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.
Here at the History Centre, we’re no stranger to Morris Dancers. We’ve had dancers on the staff, while each May Bank Holiday Chippenham hosts its popular Folk Festival. It’s great fun watching the street theatrics, but there was once a darker side to Morris Dancing that led to the following stories being recorded by the Wiltshire Magistrates (and now appear in Records of Wiltshire).
What happened at Woodborough in May 1652 caused official concern, but how was it that Morris Dancing threatened the pillars of the state?
Capers against the Commonwealth On the evening of Sunday, May 16th 1652, Edward Smyth and Edward Hawking left their homes in Woodborough and went to All Cannings, where they met and conspired with about a dozen people. That same Sunday, Robert Golfe went from Woodborough into Marlborough “to get a drummer”, while Thomas Beasant went to Ram Alley in Easton and “there invited and procured a fiddler”.
The following day, their plans were revealed when a crowd gathered from the surrounding countryside; according to the records, “three hundred persons, or thereabouts … gathered together in a Riotous, Routous, Warlike and very disorderly manner’.” If anyone thought about stopping them, they were armed “with muskets, pistols, bills, swords drawn and other unlawful weapons”.
The musicians led the crowd from Woodborough to Pewsey where they “very disorderly, danced the Morris Dance”, and committed other misdemeanours, including “drinking and tippling in the inn and Alehouse”. While the prevalence of weapons may, happily, be less, it’s reassuring to see that the drinking still continues in and around Morris circles to this day (and sometimes, people still disapprove).
Public nuisance, party, or Sedition? In 1652, England was a republic, following the execution of Charles I. The Commonwealth kept a close eye on signs of dissent, looking for evidence of Royalist insurgency: traditional sports and pastimes were suspect. Ales, Morris and other customs had been the target of religious reformers since before the Civil War. The opposition from these authorities meant that Morris and other customs now symbolised the old order prior to the Civil War, when license and liberty were, supposedly, more freely allowed; as such, Morris dancing and the open drinking of ale was as much an open challenge to the authorities as the bearing of arms. Although the weapons offered a challenge to the authorities, the Morris spoke of tradition, culture, custom and a perceived stability before the upheavals of the 1640s. The new rulers of England were right to view the emotional power of such demonstrations with suspicion.
While the Morris at Pewsey may not be as famous as folksinger Pete Seeger, who was blacklisted by McCarthy in Cold War America, or Victor Jara, the Chilean musician executed during the 1973 coup, the Wiltshire boys used their folk art and their rootedness in the traditions of their place to show dissent toward the Authorities. Were the ringleaders seeking to incite rebellion, or just standing up for traditional fun? No doubt motives were mixed and shifting, including a mass of local and national grievances, as well as people being there for the fun, the beer and the free entertainment. What also seems remarkably modern was the casting of The Commonwealth as an alien, faceless Authority that stopped fun and meddled in the lives of “ordinary folk” (“Bonkers Conkers” anyone?).
However, as our next story shows, the dancers in Pewsey were evoking an idealised past in an “imagined village” …1
I’ve just finished reading the fascinating book ‘My Own Life’ by Ruth Scurr about the life of the 17th century Wiltshire antiquarian John Aubrey. It has left me with such a great impression of both his life and the times he lived in, that I thought I’d share them with you.
Aubrey was born on St. Gregory’s Day, 12th March 1626, the eldest son of Richard, a gentleman, and Deborah. His cousin and patron was Sir John Aubrey, 2nd Baronet, who had homes in Buckinghamshire and the Vale of Glamorgan.
His love of Wiltshire was derived from growing up at Broad Chalke and Easton Piercy, and through his years spent at school at Leigh Delamare, but also from association with some of the county’s major landowners such as the Pembrokes of Wilton House, spending time at their estates. His father’s death caused financial difficulties. Over time Aubrey had to sell off his property, spending the majority of his time moving between friends, patrons and lodging houses.
Aubrey had many, many friends, some of whom appear to have taken advantage of his good nature and his genuine wish to help further their work. Aubrey loved science and learning, becoming a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1662, only two years after it had been founded, but he also loved nature and the world around him, especially the Wiltshire landscape, and folklore. He had a belief and interest in astrology, and had correspondence with Edmund Halley.
John was particularly interested in springs, and noted many in Wiltshire, testing their composition and presenting them to the Royal Society. He also had a surprising ability for the age; the ability to talk to anyone and show interest in their views, from Kings to lowly peasants.
Aubrey lived in turbulent times and worried about the lack of care given to historic material, seeing stonework looted, ruins uncared for, old manuscripts used in kitchens and to cover school books. His sense of caring for the past for the future was evident in his relationships with men such as Mr Ashmole who was instrumental in the founding of the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford. He also paid for the etching of the Osney Abbey ruins by Hollar; concerned to document them before they were lost forever.
"There is no place in England quite like it. Savernake is an epitome of every phase of beauty in our countryside"
If you travel down “The King’s Way” from Marlborough you will pass through Savernake Forest. Before WWII Savernake was one of the largest areas of virgin forest land in England, having a continuous wooded area greater than the New Forest.
Wolfhall was the house of the Wardens of Savernake Forest and the estate was the home of Jane Seymour, Henry VIII’s third wife and mother to the future Edward VI. Henry, a keen deer-hunter, regularly stayed there as the guest of Sir John Seymour, Jane’s father. John Aubrey wrote of the King’s wedding some time later in 1672, stating it was observed in the long barn at Wolfhall. At the heart of the estate is the house that eventually replaced Wolfhall; Tottenham House.
King Athelstan’s Charter of 934AD lists crofts lying ‘alongside the woodland called Safernoc’. There are also references to Safernac (in 1156) and Savernak (in 1275). The name is probably derived from ‘a river name identical with the Severn’. Other possibilities include ‘sweet fern’, gravel or hare. All forms use ‘oc’, ‘ac’ and ‘uk’, the old names for oak. This Old English word has continued in the form of ‘acorn’. The forest has been called Savernake at least as early as the beginning of Henry II’s reign.