives and stories of the people I’ve researched. This ‘inner wealth’ of understanding has been an unexpected benefit of my recent journey of personal and professional development, and, thanks to the traineeship, my love for history has grown in fresh and inspiring ways.

Leighton Gosai, Transforming Archives Trainee

Visit the Wiltshire at War Website www.wiltshireatwar.org.uk

Connect with us on Twitter @Wiltshireatwar

You can learn more about Freddie Butler and his family in Sarah Reay’s book ‘The Half-Shilling Curate: A Personal Account of War & Faith 1914-1918’


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