This week is #MuseumWeek – a worldwide festival for cultural institutions on social media. So it seems a perfect time to talk about some of the amazing museums that can be found across Wiltshire. Whatever your interests - from archaeology to transport to modern art - you will find something that appeals and inspires.
Like many other spaces, museums have been closed for much of the last year due to the pandemic. They are now able to re-open and have been looking forward to welcoming back the public once again, having made all the necessary arrangements to ensure a safe and enjoyable visit following the latest national lockdown. You can find out more information about museums in the county by visiting the Museum in Wiltshire website.
There are so many great museums it’s difficult to know where to kick off, so to quote The Sound of Music, ‘let’s start at the very beginning, a very good place to start’ by looking at some of the earliest objects from Wiltshire.
To find out about more about Wiltshire’s prehistory, you can’t beat Wiltshire Museum, Devizes and Salisbury Museum. Both are home to collections designated as having national or international importance, which tell the story of Wiltshire over the last 500,000 years.
Wiltshire Museum has beautiful gold items from the time of Stonehenge, some of my other favourites items on display are these exquisitely worked bronze age arrowheads.
Salisbury Museum’s award-winning Wessex Gallery includes the Amesbury Archer and finds from Stonehenge.
In his book on Wiltshire Gate Lodges James Holden states that: ‘The obvious purpose was to provide accommodation for the people protecting the entrances to estates, but they had a second role also. From the 18th century on, the grand houses of the gentry were often built out of sight in secluded locations. The passer-by could not see and admire the big house; only the lodge was visible. So the lodge stood in for the house, its appearance designed to make a statement about the wealth and good taste of the owner’.
Seend, near Devizes is a village of two halves. As you drive through the one long main street the north side of the road is lined by pretty cottages and respectable, solid Georgian houses. The opposite side is a different matter – a series of high brick walls mainly obscures the view south. However, behind these walls are a series of large and palatial mansions taking advantage of the spectacular views across Bulkington, Poulshot, Bratton, Edington and other villages right to the foot of the Salisbury Plain.
These are the houses of wealthy clothiers such as Thomas Bruges, the owner of Seend Green House in 1798, who built himself another mansion soon after 1805, now known as Seend House (you need to keep track of the several similarly-named houses here!). Although much of the construction material came from the just-demolished Seend Row House, there was nothing second-hand about the rather lovely classical, ashlar-faced Seend House with its pedimented centre bay and paired-column portico when it was finished, complete with twin Tuscan Lodge-houses at each end of the looped drive joining to the High Street. The growth of vegetation fronting the road means that the house is not visible. The only indications of the hidden architectural jewel are the themed lodges with their porticoed stone fronts in emulation of the house they served.
Local Studies Library – the elderly volumes that might surprise you!
I can’t believe it’s been 5 years this month since I was lucky enough to become the County Local Studies Librarian here at the Wiltshire & Swindon History Centre. In this time, I’ve had the exciting opportunity to learn a lot more about Wiltshire’s fantastic Wiltshire Studies collection, both at the History Centre and in the county’s many local libraries. You could spend a lifetime delving into the items we hold; there is never enough time in the day to enjoy looking at the collection and the many and varied topics, people and places that span hundreds of years.
The items in our collection have found their way to us through many different means. Some have been purchased, others gifted or donated by kind individuals, many local residents who share our belief that Wiltshire’s treasures should stay in the county for everyone to access and enjoy. Others have been in the ‘library’ system much longer, from reading rooms at places such as the Mechanics Institute in Swindon, historically part of the Wiltshire local authority before Swindon became unitary in 1997.
Local Studies libraries are classed as a ‘special collection’, and within Wiltshire’s are items dating from the 17th century to today. You would be surprised to learn how robust the most elderly items in our collection are; the acid in modern paper makes modern books more troublesome to keep safe. Even so, we like to keep an eye on our oldest items to ensure they are well looked after. I am currently conducting a condition survey to check on their wellbeing and the process has been very informative, opening my eyes to the rich variety of items we hold.
Our journey begins with some of our oldest items; Civil War and Commonwealth pamphlets from 1647-1658 (ref. AAA.946). These include the impeachment of members of the House of Commons by Sir Thomas Fairfax in 1647, an account of the speech of King Charles I on the scaffold in 1649 and a copy of the Commonwealth Mercury dated 25 November 1658, describing the removal of the body of the late Oliver Cromwell from Whitehall.
“Now thus much without vanity may be asserted of the subject, that if all persons, both Ladies, much more Gentlemen, would spend some of their time in Journeys to visit their native Land, and be curious to Inform themselves and make observations of the pleasant prospects, good buildings, different produces and manufactures of each place, with the variety of sports and recreations they are adapt to, would be a souvereign remedy to cure or preserve from these Epidemic diseases of vapours, should I add Laziness? – it would also form such an Idea of England, add much to its Glory and Esteem in our minds and cure the evil Itch of overvalueing foreign parts..”
So begins the work of Celia Fiennes published as “Through England on a Side Saddle in the time of William and Mary” by her descendant Emily Griffiths in 1888. Celia Fiennes was born in Newton Tony, Wiltshire on the 7 June 1662 and died on 10 April 1741 in Hackney aged 78, buried on the 17th April in Newton Tony. She was one of England’s first female travellers and was unusual for her time in travelling the length and breadth of the country on horseback with only one or two servants for company.
She was born to Nathaniel Fiennes, a Parliamentarian colonel during the civil war and politician, and his second wife, Frances Whitehead. Celia spent most of her younger years in Newton Tony, living at the manor house on the west side of the High Street. The house was largely demolished in the early 19th century but its kitchen later became part of the Three Horse Shoes. Her parents were non-conformist and a group of Presbyterians met at their house, and in 1672 the house was certified for Presbyterian meetings.
Celia Fiennes mostly travelled during the period 1684-1703 but continued intermittently until 1712. Her earlier journeys were predominatly in the south, including to Salisbury, Bath and Stonehenge. In 1697 she travelled in the north and then in 1698 undertook her Great Journey travelling to Newcastle, the Lake District, Durham to the South-west Gloucester, Bristol and Cornwall (to Land’s End).
Remarkably, her travels emcompassed every county in England 100 years before the Stagecoach. She travelled sidesaddle on horseback, with only one or two servants staying in inns and sometimes in the country houses of her connections (often seeing these buildings in stages of construction). She wrote notes as she travelled and eventually wrote them all up into a memoir in 1702, originally intended only for family reading. Her explorations began as a way for her ‘to regain my health by variety and change of aire and exercise’ but her notes demonstrate she had a keen interest in the places she visited. She had a particular interest in mining and industry and also often remarks on the local food she eats, the roads she travelled on and the houses she stayed in: a valuable source for historians! Through her words we get a glimpse of 17th century everyday life. We might never have thought about what it would be like to travel the country without signposts but she highlights them as a notable feature remarking on ‘posts and hands pointing to each road with the names of the great towns or market towns that it leads to’.
Her travels in Wiltshire and its locality prove interesting reading. You can probably guess where she is referring to with this statement, visiting around 1690: ‘This… is reckon'd one of the wonders of England how such prodigeous stone should be brought there, as no such Stone is seen in ye Country nearer than 20 mile.’ If you guessed Stonehenge you are correct!
The unfortunate sudden death of widow , Ruth Pierce of Potterne, in Devizes Market Place on 26th January 1753.
This is the original inquisition document as carried out by John Clare, coroner in Devizes on 26th January 1753. It details the circumstances leading to Ruth Pierces’ death and his conclusion to the cause.
‘..a Great Quarrel arose between four women in the Market place in the Bourrough of Devizes. Aforsaid whose names was Elizabeth Slade, Sarah Slade, Mary Parker and the aforesaid Ruth Pierce who joined together and bought one sack of wheat of one ffarmer Nathanial Alexander of the price of seventeen shillings......
After the collection of the money by one of the women gathered, it was noted that Ruth Pierce had not handed over her share of the payment which was four shillings. She was openly accused of withholding the money and the following account of what happened was documented in the inquisition, Ruth Pierce then;
‘called upon the Almighty for witness and wished she might drop down dead that minute if she had not paid it the Rash wish was repeated a second time and immediately from the Visitation of the Great and Almighty God was struck down upon the lane and as no marks of Violence appeared upon View of the Body the aforesaid jurors do propose that the aforesaid Ruth Peirce died asforsaid and not otherwise...’
‘Taken at the Burrough of Devizes on Fryday the 26th day of January Upon View of the Body of Ruth Peirce late of potterne Verdict from the Visitation of the Great and Almighty God in a Great Quarrell was struck dead with a lye in her mouth’
There has been a lot in the media recently about the centenary on 6th February 2018 of the Representation of the People Act 1918 but a lot of this has focused on female suffrage and of course this Act represented a big landmark in suffrage reform for men as well as women. The focus as well, understandably, has been on the national picture and I hope in this blog to shed a bit of light on Wiltshire’s story.
Background: the suffrage movement in the 19th century
The 19th century saw a great deal of progress in the movement towards votes for men and women which is useful background to the 1918 Act. At the start of the 19th century only a small minority of people could vote, based on freehold property ownership – this did, however, include an even smaller minority of women! In Wiltshire in 1831 there were 2 county MPs and 32 borough MPs, voted for by around 1200 people i.e. 0.5% of the total population of around 240,000. Some people had more than one vote and the system was unfair – large boroughs had the same number of MPs as smaller ones with fewer voters. Some Wiltshire boroughs were ‘rotten boroughs’ ie having a tiny number of voters who were in the pockets of a landowner who effectively bribed them to vote a certain way – Old Sarum is a notorious example cited for this, being in the pocket of the Pitt family from the 17th century to 1802. These local issues are symptomatic of the wider lack of the genuine democracy which many people wanted to see, and the example of revolutionary France (1789) was a cautionary tale of what might happen if reforms didn’t take place.
With the passing of the 1832 Great Reform Act Wiltshire lost 16 of its seats in Parliament, leaving 18 in total – 2 members for the northern division, 2 for the south; 1 each for Wilton, Westbury, Malmesbury, and Calne boroughs; and 2 each for Chippenham, Cricklade, Devizes, Marlborough, and Salisbury. The franchise was widened for men to include small landowners, tenant farmers and shopkeepers for the county vote. For the borough vote the irregularities and disparities were sorted out by the creation of a uniform franchise giving the vote to all householders who paid a yearly rental of £10 or more, and some lodgers. (Source: www.parliament.uk/reformact1832/) For women the result was catastrophic - total exclusion from the parliamentary franchise. However, it is very important to remember, as Dr Sarah Richardson has shown (https://victoriancommons.wordpress.com/2013/03/18/the-victorian-female-franchise/), large numbers of women continued to vote for and hold office for a range of local bodies, including overseers of the poor, surveyors of the highway and constables, due to paying poor rates.
Disappointed by the limitations of the 1832 Act campaigners called the Chartists were pressing for (amongst other things) a vote for all men over 21 of sound mind and not in prison; for secret ballots; for payments for MPs to allow ordinary working people to become MPs; and a fairer distribution of numbers of voters in constituencies – all things which seem very reasonable by modern standards! In 1839 and 1840 the Chartists had torchlight processions, fiery speeches, and threats to resort to arms in Bradford on Avon, Trowbridge, Westbury, Holt and Salisbury, and outright rioting in Devizes. Though the magistrates were undoubtedly alarmed by this they acted with restraint and managed to avoid too much bloodshed in their deployment of troops. The local ringleaders based in Trowbridge and Westbury were arrested and indicted of conspiracy with intent to disturb the peace. Three of the local leaders were sentenced to two years’ imprisonment, one with hard labour. Apart from a militant flare-up in Swindon in 1848, this was the end of militant Chartism in Wiltshire.
Between 1832 and 1867 the large landowners continued to have huge political influence in Wiltshire. The more open forms of bribery had been banned but other more subtle forms continued to exist – paying election expenses, or using precarious tenancies where a tenant farmer was unable to vote independently of his landowner for fear of losing the farm. This wasn’t sorted out till the 1872 Secret Ballot Act. However relations between the landowning and other classes were improving due to things like improvements in housing, sanitation and education. The growth of literacy among working class people helped fuel a demand for local newspapers - 35 newspapers started in Wiltshire between 1830 and 1911. Some of these represented the Tories, some the Whigs (Liberals). This growth in education helped to give working class men both greater aspirations to get involved in politics and the means to achieve it. 1866 saw the first mass petition in favour of votes for women, which was presented to Parliament (available online at: https://www.parliament.uk/1866) Only three Wiltshire women signatories are listed: Anne Cunnington of Devizes, and Miss Lanham and Miss Turner who ran a ladies’ boarding seminary, Claremont House, Corsham. The petition was unsuccessful but both the Tories and the Whigs could see that further parliamentary reform was needed and the 1867 Second Reform Act (www.parliament.uk/furtherreformacts/) widened the franchise to all male householders in the boroughs, as well as lodgers, who paid rent of £10 a year or more. It also reduced the property threshold in the counties and gave the vote to agricultural landowners and tenants with very small amounts of land. It is estimated that before the Act nationally only 1 million men (of a population of 7 million adult males) could vote; after the Act that was doubled. In Wiltshire that figure was 12,500 men, representing 3.5% of the total population. (Women were still excluded from the parliamentary franchise.)
In 1835 the Municipal Corporations Act had ended women’s right to vote for Guardians or in local elections. This right was returned to them in 1869 with the Municipal Franchise Act enabling female ratepayers to vote for local municipal councils and to elect, and stand as, Guardians of the Poor, although a court case of 1872 restricted this right to unmarried women or widows. The period 1869-1875 saw a lot of activity in Wiltshire relating to the campaign for female suffrage. 26 July 1869 saw a petition in favour of suffrage by Wiltshire women, led by the residents of Salisbury. A meeting about suffrage also took place in Salisbury in March 1871 but this was the last of its kind before 1909. Petitions in favour of suffrage also took place in 1870 and 1873 in Marlborough; in 1870 in Trowbridge and in Westbury (followed by a public meeting on the topic in 1874); and in Market Lavington in 1870 and campaigner Rhoda Garrett spoke at a meeting there in 1872. Suffrage speakers spoke at public meetings in Calne and Chippenham in the late 19th century, but no actual suffrage groups were formed in those towns. Bills in favour of women’s suffrage were placed before Parliament on an almost annual basis from now onwards but were repeatedly defeated before 1918.
The 1884 Reform Act (https://www.parliament.uk/one-man-one-vote/) was a big step in the campaign to expand male suffrage. It established a uniform franchise throughout the country and brought the franchise in counties in line with the 1867 lodger and householder franchise for boroughs, in other words all men paying an annual rental of £10 and all men holding land valued at £10 now had the vote. In 1885 the Redistribution of Seats Act was a big step forward in redrawing boundaries to make electoral districts more equal. Wiltshire was left with just 6 seats, one each for the north, north-east, north-west, west, and southern divisions, plus one parliamentary borough, Salisbury. Under the 1884 Act the British electorate now totalled over 5 million but this still only represented about 60% of men, and women continued to be completely excluded from parliamentary elections.
Women’s and Working Class Men’s Suffrage Campaign 1880s-1918
In the 1880s a large number of women began getting very involved in politics and local government, taking part as local organisers, canvassers and speakers for the different political parties, and serving on school boards and Boards of Guardians. The 1888 County Council Act gave female rate-payers the right to vote in Council and Borough elections. Feeling that the Liberal party were not doing enough to represent working people the Independent Labour Party was founded in 1893. In 1900 the ILP played a key role in founding the Labour Representation Committee which became the Labour Party in 1906. The party actively encouraged women to join, linking the quest for universal male suffrage and rights for working class men with the cause of women’s suffrage.
Putting things very simply, there were two main bodies of women campaigning for the vote: the suffragists, who from the 19th century up to 1918 pursued peaceful means to acquire the right to vote, and the suffragettes, formed in 1903, who took a more militant approach. In 1897 the suffragists grouped together to form the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies under the leadership of Milicent Fawcett. The leadership was middle class but many working class women joined the movement and the Union was affiliated to Labour in 1912. The Women’s Social and Political Union was set up in 1903 by Emmeline Pankhurst, who was impatient with the slow, gradual approach of the suffragists. Taking inspiration from the earlier Chartists, “deeds not words” was their motto and this escalated from occasional acts of vandalism and arson to the infamous instance of Emily Wilding Davison throwing herself under the King’s horse at the Derby in 1913. The suffragettes were punished in a draconian fashion by the government - when they went on hunger strike they were subjected to the terrible ‘cat and mouse’ regime of force-feeding, release and re-arrest which understandably won them a good deal of public sympathy. The suffragettes were led by the middle class Pankhursts but had many working class members. Sylvia Pankhurst, however, broke away from the WSPU in 1914 and formed a socialist splinter group.
This same mix of suffragists and suffragettes can be found in Wiltshire although it’s fair to say the former far outweigh the latter, at least as far as we can tell from the local newspapers which are one of the key sources. Of the suffragettes, we might think of Edith New, a school teacher born in Swindon, who became an activist for the WSPU. Edith chained herself to the railings at 10 Downing Street in Jan 1908, the first time that tactic had been employed by a suffragette. She resigned from teaching and devoted herself full time to the cause, ending up imprisoned and on hunger strike for her beliefs. (See Volume 1 of Swindon Heritage Magazine held at WSHC for an article about Edith by Frances Bevan.) It is perhaps no surprise that Edith came from Swindon as this town held important meetings about women’s suffrage at the Mechanics’ Institute in March 1875 and again in 1882, featuring speakers from the Bristol Society. Devizes had a branch of the WSPU, formed in 1911, with Katharine Abraham as Secretary, which organised a resistance to the 1911 census. In Trowbridge Lilian Dove-Willcox travelled from her home in Bristol to work as an organiser for the WSPU and was joint secretary with Miss B Gramlich of the West Wilts WSPU. Her entry in the 1911 census shows the use of it as a tool for protest by some suffragettes.
Dr Jane Howells has discussed the formation of the Salisbury Women’s Suffrage Society (SWSS) which began life in the summer of 1909 following an earlier meeting in February at the Godolphin School – the first meeting on the subject of female suffrage since 1871. “About 20 were present, all of whom were in favour of the object of the meeting though their opinions differed widely as to the best methods to pursue…” (Salisbury Journal 3 Jul 1909, reprinted in Sarum Chronicle volume 9) The Salisbury group was affiliated to the NUWSS, thus they were suffragists not suffragettes. By 1913 another NUWSS society had been formed in south Wiltshire, at Fovant, to serve the women in the south of Wiltshire outside the City. Swindon was the home of the Swindon and North Wiltshire Suffrage Society.
It is important to recognise that not all women were in favour of suffrage. The Women’s National Anti-Suffrage League was formed in 1907 and locally Edith Olivier is an example of a Wiltshire person who actively opposed suffrage. For example, on 4 July 1910 she writes in her diary:
“Monday 4th To see lots of ratepaying women asking them to write to Mr Bathurst [local MP] & tell him they are not in favour of women’s Suffrage. The bill comes on next week. He is said to be going to vote for it.” (982/44.)