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!
The care and provision for people with mental health issues is a current high-profile concern, but how have people been cared for historically in Wiltshire? The availability on Ancestry of the Lunacy Patients Admission registers from 1846-1912 (held at the National Archives MH 94) – an index giving the name of each patient, date of admission, discharge or death and name of institution - the census returns from 1841-1911 and death certificates –have led to numerous enquiries about ancestors in Wiltshire institutions. The County Asylum at Devizes ( Roundway ) opened in 1851 and we have extensive detailed patient case records; similarly for Fisherton House , later known as the Old Manor Hospital, Salisbury. Visitors can use these records to find out more about their ancestors’ treatment (although they are subject to a 100 year closure period), but what of mental health care before this time?
The term ‘lunatic’ is a pre-20th century word used to describe someone who was mentally ill or emotionally disturbed; it was a very broad term. Many so described were perhaps eccentric, very intelligent, physically or mentally handicapped in some way, senile ,or suffering from conditions that today would be treated with drugs and in the home such as epilepsy or post natal depression – few were ‘mad ‘ but their behaviour was such that they could not be cared for at home.
The earliest asylum, Bethlem or ‘Bedlam’ Hospital in London was established in the 13th cent but generally provision was not widespread until the 18th cent. Private asylums or madhouses were set up to cater for those who could afford to pay. Pauper lunatics were dealt with locally by their families or ended up in workhouses or prisons; however, if the parish agreed to pay the fees they could be treated in the private asylums. The first Act to regulate madhouses was in 1774 by which the institutions were licensed by the local magistrates; a further Act of 1828 appointed committees of visitors to inspect and report on the premises and the medical care provided. In Wiltshire 7 private asylums were licensed:- Laverstock House, Laverstock ; Fiddington House, Market Lavington ; Fisherton House, Fisherton Anger ; Kingsdown House , Box ; Belle Vue , Devizes ; Fonthill Gifford and Calne.
The records that survive consist of admission registers, minutes of the visitors, annual reports and plans. The admission registers record the name, date of admission, parish, marital status, occupation, by whom sent, whether pauper or private and date of discharge or death. No treatment records survive. They do show how Wiltshire’s institutions attracted patients from a wide area of the south-west and London- whether this was because of the ‘facilties’ offered and reputation or simply because families did not want their ‘lunatic’ relatives close to home.
An advertising prospectus survives for Laverstock House from the 1830’s which extols its virtues. ‘The situation of Laverstock House is peculiarly eligible. Surrounded by large Gardens and Pleasure Grounds in the midst of a fine and extended Country, it is at once retired and cheerful, and affords the most ample means for indulgence in those exercises which are so essential to the happiness and health of the Patients’… Male and female patients had separate apartments, subdivided by disease, habits and ‘station in life’ with superior accommodation for ‘Persons in the higher walks of Society’…’ Every possible kind of amusement was provided for them; billiards, backgammon, cards, books etc indoors; bowls, cricket, greyhounds, riding on horseback and in a carriage, out of doors; a Chapel on Sundays’
I thought it may be of interest to take a look on your behalf at the kinds of original documents visitors order out when they visit our search rooms, to give you an idea of the wide range of requests we receive for documents each day. I chose Tuesday 22nd October at random, and got peeking!
Many visitors pre-order material so that it is waiting for them when they arrive (a good idea if you have a lot to look through).
One such researcher was looking at some Great Western Railway plans for the stables next to Paddington Station.
They included a tenancy agreement for stalling dated 1905 (Ref: 2515/210 Box 128) and the elevation to London Street by the Engineers Works office in 1912 (2515/403/375).
Ordered out on the day was material from the Earl of Pembroke collection (Ref: 2057) including the account of H.M. Holdsworth with the Right Honorable George Robert Charles Earl of Pembroke for the estate of Wilts for one year as to rents to Michelmas 1880 (Ref: 2057/A1/99). Estate surveys (Ref: 2057/563) and a wages book (Ref: 2057/A5/32) were also of interest, and wages books may also give the name of an ancestor who worked on the estate.