Magical History Tour

on Monday, 23 January 2017. Posted in Archives

Part of catalogued collection 2027 on the shelves

The main background task of an archivist, when not assisting researchers in person or by email, involves the sorting and cataloguing of archives in order that they are made accessible and available. In a well established service such as Wiltshire and Swindon’s, which celebrates its 70th anniversary this year, much of this consists of additions to existing collections, usually of more recent material, reflecting our commitment to the continuing process of preserving the past for the future. In this way our service is very much an organic one.

However, new sources do present themselves, and bring with them the excitement of serendipity. One such case is the archives of a Marlborough solicitors’ firm, that we collected in 1983 and which I have been working on over the last couple of years. Far from reflecting tardiness or inactivity on our part, it should be understood that archives have been collected in vast quantities often without much warning, to the extent that they occupy eight miles of shelving, and a cataloguing backlog is unavoidable. Furthermore this collection presented particular challenges in terms of its size and level of disorder that led to it slipping down the priority list.

When colleagues came to collect the material they were directed to a house stuffed full of papers and books, to the extent that just entering the building presented something of a challenge. However, they were gathered up, the volumes shelved and the documents  decanted into 350 boxes our old Record Office in Trowbridge: the first aim of our service, preservation, having been achieved.

My first task was to produce a rough list of the contents of each box and then sort them accordingly.  The volumes all were the firms’ own records and consist of ledgers, registers of deeds and letter books. The boxes contain the archives of former clients, ranging from landed families like the Pophams of Littlecote, covering its extensive estates and several manors, to an individual whose only business was the administration of their personal estate at the ends of his or her life. Each in its way fascinating and informative, providing insight into the lives of our predecessors. Having identified the records of the major clients in about 120 boxes, I faced the remaining boxes with some trepidation. However, while it sat unassumingly on our shelves the technological revolution had brought new tools, in the shape of computers and software, which enabled this mass of material to be sorted far more easily and efficiently than the traditional methods of pencil and paper, and to become available far more speedily than ever before.

And what does the archive contain?

The answer is an extremely varied amount of material documenting life across all levels of society in Marlborough and neighbourhood, particularly in the 19th century. Surgeons, builders, grocers, maltsters, drapers, millers, stone masons, wheelwrights and a silversmith, are among a wide range of tradesmen and women, all used the firm to deal with matters relating to property, debt and bankruptcy, apprenticing and probate, all of which are an invaluable resource for both social and family history.

Horse racing figures prominently through the papers of trainer Alexander Taylor of Manton. These include accounts of the travelling expenses with horses to race courses around the country in the 1850’s and an extensive series of letters relating to the apprenticing of stable boys. In 1880, another client, George Barrow, a local veterinary surgeon, brought a successful case of libel against the editor of The Morning Post newspaper, who had published a report that Barrow had administered a drug to 'Bend Or', just before the Derby. Among the papers are copies of The Truth and various sporting newspapers. The firm acted for Revd Thomas Meyler, the master of the Royal Free Grammar School, Marlborough, and administered his estate on his death in 1853. Among his papers are accounts of fees, 1843-1852, a rare source for information about its pupils.  

The papers of General Frederick St John, the son of Frederick viscount Bolingbroke of Lydiard Park, had interests far beyond Marlborough. He was an investor in the Royal Coburg Theatre, Lambeth, Surrey, which was renamed the Royal Victoria Theatre from 1833, and is now the renowned The Old Vic Theatre. Correspondence on its administration, including the maintenance of the building, 1821-1884, will be of undoubted interest to theatre historians.

Other clients’ interest reached further afield, emphasising the patchwork nature of archives and their interrelationship. In order to establish the claim of his sons to property in Ogbourne St Andrew, John Seymour, a planter in Virginia, had a declaration drawn up in 1733 to which was appended the seal of the state Governor. The image on the seal of the subservient native American kneeling before his English overlord, is a disturbing reminder of our colonial past.

1733 Seal attached to document ref 2027/2/1/467

However, the firm did not just act for private clients. Local organisations needed legal representation and administrative support. The presence of nominal rolls for all the corps of the Wiltshire Rifle Volunteers, 1860-1874, is an important source covering the whole county, and here, possibly, because the marquis of Ailesbury, a client of the firm, was lord lieutenant of Wiltshire.

In 1804 several ladies organised themselves into the Marlborough Ladies Friendly Society. Its aim was to loan linen and clothing to poor married women during their time of lying in. On returning it washed and ready for use again after the first month, they received a gift of clothes or other items such as soap coal and candles. Income came from annual subscriptions and forfeits (fines for non attendance at meetings). Numbers of those receiving assistance rose from 12 in the first year an average number of about 40 a year down to 1814 when the records stop. Poignantly two mothers had still born children.

Wiltshire was the first county to establish its own Police Force (in 1839). Before that date law enforcement relied on a network of local constables and magistrates underpinned by obligation of neighbours to pursue felons by responding to the hue and cry. This was supplemented by local societies which offered rewards for the apprehension of suspected felons. In the Marlborough area the Tottenham Park Association for the Protection of Persons and Property, the Prosecution of Felons and Other Offenders, was formed in 1819. Its papers include a minute book and notices of rewards for specific crimes and nuisances, including the removal of Gypsy camps out of the area in 1826.

The presence of papers of Emilio Brughiera of Pavia, Italy documenting his education and career as a lawyer, 1835-1852, was a mystery that was only explained by material about Marlborough College Retirement fund in 1891 which mentioned Ferrucio Brughera, who the census of that year confirmed was an assistant master at the college, and evidently a relative of Emilio.

This somewhat ’warts and all’ glimpse back into the 18th and 19th centuries, confirms the well known quotation of LP Hartley, that ‘The Past is a foreign country: they do things differently there’. However, although times and attitudes have undoubtedly changed, the thread of humanity remains strong, and there is much for the modern researcher to empathise with, as this culinary advice in 1767 for the preparation of the dinners for the estate audit at Burbage illustrates: 'Give the women a charge to give the meat time & not hurry it by which means the Roast [beef] is scorched, & the Boil'd [beef], boiled to rags on the Outside & Raw within'.

Steve Hobbs, Archivist


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