Researching the history of disability in Wiltshire

on Thursday, 13 June 2013. Posted in Wiltshire People

Some readers will be aware of the new series on BBC Radio 4 called Disability: A New History. It is a ten-part series where “Across the country, historians are discovering the voices of disabled people from the past.” You can hear recordings of the series, which are posted for only limited time, and view an image gallery on the BBC website:

This opens up a hidden history. As the programme’s presenter Peter White said, it is as if people with disabilities didn’t exist in the past or what they did was worth recording, yet for thousands of years disabled people have been getting on with their lives.

Clearly in our archives at the History Centre there will be plenty of references to people with disabilities throughout the history of Wiltshire and Swindon’s communities, but I am not aware of anyone who has undertaken any detailed research. What especially intrigued me and some of my colleagues in the first BBC programme is a reference to the parish of Box, where it was said that in eighteenth / nineteenth century 65% of the parish had considered themselves disabled in some way (more of this later). The overall point being, of course, that a lot more people than we might think had a disability, although in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries this would not have been considered that unusual and we need to define “what is normal”. The reason perhaps is that medicine was not so advanced, disease was more prevalent and injuries sustained through the nature of our ancestors’ work, for example, were more likely.

With regard to Box, well as you would expect we were intrigued to find out where that figure came from. Well, we have not been able to locate this so far and would be interested to learn more. We did, however, look at some returns created for the preparations to raise a volunteer force in 1803-1804 to meet an anticipated French Invasion. Each parish submitted a return to the County Lieutenancy, recording men, an assortment of weapons including firearms, number of horses etc. It also listed the number of infirm or incapable of active service. Now, this can only be a rough guide to disability, but it does show that 35 out of 270 men between the age of 15 – 60 in the parish of Box said they were infirm or incapable of service, nowhere near the figure of 655, but still a sizeable number. The statistics were compiled into ten subdivisions of the county and a county total was also produced, which shows that of 35,097 men 3,529 considered themselves infirm or incapable of active service, which is around 10%.

Sources referred to within the BBC programme also included poor relief and poor law union records, especially pauper letters applying for poor relief. Most of those that have survived have been transcribed and published by the Wiltshire Family History Society. As with all records of this kind, the researcher has to be aware of terminology that we would not use today and sometimes the way in which people would refer to themselves.  For example, Jeremiah Culley of Cricklade, wrote to parish officials of Marlborough St Peter and St Paul in 1828 saying “Sir, it is with regret that I am compelled to apply to you for relief I am such of Cripple that I am not able to work have earned but eighteen pence this month...”

This is an area we are now keen to explore, along with other name-rich sources such as newspapers, parish, hospital and Quarter Sessions records may also uncover some interesting examples that give people with disabilities a voice from the past. In 1628 George Heskyns, a soldier, who during a voyage to Calais was “maimed in his right arme & shott in his right legg, by means whereof he is not able to maintain himself by his labour” applied for and was granted a pension of £10 per annum, while Roger Aldersea of Lacock “one of his Maties poore maihemed souldiers” also applied for a pension. Serving in Spain and France, Aldersea had been “hurte in one of his armes by shott & lost the use of that arm for ever.” A survey of the poor in St Edmunds and St Thomas’s parishes c.1635 notes many individuals and their ability or employment. It includes people who were lame in the arms, hands and limbs; blind, “eyesight naught” and “blind in one eye”; and deaf.

One area we will be especially looking to research is the history of people with learning disabilities. We were delighted to learn that Wiltshire People First, who support adults with learning disabilities in living independently  have received a Heritage Lottery Fund grant of £21,000 to undertake a project that will research and understand the experience of people with learning disabilities throughout Wiltshire’s history and also record the stories of people living in Wiltshire today. The History Centre is privileged to be involved in this exciting project and research workshops are already planned.

We would love to hear from anyone who has been researching the history of disability in Wiltshire and Swindon or if you have simply come across some references in our archives or elsewhere, it all helps to build a picture that reflects the history and rich diversity of our communities.

Terry Bracher
Archives & Local Studies Manager


Accredited Archive Service