Time travel with the archives

on Friday, 11 August 2017. Posted in Archives, History Centre, Schools

Working at the History Centre a little bit like being a Timelord… with access to the archives you can be transported through time and space.

The strong-rooms are our very own Tardis (Time and Relative Dimension in Space) since despite their relatively small footprint they contain around eight miles of archives.

Over the last two months I have been joined in my “travels” by GCSE and A-level students who have been on work experience at the History Centre.

The first port of call for the youngsters as they ventured into the strong-rooms was 12th century Messina in Sicily. One of the earliest documents in the Wiltshire and Swindon Archive is a letter (with Great Seal attached) from Richard I – Richard the Lionheart – confirming a gift of land to Stanley Abbey (WSA 473/34PC).

It is dated 3rd April 1191 and was sent by Richard from Sicily just days before he set sail with a fleet of ships to the Holy Land. (He had set out in 1190 to join the Third Crusade.) The letter came at a busy time for Richard who was not only on crusade but was about to be married to Berengaria of Navarre who had made her own epic journey across Europe with Richard’s mother Eleanor of Aquitaine to be with her future husband.

The students’ introduction to the archives continued with a jump to the Tudor period via a grant of arms, followed by a brief stop in restoration England and a splendid portrait of Charles II on an illuminated document.

With each new group of students I set myself and the students the challenge of searching our collections for documents relevant to their particular GCSE and A-level courses. The two world wars, the Cold War, and the Tudors are well travelled historical paths but what of 19th century China and Japan or American history?

At A-level, students at the end of Year 12 are making decisions about coursework so a placement at the History Centre was an ideal opportunity to begin their research. We had students who were looking at the American civil rights movement, antisemitism in England during the 19th and 20th centuries, the opium wars in 19th century China and western influence on 19th century Japan and the demise of the Samurai tradition.

In our pursuit of the American civil rights movement we took a detour into the history of the fledgling United States of America. The archive has a number of collections that, through letters and other documents, connect Wiltshire with the English colonies in the Americas, the war of independence and the American civil war and trade with the USA.

We were all rather excited to be handling two particular documents signed by James Madison and John Quincy Adams who served as the 4th and 6th presidents of the USA. Both documents (WSA 1498/4) were passports for Thomas Shorthouse who became an American citizen in 1797. The Shorthouse family lived at Little Clarendon, Dinton and the passports, letters from Philadelphia and citizenship document for Thomas Shorthouse are part of the family papers (WSA 1498/1-6).

Passport signed by James Madison 1805
Thomas Shorthouse citizenship papers 1797

The citizenship document was drawn up in the Court of Common Pleas of Philadelphia County and instructs Thomas to “absolutely and entirely renounce and abjure all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign prince, potentate, state or sovereignty whatever and particularly the allegiance to the King of Great Britain to whom he was heretofore a subject.”

The passports show that Thomas maintained his connections with his family in Britain. The first was signed by James Madison, as Secretary of State, in Washington on 27th September, 1805. Madison, one of the founding fathers of the USA, became President in 1809 and later became known as the ‘father of the constitution’.

In 1815, Thomas Shorthouse received a second passport, this time signed by John Quincy Adams who was then the United States Envoy in London. Adams went on to be the 6th President in 1825.

Passport for Thomas Shorthouse signed by John Quincy Adams
John Quincy Adams signature

We could have spent all our time in North America reading letters and documents about rebellion in the colonies, American Independence, the civil war and abolition of slavery, but other countries beckoned.

Our search for documents relating to the Opium Wars yielded instant and fascinating results in the Public and State papers of Sidney Herbert (1810-1861), Baron Herbert of Lea, who from 1841 to 1860 was successively Secretary to the Admiralty, Secretary of War and then Secretary of State for War.

The opium wars in China documents from the state papers of Sidney Herbert

His papers are part of Wilton House and Estate archive and are a fascinating insight into 19th century British political and military history. The journey into this immense collection was brief but rewarding as we discovered a wonderful document that summarised the issues surrounding the opium trade (“Neglect of Government to take steps as to opium trade”, WSA 2057/F8/I/G/1), and several letters and despatches describing the taking of the Peiho Forts – a joint British and French military action in China in the 1860s (WSA 20157/F8/V/B/192ee).

From China in the 19th century we ventured into the 20th century and a world at war.

All school students will at some point study the First World War and as we remembered the third battle of Ypres – Passchendaele – it seemed appropriate to discover what war meant for soldiers from Wiltshire and also for those on the Home Front.

The History Centre has a number of remarkable collections that transport you to the frontline, including the hundreds of letters from soldiers serving overseas who wrote thanking the Queen Mary’s Needlework Guild in Salisbury for providing parcels of shirts and socks; simple things that meant so much.

Letter from soldier to Queen Mary Needlework Guild, Salisbury

One soldier wrote from ‘Somewhere in Flanders’ on 4th August 1917, thanking the ladies of the QMNG for “the useful parcel of clothing” which meant he could put on clean, dry shirt and socks after a spell in the trenches “plunging my way through mud and water”.
Students from Hardenhuish and Royal Wootton Bassett were transported from Salisbury Plain to the Western Front as they transcribed letters written in 1915 by Lieutenant Charles Eric Moulton to his parents in Bradford on Avon. The letters vividly describe the life of a young officer training for war and then the grim reality of life in the trenches. Sadly the last letters are from a friend and fellow officer sending his condolences to Moulton’s parents on the death of their son.

We took one final wartime journey, this time travelling to Scotland with a young officer – Victor Perowne – who was suffering from shell-shock and had been sent for treatment to Craiglockhart War Hospital.

Perowne was a friend of the Goff family of Holt and his letters from Scotland are contained in the family archive (WSA 4259/2A/2). They are particularly interesting because they not only vividly reveal the torment of soldiers suffering from shell-shock but also coincide with war poet Siegfried Sassoon’s stay at Craiglockhart and at a convalescent home, also in Scotland.

Letter from Victor Perowne at Craiglockhart Hospital mentioning the presence of Siegfried Sassoon

Perowne’s letter from Craiglockhart is quite disturbing as it describes the hallucinations and fears of his fellow patients, including seeing wallpaper stained with blood. He also makes mention of Siegfried Sassoon being at the hospital which dates the letter to the summer of 1917 when Sassoon, having made his “Soldier’s Declaration” against the war, was ordered to Craiglockhart, the Army’s psychiatric hospital.

Letter from Victor describing fellow patient Siegfried Sassoon in some detail

The second letter from Perowne is far more coherent and is written from a convalescent home for officers. He describes how he and his fellow officers take part in occupational therapy, including knitting and sewing. Perowne also meets up with Sassoon “…who is nice looking … rather light hair, small eyes – talks a lot about himself in a bashful modest way…”.

These are just a few of the highlights of the work experience “season”; there were many other journeys taken – to the Wootton Bassett of 1811 and the attempted murder of a local magistrate; to the 1930s Soviet Union of labour camps and collective farms; and back to 17th century England and a failed royalist uprising against Oliver Cromwell.

Why not visit the History Centre and begin your journey through history?

Ruth Butler, Heritage Education Officer


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