Working at the History Centre a little bit like being a Timelord… with access to the archives you can be transported through time and space.
The strong-rooms are our very own Tardis (Time and Relative Dimension in Space) since despite their relatively small footprint they contain around eight miles of archives.
Over the last two months I have been joined in my “travels” by GCSE and A-level students who have been on work experience at the History Centre.
The first port of call for the youngsters as they ventured into the strong-rooms was 12th century Messina in Sicily. One of the earliest documents in the Wiltshire and Swindon Archive is a letter (with Great Seal attached) from Richard I – Richard the Lionheart – confirming a gift of land to Stanley Abbey (WSA 473/34PC).
It is dated 3rd April 1191 and was sent by Richard from Sicily just days before he set sail with a fleet of ships to the Holy Land. (He had set out in 1190 to join the Third Crusade.) The letter came at a busy time for Richard who was not only on crusade but was about to be married to Berengaria of Navarre who had made her own epic journey across Europe with Richard’s mother Eleanor of Aquitaine to be with her future husband.
The students’ introduction to the archives continued with a jump to the Tudor period via a grant of arms, followed by a brief stop in restoration England and a splendid portrait of Charles II on an illuminated document.
With each new group of students I set myself and the students the challenge of searching our collections for documents relevant to their particular GCSE and A-level courses. The two world wars, the Cold War, and the Tudors are well travelled historical paths but what of 19th century China and Japan or American history?
At A-level, students at the end of Year 12 are making decisions about coursework so a placement at the History Centre was an ideal opportunity to begin their research. We had students who were looking at the American civil rights movement, antisemitism in England during the 19th and 20th centuries, the opium wars in 19th century China and western influence on 19th century Japan and the demise of the Samurai tradition.
In our pursuit of the American civil rights movement we took a detour into the history of the fledgling United States of America. The archive has a number of collections that, through letters and other documents, connect Wiltshire with the English colonies in the Americas, the war of independence and the American civil war and trade with the USA.
We were all rather excited to be handling two particular documents signed by James Madison and John Quincy Adams who served as the 4th and 6th presidents of the USA. Both documents (WSA 1498/4) were passports for Thomas Shorthouse who became an American citizen in 1797. The Shorthouse family lived at Little Clarendon, Dinton and the passports, letters from Philadelphia and citizenship document for Thomas Shorthouse are part of the family papers (WSA 1498/1-6).
The citizenship document was drawn up in the Court of Common Pleas of Philadelphia County and instructs Thomas to “absolutely and entirely renounce and abjure all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign prince, potentate, state or sovereignty whatever and particularly the allegiance to the King of Great Britain to whom he was heretofore a subject.”
The passports show that Thomas maintained his connections with his family in Britain. The first was signed by James Madison, as Secretary of State, in Washington on 27th September, 1805. Madison, one of the founding fathers of the USA, became President in 1809 and later became known as the ‘father of the constitution’.
In 1815, Thomas Shorthouse received a second passport, this time signed by John Quincy Adams who was then the United States Envoy in London. Adams went on to be the 6th President in 1825.
We could have spent all our time in North America reading letters and documents about rebellion in the colonies, American Independence, the civil war and abolition of slavery, but other countries beckoned.
Our search for documents relating to the Opium Wars yielded instant and fascinating results in the Public and State papers of Sidney Herbert (1810-1861), Baron Herbert of Lea, who from 1841 to 1860 was successively Secretary to the Admiralty, Secretary of War and then Secretary of State for War.
His papers are part of Wilton House and Estate archive and are a fascinating insight into 19th century British political and military history. The journey into this immense collection was brief but rewarding as we discovered a wonderful document that summarised the issues surrounding the opium trade (“Neglect of Government to take steps as to opium trade”, WSA 2057/F8/I/G/1), and several letters and despatches describing the taking of the Peiho Forts – a joint British and French military action in China in the 1860s (WSA 20157/F8/V/B/192ee).
From China in the 19th century we ventured into the 20th century and a world at war.
Among the numerous national anniversaries we are commemorating in 2015 (which includes those for World War 1, World War 2 and, of course, Magna Carta) is one that perhaps will get less attention, which is the 50th anniversary of the death of Winston Churchill who died on the 24th January 1965. The Wiltshire and Swindon History Centre has received a few enquiries on possible Churchill connections with Wiltshire and so I thought I would dig a little deeper by doing what all good Archives & Local Studies Managers do … ask my colleagues if they knew of any! So here is what they have come up with so far.
Clearly as a man with connections Churchill no doubt visited numerous notable friends and families in the county that we do not yet know of, perhaps including those whose archives we hold. However, the earliest reference appears to be in 1914 with a more unexpected connection. Churchill was a keen early aviator and despite his family’s fears of the danger of airplanes at that time, he was one of small group of people to learn to fly these machines and certainly the first politician. There is an image held by the Science Museum of Winston Churchill preparing to fly at Upavon, home to the Army Flying Corps. You can find out more about his love of flying and view the image at:
During and following the First World War Churchill was a prominent politician. He had become an MP in 1900 and having first attached himself to the Conservative Party he crossed the floor of Parliament to join the Liberal Party in 1904. He served at various times as Under-Secretary of State for the Colonies, President of the Board of Trade and First Lord of the Admiralty. In 1915 he resigned from government to serve on the Western Front, but returned to government in 1917 as Minister of Munitions, then Secretary of State for War in 1919 and Secretary of State for the Colonies in 1921 in the coalition government.
We have several letters within our archives at the History Centre to and from Churchill that can be found in the political papers of Viscount Long of Wraxall, who was an MP and, like Churchill, held several prominent positions during a long political career.
Our Heritage Lottery Funded project to uncover and share stories of the First World War Home Front in Wiltshire is approaching two exciting milestones early in 2015.
At the end of January our website will be going live. This will be a home for all the stories that have been gathered so far – in sounds, words and pictures. If your family or community have your own stories that you would like to include you will be able to do this straight through the website. Over time we hope this will become a significant record of the impact of the war across the county.
At the end of February the first exhibition based on the stories will be on display at the Springfield Community Campus in Corsham. This exhibition will focus on the role Wiltshire played in providing a home and training ground for the military and how this affected the lives of ordinary people. Look out for full details of the exhibition over the next few weeks. After Corsham the exhibition will be setting off on a tour of community venues whilst we start work on preparing further displays looking at different ways the First World War affected Wiltshire.
I don’t know about you, but when I think of the First World War the first thing which comes into my mind is barbed wire and mud – and all the associated horrors of trench warfare. This is probably the result of reading the War Poets at school, and watching the film ‘All Quiet on the Western Front’ at an impressionable age! As I have got older I’ve read more widely about the War and learned how it impacted on civilian life, as well as on the front line troops. I have been amazed by the scope of that impact, and by the way in which aspects of life on the Home Front (which I had previously assumed were introduced in the Second World War) such as rationing and evacuation, actually had their roots in the First World War. One blog cannot do justice to this topic so I’m just going to touch on a few aspects of the War’s impact on Wiltshire. We hope to uncover more stories of life on the Home Front through the Wiltshire at War: Community Stories project in collaboration with Wiltshire’s museums http://www.wshc.org.uk/blog/item/wiltshire-at-war-community-stories.html
In common with other parts of the country museums and heritage organisations across Wiltshire are busy commemorating and exploring the legacy of the First World War. I thought I would use this post to update you on some of what is currently going on at museums.
A visual arts project of three parts: installation, drawing and film. The audience is presented with another perspective of the WWI Legacy with Salisbury Plain providing the cornerstone for the collaboration exploring the notion that memory provides the fourth dimension to any landscape, Cicatrix offers a challenging alternative viewpoint to mark the centenary of The Great War.
A five year long project dedicated to the lives of the ancestors of Calne residents, past and present, who lived through WWI. People are being asked to produce posters that detail how their ancestors were affected by the war, which will be displayed and then become part of the Heritage Centre archive.
As mentioned previously (http://www.wshc.org.uk/blog/item/wiltshire-at-war-community-stories.html?category_id=19) this county wide project is now picking up pace. Emma our Project Officer is busy working with groups across the county to gather up stories of the home front in Wiltshire, Please visit http://wiltshireatwar.org.uk/ for more information or if you have a story to share. For those of you with links to Market Lavington please come along to Market Lavington Museum on Weds 3rd September from 2.30-4.30 when there will be an opportunity to share and record your family stories of the war.
Artwork created by children from two local schools, Avon Valley College, Durrington and Bishop Wordsworth’s School in Salisbury, as part of ‘National Memory, Local Stories’, working with the National Portrait Gallery.
Salisbury Museum - Fighting on the Home Front (Oct 4 2014-Jan 17 2015)
Salisbury Plain was at the heart of preparing British and Empire troops for war with its many camps, training trenches and airfields and has a unique place in this country’s military history. Using letters, photographs, medals and other personal mementos loaned by the public, as well as loans from Wiltshire & Swindon History Centre and objects from the Museum’s own collections, the exhibition will tell the story of Wiltshire’s war through Wiltshire people’s experiences.
The Blitz, rationing, evacuees, home guard, women’s land army are all such familiar parts of the story of the Second World War. The home front is well documented, the setting for popular television programmes, taught in primary schools and part of our collective narrative for the Second World War, but most people know very little about the home front during the First World War. Prompted by this year’s centenary and the production of a resource pack for schools, volunteers and staff have been looking into the archives for documents about the Great War. At the request of teachers, we looked into the role of children in the war researching the school log books to find out how the war affected their lives.