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!