The Working Life of a History Centre Volunteer

on Tuesday, 04 June 2019. Posted in History Centre

Hello! I’m Louise a long serving volunteer at the History Centre in Chippenham. I have worked on and off in a voluntary capacity since 2005. I first discovered the Wiltshire Buildings Record (WBR) when it was located within the Wiltshire Record Office at Trowbridge. Dorothy Treasure, who is responsible for the day to day running of the charity, recognised my real passion for old houses and recruited me to her keen band of volunteers.  Over the years my contribution has varied due to the needs of my family but I have always been encouraged to continue. Dorothy is also our Principal Building Historian; she is a real expert in her field and I feel very fortunate to be able to work with her.

Volunteers at the History Centre come from all walks of life and work the hours of their choosing. In my case I had worked as an HR professional prior to having a family rather late. Some volunteers are still in paid employment and join us when they can. This is the case with some of our committee members.  Some volunteers work with the WBR for a while in order to gain experience to advance their careers in the heritage sector. What we all have in common is an interest in our country’s heritage and a wish to rub shoulders with like-minded people and those working in professional roles.  There are four strands to my voluntary work - documentary research into the history of individual buildings, building recording, data entry into the Historic Environment Record (HER) and committee work.

Typically I begin the week with the Archaeology Service, entering data from the WBR archive records onto the HER database. With 18,000 buildings records to work through, I think I’ve gained a job for life! Tom, the HER Manager is always nearby to guide me through the more complex aspects of the system. I am one of four volunteers he manages each week. We all do different things based on our interests and skill sets. I love the challenge of locating buildings particularly when building names have changed, buildings have been altered and only sketchy address details are given!               

Tom the HER Manager and I at the History Centre and Martin one of the archaeologists in action at Avebury (photo taken by Terry Waldron)

Working alongside the Archaeology Service has given me a real insight into the challenging work the team undertakes, the county of Wiltshire not only has an important World Heritage Site, Stonehenge and Avebury, but also many other important historic assets to protect. I always enjoy listening to the office banter, the team are a lively and adventurous bunch. The team even has its own Morris dancer!

On a Tuesday, I work with Dorothy and spend my time researching the history of individual buildings. It is a day when I am able to catch up with other office-based volunteers over coffee or lunch. As a charity we need to generate an income and we do this mainly through commission work for individual house owners. Each report we produce includes a comprehensive recording of a building and some documentary history. Documentary research is my main area of expertise, built up over a number of years. It did help studying for an Undergraduate Advanced Diploma in Local History from Oxford University. All the study was done via the internet which was fantastic.  The Archives team has always provided me with great support when I needed it, along with the WBR.


Studying maps in the Archive room to locate a particular cottage in the village of Netheravon. The building I am looking at is identified by No.90 on the 1790 Enclosure Award map for the parish

I am now able to attend more site visits as my children grow older, to assist with the recording of individual buildings. I am very much the junior in the team, but enjoy the new challenges that this work brings. My recording responsibilities may include the sketching of an elevation of a building or of a particular feature such as a piece of door or window furniture. More recently I have had the opportunity to shadow Dorothy to find out how she identifies and dates internal and external features of a building and learn her method of recording individual rooms. Additionally, I liaise with owners about any title deeds, photographs and plans relating to the building that they might hold. The size of our recording teams varies dependent on the size and location of a building. Some of our current volunteers utilise their skills and experience previously gained from employment in planning, surveying and architecture. Invariably there is a trip to a pub at lunchtime to debate what has been discovered and catch up with each other. We recently recorded the thatched cottage in the High Street at Netheravon referred to earlier.  After some guidance from Dorothy I was tasked to take internal photographs of first floor rooms in the cottage, a number of which will go into the final report, along with the results of the documentary research I carry out.

To develop my recording skills, I attended a Vernacular Architecture Group (VAG) weekend training event last year supported by the WBR to develop my skills when interpreting medieval buildings.

Dorothy and I at the cottage in Netheravon; Dorothy pointing out the former position of a window opening now covering by thatch. 

A real achievement for me was the writing of an article for the 2018 edition of ‘The Sarum Chronicle’ about a former art shop in Salisbury. This article followed a WBR report on the property.
More recently, I thoroughly enjoyed a visit to Wolf Hall at Burbage. Wolf Hall is on the site of the former family home of Jane Seymour, third wife of Henry VIII! The WBR is currently recording the building.


The West elevation of Wolf Hall, Burbage and myself sketching a section of the west elevation

There are so many different ways of volunteering at the History Centre. If you have a passion for heritage and you have the time available to volunteer, I would thoroughly recommend it.

Louise Purdy
(History Centre Volunteer)


Accredited Archive Service