Last year I completed a dissertation that looked at how archives and archival activity could help tackle the widespread issue of elderly loneliness. As an archive professional I wanted to see what was being done within the profession that could aid the mental and physical well-being of those experiencing loneliness, but also to ask what else could be done. My research showed archival institutions are well placed to contribute to tackling loneliness, indeed they are already actively doing so. This blog hopes to highlight the positive effect of using archives during lockdown (and beyond!), and update readers on our work behind the scenes.
Anyone who frequents an archive may note its popularity with those of retirement age; retirees may have more time to undertake research and so may visit an archive more often. However, it should be emphasised that archives are friendly, welcoming places for anyone with an interest in history or any form of local history research to conduct: be it students researching for their degrees, house historians searching historic building applications, or family history enthusiasts. Anyone and everyone is welcome: provision of access to historic documents is at the forefront of our work, and we would encourage anyone to visit Wiltshire and Swindon History Centre, regardless of age and, furthermore, that feelings of isolation and loneliness are universal and not confined to any one demographic!
So, in these unprecedented times, where isolation and loneliness for all age groups is more prevalent than ever before, Wiltshire and Swindon History Centre is looking at new ways of serving all of our community. While we’re unable to carry out any physical outreach work during lockdown, promoting and ensuring continued access for as broad an audience as possible is still a fundamental and highly enjoyable part of the work of the archive team at WSHC, except now we must find new ways to reach out to anyone unaware of what we can offer!
In terms of our ability to interact with the community, our intrinsic knowledge of the local area ensures that we are well placed to do this. Archivists can relate to tales of old and offer suggestions on how to find out more on such subjects, but we can also bring to light fascinating new stories, that were hitherto forgotten or hiding in the strongrooms. In Wiltshire, our County Local Studies Librarian, Julie Davis, does exactly this with her ‘Memory Box’ reading groups – follow this link to see some of her recent isolation sessions from her living room. Julie’s work shows how heritage professionals are adapting to fulfil their duties during this period. Not yet available on the website, but done in preparation for the VE Day celebrations is her extract readings on the event. This is available here.
The entire nation would normally be planning events to commemorate the 75th anniversary of VE day. However, new and innovative ways are being sought to celebrate and mark the occasion during lockdown. The talk we had planned at WSHC has been made available online, again by Julie Davis, and is available here (you may need to sign in to Google for this).
Of course it is a great shame not being able to celebrate with our family, friends and neighbours, but Wiltshire Council has put together a VE Day Toolkit, that will hopefully provide inspiration on how best to celebrate this momentous occasion at home or in the garden.
Even if we cannot be in the immediate vicinity of our friends, family or community, we can continue to be connected, and being connected can contribute to people’s well-being. Did you know that there is evidence to show that tracing your family tree can have a positive effect on your mental health? Indeed, any form of research that engages the mind will be positive during these times, so why not take a look at some of the fantastic online resources that are available and start a new research project or learn about the local area? You can find out more about these resources here in our recent blogs.
Connectedness does not need to be confined to the present. Relating to the past, be it family members researched as part of a genealogy project, or even past occupiers of your house, can help ease feelings of isolation. Documents usually consulted in the searchroom, are increasingly available as online resources, for example: Wiltshire parish registers and wills are now temporarily available for free on Ancestry. Follow this link to see what’s available and for guidance on how to proceed. So, if you’re at home struggling for things to do, why not start your family history? We have starter packs available here too!
There are multiple agencies working locally and nationally to assist us in these difficult times. If you, or anyone you know, is struggling in isolation in Wiltshire, check out the Wiltshire Wellbeing Hub. Charities are naturally at the forefront of the effort to keep loneliness and isolation at bay. At a local level, Celebrating Age is a fantastic project aimed at tackling the issue of loneliness by delivering arts and heritage events in community settings for frail, vulnerable older people unable to access concert halls or theatres. Their current programme of events has understandably been called off, however they are looking at ways of delivering digital programme. Follow this link for 90 minutes of live music and storytelling from the comfort of your living room! Also, keep an eye on their website when lockdown is over because they are doing great things across the county.
At a national level, the Campaign to End Loneliness website has a really useful section specifically for Corona virus related issues and anxieties, as does the Age UK site.
I’d just like to sign off by wishing all of our readers well. Do share, re-tweet or pass on this message with family, neighbours, colleagues or anyone you know who may be struggling with loneliness during lockdown and whose well-being may benefit from some of the suggestions here.
Follow us on Twitter, friend us on Facebook and keep a close eye on our website for more information, as well as updates on re-opening. Happy researching!
Walk into the search room at the History Centre and you will notice a couple of objects not normally associated with archives – a bodice made out of maps and a bathtub.
A closer inspection reveals they are two of 17 pieces of artwork produced by students from Wiltshire College’s Chippenham campus who explored the archive and various aspects of the county’s heritage.
The exhibition of 2D and 3D work – on display in the foyer as well as the search room – is already prompting questions from visitors and is encouraging people to engage creatively with our collections.
The project came about when art and design course tutor Alyson Minkley popped into the History Centre to see whether her students could use the archive as a stimulus to creating artwork. She wanted the class to explore the concept of archiving and create pieces that reflected aspects of Wiltshire’s heritage.
We were delighted to be involved in the project as it was another way of encouraging young people to engage creatively with archives. People often think that being the heritage education officer means that my work begins and ends with helping deliver the history curriculum in schools. But archives offer so much more.
For this project I delivered a facilitated session at Wiltshire College where the students were introduced to the concept of collecting and archiving with the help of a handling collection. This was followed by a tour of the History Centre and an opportunity to see behind the scenes as well as explore the practicalities of accessing the archives.
The afternoon generated a huge range of questions and it was clear the students went away inspired. We were delighted to see many of them return to the History Centre in their own time to request documents and carry out detailed research. The result of those visits is the thought-provoking artwork on display in the foyer and search room.
The individual pieces of work explore a wide range of topics including family history, Wiltshire’s asylums and how patients with mental health problems were “treated” in the 19th century, the county’s role as a training ground for the army and its iconic chalk figures – all of which are represented in our archives and local studies collections.
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 don’t think that I’m alone with my interest in historical crime and punishment. I was interested in seeing if I could piece together a criminal history of someone picked completely at random. With this in mind, I looked through one our archives from the Wiltshire Constabulary, a ‘Divisional Criminal Photographic Album, with particulars of crime and personal details. 1900-1916’. the date range I chose ensured that I didn’t breach the 100 year closed file rule; this allows anonymity which in this case is quite a sensitive subject.
I decided to choose a female prisoner, Mary Jane Oland, born on the 1st May 1870 in Kempsford, Gloucestershire- just over the county border. Mary was the daughter of a shepherd and his wife, Thomas and Harriet Oland. It appears that she was of average education; as well as can be expected for a labourers’ child, she would have definitely attended the local village school.
It is unclear why, Mary, turned to the life of crime, but it appears to have stemmed from a mental health issue. A taboo subject, especially during this period. Marys’ first conviction was on the 28th June 1883 at the age of 14, shockingly, she was bound over by Swindon Magistrates for an attempted suicide. To investigate this devastating start to Mary’s downward spiral, I looked at the Swindon Advertiser- newspaper reports often give a lot more detail than a criminal register or calendar of prisoners. On Saturday 30th June 1883, it was reported that Mary had cut her own throat in an attempt to avoid returning to service near Bath. She had stated that she had been cruelly treated by her employer Mr C Williams, a farmer. Prior to the incident, Mary had appeared to have gone AWOL with another young employee, a boy, whom she had taken to Bristol and Box over a period of about four days. Was this just an attempt to run away? There was no criminal intent by poor Mary; it was so obvious that she was unhappy.
The following year, Mary was accused of stealing items of clothing in both Swindon and Marlborough, these offences were swiftly followed by two offences of burglary.
By the age of 16, Mary was breaking into dwelling houses and stealing jewellery. Her previous convictions of theft had seen her do hard labour, in those days this would have meant supervised physical work outside the prison walls. This new conviction gave her a custodial sentence with which hard labour was included. Mary was incarcerated in Devizes Bridewell Prison, where there was a large, multi-person treadmill installed. This treadmill was driven by the prisoners for long sessions and the wardens could tighten the screws to make the treadmill harder to turn. Hence prison wardens being dubbed ‘screws’.