On Tuesday evening on the 27th July I led a free walk around Lacock for the Festival of Archaeology. It was a showery day and I had my fingers crossed for a dry walk, which unfortunately didn’t work! We had to shelter at least once while the heavens emptied a torrent on us. The village is a huge draw for tourists, not just for the Abbey, but also to see the where so many dramas and movies have been filmed, Harry Potter not the least, both in the village and in the Abbey. What makes Lacock so special? The newly-revised Pevsner volume on Wiltshire edited by Julian Orbach states that Lacock village is ‘one of the best in the country, compact and without any loss of scale anywhere, and with a wealth of medieval buildings, both apparent and disguised. The extraordinary degree of preservation is thanks to the Talbot family who owned nearly every house until they gave the estate to the National Trust in 1958’.
Outside 2-5 High Street, Lacock – a range of medieval timber-framed hall houses. Image credit: Tom Sunley
The village as it stands is said to date substantially from the early 14th century, though there is a documented settlement before then, probably soon after Lacock Abbey was founded in 1229 by Ela, Countess of Salisbury, as an Augustinian nunnery. At the same time she also founded Hinton Charterhouse Priory in Somerset, about 20 miles from here. Both were in memory of her husband William Longspee, whose tomb can be seen in Salisbury Cathedral.
The village was started soon after the Abbey and is said to have been completed in 1247. Very little of this original village remains, though there are 13th century fragments of what look to be the very first building on the site inside at King John’s Hunting Lodge in Church Street. Every one of the buildings lining the four core streets are listed, and there are more grade II* buildings than you can shake a stick at, something of a rarity considering the normal rate of development elsewhere. Here you can see seven centuries of buildings in a 10-minute walk around in a variety of materials: ancient crucks, timber-frame, rubblestone, fine ashlar and brick. What you won’t see is concrete or anything after about 1926, the date of the extension to the 18th century Red House in Church Street.
This is a sad blog to be writing, as I’m writing this the day before I leave the History Centre for pastures new. I thought it would be a good way of rounding up what I’ve done over the last four years.
I started at the Wiltshire and Swindon History Centre as a timid (?) newly qualified archivist, fresh from a course at University College London and all prepared to work a full time job and write my dissertation for my Masters in Archives and Records Management. I had got a job as the project archivist for the high-profile HLF funded project Lacock Unlocked, and started my project in June 2013 working with up to 25 volunteers and the Lacock community to catalogue, make accessible and promote the Lacock archives.
I was certainly thrown in at the deep end with the project – I remember having a very serious meeting with the Devizes U3A group, who knew the archive very well and had listed much of it prior to my arrival, and training volunteers on how to use the database and how to read old handwriting. I wouldn’t have had it any other way, however. I learnt a lot very quickly: I learnt how to manage volunteers, and also how to tackle a large and important archive. I had to do talks to the public, both at the History Centre and externally, about the Lacock archive.
Towards the end of the project I was luckily enough given the opportunity to stay on in a permanent role, joining the rest of the archives team in searchroom duty, accessioning, cataloguing, general talks and so on. It was wonderful to be part of this team, join the rota and have a variety of tasks which have taught me more about the local area. It also enabled me to keep working on the Lacock project, retaining many of the volunteers who even now are still coming in weekly to do work for the History Centre.
I have never made any secret of the fact that I am passionate about the archives of private schools. I wrote my Masters dissertation on the use of school archives and have volunteered in a range of them. So it was a wonderful surprise to be told by Claire Skinner that there was an uncatalogued school collection which I could work on if I wanted to. I grabbed the opportunity eagerly, and immersed myself for the next few months in the archives and history of the Godolphin School in Salisbury, whose archives had been deposited with us and needed cataloguing. I was able to visit the school to put the records in context, which was a great day out. I loved starting working on a collection from scratch, combining two separate deposits of material into one, and finding out so much about the school and its history at the same time. The Godolphin School collection is a wonderful one, combining business records of the school, staffing records, beautiful old photographs of staff and students, and headmistress’ diaries which are extremely interesting – like school log books. These are currently being indexed by a volunteer and will be a great resource for anyone whose family member studied or worked at the school.
Following Godolphin, I then started working on a collection within a collection. Steve Hobbs has been cataloguing the extensive Merriman collection (a solicitors’ firm based in Marlborough) for some time and thought it might be nice for me to work on part of it – a succinct series of material relating to the Popham family of Littlecote. This was an estate collection like Lacock, although a lot smaller, but was another great chance for me to get my teeth into something new and uncatalogued, and find out some really interesting things about local families and local areas. I was able to use my experience from Godolphin to catalogue the Popham archive in the most effective way possible (hopefully), not helped of course by the occasional addition tossed to me by Steve as he was perusing other boxes of Merriman material (I was able to toss some to him too, luckily). I had volunteers who had been working on Lacock material working through estate letters which helped me to allocated letters to the various different estates: the Popham family owned Littlecote as well as properties in Churchdown in Gloucestershire, Hunstrete in Somerset and Puckaster on the Isle of Wight, among others.
My next mini project was to work on the collection of the Moulton family of Bradford on Avon, and I have just completed this. It’s been a fascinating collection because as well as lots of deeds of Bradford and other places in Wiltshire, information on the business started by Stephen Moulton in the mid 19th century in Bradford and family papers, there are also many papers relating to other families, particularly the Greene family of Stratford-on-Avon whose daughter Beryl married John Coney Moulton in 1914. Her brother Downes Greene spent many years in Sarawak and we have lots of letters from him to his parents about his life there, which give a wonderful indication of life abroad in the early 20th century. There are also letters from World War One soldier Charles Eric Moulton, who was killed in 1915.
Other projects I have been involved in are: being the acquisitioning archivist for the Creative Wiltshire project, which has allowed me to advise on and catalogue archives of creative people in Wiltshire: namely Roger Leigh, Ken White, Penelope Ellis and the Pelham Puppets business based in Marlborough. The most extensive collection from this was that of Roger Leigh, whose many photographs of his sculptures make up an interesting archive alongside his early diaries, condolence letters and cards to his widow after his death in 1997, and a dream diary that he kept as a young boy which is just a wonderful example of the extent and detail of somebody’s imagination. Becoming involved in Creative Wiltshire also gave me the opportunity to speak at the Creative Histories conference in July this year, in Bristol, about how the project has helped access to archive and museum collections. It has been wonderful to see first-hand how many more archive collections and objects by creative people have been made available for the public as a result of the project.
Away from the practical archives work, I have also been getting involved in writing articles for Local History News, involved with the South West Region of the Archives and Records Association and attending the Fundraising for Archives course run by the National Archives, which has given me lots of ideas on how to raise money for archive services. I have attended lots of courses and conferences, spoken at some and organised others, and I can really safely say that I wouldn’t have done any of this were it not for the encouragement given me by the managers and staff at the History Centre who have given me opportunities to develop my own career, improve the service here, and benefit the development of archives in general.
One of the best things about my job is visiting different museums around the county, seeing behind the scenes and finding out about all the exciting things that are happening. Last week I was lucky enough to go to two museums and get a peek at things not normally seen by visitors.
First up was a visit to the Fox Talbot Museum https://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/lacock-abbey-fox-talbot-museum-and-village/features/learn-about-the-history-of-photography in Lacock, with the Wiltshire Museum Group. The Museum tells the story of the history of photography, from the very first photographic chemical processes to the modern smartphone. It also celebrates the life and work of William Henry Fox Talbot who lived in Lacock Abbey. A Victorian pioneer of photography, Fox Talbot created the earliest surviving photographic negative, taken in 1835, of a window of the Abbey. Upstairs there’s a gallery with a changing temporary exhibition programme, which explores photography as an art form.
Curator Roger Watson, told the group about a current project to acquire and manage the Fenton Collection. Thousands of photographs from the 19th and 20th centuries were collected by James Fenton, along with a wide range of photographic technologies – including cameras, exposure meters and stereoscopic viewers. He displayed them in his own Museum of Photography on the Isle of Man, before donating them to the Museum of the Moving Image in 1986. All the items had been in storage since the museum closed in 1999 and last year the British Film Institute had donated them to the National Trust’s Fox Talbot Museum.
Funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund www.hlf.org.uk and the Prism Fund www.artscouncil.org.uk/funding/prism the project has brought the collection to Lacock, where it is being catalogued and cared for, including being re-housed in a newly created store.
The new store is built inside one of the traditional buildings in Lacock – from the outside you wouldn’t be able to tell what’s kept within. A room has been built inside the barn to house the objects. This is insulated to help keep the environment stable and the conditions the best possible to ensure the preservation of all the treasures kept within.
The Lacock archive is as full of references to cats as there are currently cats living in and around the abbey. Although these are mostly photographs, there are also text references to cats. The earliest reference I’ve found is from the 19th century. Charles Henry Talbot, who owned Lacock from 1877, kept most of the letters written to him (although sadly didn’t make copies of the ones he sent) and from there we can find several interesting references to his home life and relationships with his family and friends – and animals! We know from correspondence that Charles had at least two cats in the last part of the 19th century, called Stripy and Bunny. It appears that he was very fond of them. Matilda Talbot, who inherited Lacock from her uncle Charles, was equally fond of them and many photographs of cats have appeared from amongst her papers.
In a letter to his uncle of 1893, William Gilchrist-Clark advises Charles regarding the mange that his pet is suffering from: “On my way from Brighton I heard of your cat’s illness. I said to Auntie Monie [Rosamond Talbot] that I thought it must be mange, and she asks me by letter this morning to write to you about it. I thought the cat was not in a healthy state when I saw it in Jan – the hair was too matted and it didn’t look right. The regular vet is laid up, but I am sure the best thing you could do would be to have the matted hair cut off as much as possible and the skin dressed with sulphur and hair oil – the cat would be in an unpleasant state for a bit and would hardly do for the house – but if it was kept in a stable for a bit it would soon feel right again – you could get the dressing from any local vet, and at the same time find out if it was the best thing to use – I always use it for dogs myself.” Personally, I think the first thing I’d do is visit the vet, and find out if it was suitable before I even considered buying the dressing. But it is interesting to see how people dealt with animals’ illnesses. Charles must have been very worried about his cat, and William likewise as he wrote to him so quickly. Let’s hope the strange concoction for the cat’s skin worked, and 1893’s “Grumpy Cat” (I would be if I was kept in a stable and dressed with sulphur) got over his mange and his health improved!
A letter from Rosamond Talbot to Charles of 1898 suggests that Charles has had to find a new home for one of his cats due to it possibly hunting his chickens, and she is helping: “We think that a good home has offered for poor old Bunny, in Somersetshire – people who want a grown up tame cat, so I must see about it when I get home. I cannot think that she has been interfering with the chickens again, now that they are grown so much older – besides she has been so constantly and carefully kept indoors during the middle of the day when the chickens are free, but still it is best to be on the safe side, if we can, for the future. Do you think the fox has put in an appearance again?” The phrase “poor old Bunny” is very apt here. It appears that the poor cat was rehomed as a scapegoat for the fox, although we cannot rule out the possibility of Bunny being a natural hunter and deciding that actually, grown-up chickens were also quite appealing. It is not known if Bunny was eventually rehomed. Maybe Charles decided to just be a bit more careful about where she was kept in relation to the chickens.
Ela, Countess of Salisbury was a very interesting woman and this blog will look at her life, particularly relating to Lacock Abbey, which she founded in 1232.
Ela was born in Amesbury in 1187 and inherited the title of Countess of Salisbury as well as many lands and estates in 1196 when her father died, and at that time she was only nine years old. After her husband William died, she assumed the post of Sheriff of Wiltshire as well, which he had held.
Her early life is a bit blurred: following her succession to her father’s title, it appears she was taken to Normandy and imprisoned there. This may have been her mother’s family, so it may therefore have not been a prison: it is possible that she and her mother both travelled to Normandy and remained there with their family. Whatever the action, though, this was a secret place: it was not intended that she should be found. It has been suggested that the reason for this was to save Ela from possible danger from her father’s brother Philip. Bowles and Nicholls, in the book Annals and antiquities of Lacock Abbey, say that this suggestion “would account for her daughter’s confinement by an anxious and affectionate mother, that she might be placed out of reach of those who perhaps might have meditated worse than confinement”. Anyway, she was taken from the legal wardship of the King and hidden in Normandy. An English knight called William Talbot decided to go and rescue her and went to France dressed as a pilgrim. He then changed his disguise to enter the Court after he discovered where she was kept, and eventually managed to take her back to England where he presented her to King Richard. It was Richard who then arranged for her marriage to William Longspee, who was Richard’s illegitimate half-brother and probably about 13 years older than Ela.
William and Ela were probably engaged when her father died and she became the King’s ward, but weren’t married until she came of age. William then became Earl of Salisbury, taking his father-in-law’s title, and also Sheriff of Wiltshire. Together, they laid foundation stones for Salisbury Cathedral, in which William was buried a few years later.
2015 is a year for historical anniversaries such as the anniversary of Gallipolli, the Battle of Waterloo and the 800th anniversary of the signing of Magna Carta. Through its assertion of justice and the rule of law over the power of the monarchy, Magna Carta (which is Latin for ‘Great Charter’) has become a powerful symbol of human rights, referenced by the Founding Fathers of the United States in the 19th century and by Nelson Mandela in his defence at his trial in 1964.
So what was the Magna Carta? “Magna Carta, issued in June 1215, was an attempt to prevent an immediate civil war. It was the result of negotiations between the king’s party and a group of rebellious barons, negotiations facilitated by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Stephen Langton. These took place on ‘neutral’ territory at Runnymede, near the royal castle at Windsor. By this agreement the king guaranteed many rights which he or his officials had disputed, and these included such things as the freedom of the Church, the rights of towns, and that justice could not be bought or sold. The proof of these royally granted or acknowledged rights was the great charter, copies of which were sent around the country. In an age before mass communication, documents bearing the king’s great seal were the evidence of royal policy.” (Source: http://www.salisburycathedral.org.uk/magna-carta/why-was-it-written)
It is of course important to remember that Magna Carta was a product of its time – many of its clauses were only applicable to free men or women, a minority in 1215. (About 2/3 of the population were villeins or bondsmen, who had to perform services laid down by custom for their local lord of the manor, such as working on the lord’s land free of charge.) It also contains two clauses relating to Jewish money-lending which appear anti-semitic to modern sensibilities, sadly reflecting English society of the time. However, despite this, the overall effect of the charter has been to promote human rights. The 39th clause (which gives all free men the right to justice and a fair trial) inspired the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, which in turn helped to create the UK Human Rights Act, 1998.
The Magna Carta is of particular interest to us in Wiltshire because we have several local connections to this famous document.