In July 1980 I took up my first post as an Archivist at the Wiltshire County Record Office in Trowbridge having completed the post-grad course at Liverpool University – little did I think I would still be employed by Wiltshire Council 40 years later! – it was always assumed in the profession that to further one’s career that one should move on regularly- within Wiltshire staff have always stayed for long periods not through lack of ambition – more a reflection not just of the attractions of the county but of the good working relationships and atmosphere within the office. The Record Office, as we were known until our move in 2007 to the History Centre in Chippenham, has always been known for providing a friendly, helpful service – which we continue to be congratulated on today.
I alone have had the privilege of working under every County Archivist /Principal Archivist in the history of the service being the last member of staff appointed by the first County Archivist Maurice Rathbone (1944-1981) In this time I have witnessed many changes but the constant throughout has been the professionalism, support and friendship of colleagues. Many of our researchers/visitors over the years have become friends – on first name terms and with an interest in staff’s personal families and interests - long may this continue
So, what changes have I seen in all this time? Back in the 1980s we produced paper word catalogues of our collections- typed for the Archivists by a succession of secretaries – letters were also typed – emails didn’t exist – but enquirers did give more thought to their enquiries then – frequently today we have to ask for more information. Family history research was in its infancy – no Ancestry or FindMyPast – no online sources or digital copies. Prior to the Parochial Registers and Records Measure of 1978 which led to the deposit of non-current parish registers and records over 100 years old at the appropriate Diocesan Record Office (formerly the Salisbury Diocesan Office was at Wren Hall in Salisbury with the documents moved to Trowbridge in the early 1980’s) - family historians had to make appointments to visit individual churches around the country to make notes from registers. The Record Office had always had some parish material deposited by forward-thinking clergy – indeed the earliest registers from Maiden Bradley (ref 18) were brought in in 1947 but the Measure led to a vast amount of material coming in – and staff were required to visit and collect records around the county-with over 300 parishes to visit- opening up cupboards, chests and safes in a voyage of discovery – I have memories of accompanying colleagues on many such outings – acting as navigator in search of small village churches. Once catalogued visitors were able to use the original volumes in our searchroom, prompting many staff trips into the strongrooms. We had no photocopier on the premises and each morning we would take it in turns to help carry volumes with the mainstay of Doc Prod -David Mattock- across the road to the main County Hall printing dept.
In 1981 the Wiltshire Family History Society was founded and the work of their volunteers in transcribing initially parish registers extending to marriage licences and in recent times to manorial records, police registers, tithe schedules – their output has been truly prodigious. We have been fortunate to have had such a regular group visiting weekly and owe an immense debt of gratitude to them for their labours.
In the mid 1980s we welcomed the camera operators from the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-Day Saints who filmed all our pre-1900 parish registers to put on their International Genealogical Index (IGI) – later Family Search. The registers were subsequently withdrawn, and visitors were asked to use microfiche instead – we had a separate room for the fiche readers – a few of these remain in use today. A reader printer was installed to enable copies to be made of individual entries and requests for whole registers were sent to a local firm in Melksham.
Today fiche has been superseded by the digital filming of Ancestry – whose team re-filmed all our pre-1916 registers and early Bishops Transcripts – putting them on their site in 2017. Ancestry has revolutionized family history world wide – the quality of their images compared to the fiche is high however their indexing – done overseas – is not always reliable compared to the locally produced work of the WFHS.
Ancestry also completed the Wiltshire Wills project. The project started in 1999 with HLF funding and other donations to re-catalogue and replace 29 manual indices and digitize over 105,000 probate records. This was the first major team work with the Archivists under the guidance of project archivists Lucy Jefferis and Amanda Goode entering onto the CALM database full details of every record. The new catalogue was completed in 2006 and made available on our website however the digital imaging and conservation work lagged behind and Ancestry were brought in to finish the filming and in 2018 the entire collection was put on their website making another valuable resource available worldwide and generating income for the service.
Another example of change for family history has been the Census returns from 1841-1911 – now searchable online. Initially the census returns were only available on microfilm and visitors had to laboriously wind through reels to locate information. We were fortunate to have the 1851 census indexed by a team led by Dr Barbara Carter - Jean Cole, Nan Simmons – later censuses to 1881 were produced on microfiche. The ability to search by place and name has speeded up research – although today’s genealogists seem to expect everything to be online and not to appreciate how fortunate they are.
Project posts have been the way in recent years to tackle backlogs of large collections – a move that is reflected around the country -in this way we have benefitted from funding to list the Lacock (ref 2664), and Radnor (ref 1946) estate records and staff have been supported in this by volunteers. Volunteers continue to play a key role in the service – we have a whole army of people listing, sorting, cleaning, packaging under staff guidance – from GWR staff records, Westinghouse drawings, building plans, to the many WFHS projects
The way archivists work has changed radically over the years – hand written lists typed on word by secretaries to everything catalogued directly on a laptop by the archivist on CALM – the database used widely in the profession (for Archives, Local Studies Libraries and Museums) although at times it has seemed a misnomer when the system is down and staff are anything but calm!
History is fun, but it’s even more fun with archives which provide us with that tangible connection to fascinating stories of amazing people and places who have shaped our history.
And this year we have so many reasons, if reasons were needed, to go searching through the Wiltshire & Swindon Archive to see just how connected the county is to some of the major national commemorations that are taking place in 2020.
Already garnering national attention are the 800th birthday celebrations for Salisbury cathedral and the city of Salisbury. And Salisbury can also lay claim to ties with another 800th anniversary – that of the unveiling of the shrine to St Thomas Becket at Canterbury cathedral. This year is also the 850th anniversary of Becket’s murder.
In a busy year Wiltshire will also be marking the bicentenary of Florence Nightingale’s birth. Most people will know of her as ‘the lady with the lamp’ – a phrase and image made famous in her lifetime following her pioneering work during the Crimean War – but how many know of her connections to Wilton House and the Pembroke family?
Florence was born in Florence, Italy, on 12th May 1820 and named after the city of her birth. (Her older sister Frances Parthenope was named after her birthplace of Parthenope in Naples.) The family moved back to England in 1821 and Florence grew up at Embley Park in Hampshire, just 15 miles from Salisbury. She wanted to be a nurse from an early age and had hoped to take up the career at Salisbury Infirmary – then in Fisherton Street – but her family opposed the idea, believing nursing to be an inappropriate activity for a young woman of her social standing.
She spent much of her twenties travelling and it was in Rome, in November 1847, that she met Sidney Herbert, the younger son of the Earl of Pembroke, and so began a lifelong friendship that was to prove so important to her work.
In 1853 Florence began her nursing career as the superintendent of a women’s hospital in London but it was the outbreak of war in the Crimea in 1854, and reports of horrendous conditions endured by sick and injured soldiers, that propelled Florence into spotlight.
With the support of Sidney Herbert, the minister for war, Florence Nightingale led a group of nurses to the Crimea and so began her campaign to improve conditions at Scutari hospital. Her work, alongside the work of a government Sanitary Commission, transformed the survival rates for the soldiers treated at Scutari.
Accounts of her work in her own words and the words of others are held here at the Wiltshire & Swindon History Centre and form part of the Pembroke archive (WSA 2057). There are two series of correspondence and documents – 2057/F4 and 2057/F8 – which include letters sent by Florence to Sidney Herbert and others.
In a letter written from Scutari in January 1856 (WSA 2057/F4/64), Florence attempts to explain to “dear Mr Bracebridge” how she will use the money given to the newly established Nightingale Fund. “The people of England say to me by their subscriptions ‘We trust you, we wish you to do us a service’. No love or confidence can be shown to a human being greater than this – and as such I accept it gratefully…” She goes on to say: “And if I have a plan in me, which is not battered out by the constant ‘wear and tear’ of mind and body I am now undergoing, it would be simply this – to take the poorest and least organised hospital & putting myself in there, see what I could do…”. She concludes that she is “overwhelmed at present not with plans but work.” And adds that she wishes she could say “how much I feel the love & confidence of the people of England, in whose service I have lived, so I shall die.”
Florence’s work, and that of her nurses, had made headline news in Britain and the public began giving money for a gift honouring her efforts, but so much money was given that the Nightingale Fund was created, with her friend and support Sidney Herbert its honorary secretary.
Florence’s uncertainty about the details of what to do with the fund did not last long and in July 1860 the first school of nursing was opened at St Thomas’s Hospital in London. As well as transforming and professionalising the training of nurses, Florence also influenced the design of new hospitals, introducing the eponymous Nightingale Wards.
Following on from her work during the Crimean war, Florence campaigned for improved sanitary conditions at home and went on to work on improving conditions for the British army in India. Florence was an effective social reformer and campaigner, making the most of her friendship with Sidney Herbert and not afraid to use the media of the day. But she was also careful to support her work with evidence, especially statistics, and became the first woman elected to the Royal Statistical Society.
The Florence Nightingale letters in the Pembroke archive, and letters written by others about Florence’s work, are a fascinating insight into one of Britain’s most iconic Victorian figures and it is fitting that we mark the bicentenary of her birth on 12th May this year.