Just like many, many others, at the end of March we picked up laptops, chargers, diaries and the odd office chair and settled down to life and work in lockdown at home.
My work is centred on the Wiltshire and Swindon HER (Historic Environment Record), a database and fantastic resource that holds information on all the currently known archaeology and historic monuments for the county. This still functions extremally well for any enquiries we have had, from commercial searches undertaken during planning applications to the finding of interesting flints when someone is out walking on the Wiltshire downs.
I now start work in the morning at my kitchen table and am very lucky to have my garden to look at with the myriad of spring and summer life that goes with it, from baby long-tailed tits to a sparrowhawk sitting on the garden chair, an inquisitive crow and a less welcome rat.
A family lockdown walk developed fairly quickly and I’ve used the route frequently from March onwards, enjoying the seasonal changes and the variety of architecture and countryside in and around Corsham.
The following is a brief description of some of the associated sites from the lockdown walk which are also present on the HER. Each site is identified with its unique number.
My route takes me past the playing fields of The Corsham School. Second World War allotments are visible on this site from aerial photographs taken in 1946 and these were created as part of the Dig for Victory campaign that was introduced in September 1940. MWI74074 - Second World War Allotments, The Corsham School. On my left is Hatton Way, named after Sir Christopher Hatton, a favourite courtier of Elizabeth I. Sir Christopher, when expressing devotion for his queen, always signed his letters with a hat drawn over the word ‘on’. Hatton spent about four years at Corsham House (Corsham Court) until financial problems caused him to sell up. Down Hatton Way is MWI65896 - Site of Purleigh Barn, a demolished 19th century outfarm of regular courtyard plan. The farmstead and all historic buildings have been lost.
The Wiltshire and Swindon Farmsteads and Landscapes Project Report summarises the results of mapping the historic character and survival of more than 4000 farmsteads and 2700 outfarms and field barns, all mapped onto the HER. Knowledge and protection of these historic farmsteads is inevitable if they are to be retained as a distinctive part of the rural landscape: otherwise, they risk decay and dereliction.
The route now reaches Pickwick, once a separate settlement from Corsham with strong Quaker roots. The area contains some 44 listed buildings and is a designated Conservation Area in its own right. Although the A4 speeds through the middle, it is always a great pleasure to admire the Georgian architecture. To my left is Pickwick Manor, MWI34416 - Pickwick Manor or Pickwick Farm Grade II* listed, described by architectural historian Nikolaus Pevsner as an "unusually impressive example of a late 17th century manor house, having remnants of a 14th-century wing”. In the 1920’s the building was restored, altered and lived in by Sir Harold Brakspear, noted restoration architect and archaeologist, renowned for the restoration of St. George's Chapel, Windsor.
Crossing the road and passing some lovely 18th century houses, the walk reaches Academy Drive, named after the Bath Academy of Art, which was established in 1946 by Clifford Ellis after the destruction of the original premises. The then Lord Methuen, artist Paul Ayshford, allowed his home Corsham Court to become the centre of the Academy and Beechfield House, where the drive leads, was an annex to this and accommodation for male students. Aerial photographs taken in 1946 show several military buildings dispersed within the grounds of Beechfield House, presumably associated with the nearby military quarries, MWI74106 - Military Camp, Beechfield House. More aerial photographs taken in 2009 show the area to have been redeveloped and the wartime structures demolished - their locations are now partly occupied by the houses on Academy Drive and Woodlands.
Continuing along the main road our route passes a lovely roundhouse or toll house, MWI34400 - Roundhouse or Toll House, a Grade II listed building once locally known as the ‘Pepper Pot’, a sweet shop, kept by an elderly lady called Sally Watts. It is now a summerhouse.
Further on we can see the Church of St Patrick, which was originally built as the Pickwick District School in 1858. Later used as a glove factory and then a gas mask factory in WWII, the building has had many uses in its comparatively short life MWI34419 - Church of St Patrick and Pickwick School.
The footpath that takes the walker away from the road branches off to the right across a 24-acre field. On first glance, the field looks like any other large area of agricultural land but a quick look at our HER database gives a more detailed description. The entry states ‘These fields appear to have been created by converting an area of designed landscape associated with Guyer's House and Beechfield House into agricultural use. This former character is faintly legible through small plantations and scattered trees’ HWI4496 - Re-organised fields. The information for the field is part of the Wiltshire and Swindon Historic Landscape Characterisation Project. This complete dataset of c.14,500 records covers every part of the county, giving details about the present and past character and attributes of the landscape for each land parcel. This was done by studying historic and modern maps, aerial photographs and archaeological data to build a complete record for Wiltshire and Swindon.
NB - This data is free to use but is the copyright of Wiltshire Council and Historic England and not to be reproduced without permission and acknowledgement.
Back to the field! The scattered trees stand tall over a landscape that was once divided into smaller portions, as field boundaries and ridge and furrow, (ridges and troughs created by a system of ploughing, possibly medieval), were identified by a geophysical survey MWI74428 - Field Boundaries, North of Bath Road & MWI74430 - Ridge and Furrow. A small pit was also discovered during some archaeological fieldwork, which contained pottery possibly dating to the earlier Neolithic period MWI76326 - Neolithic Pit. The field also contains evidence of undated ponds but possibly the most exciting feature to wind its way through the land is underground. This is a former stone quarrying tunnel which probably ran from the Hartham Park Quarry and sometimes known as the Pickwick Quarry. Bath Stone, a warm, honey-coloured oolitic limestone, has been sought after since Roman times and Brunel's cutting of the Box Railway Tunnel, close to Corsham, revealed a rich seam of high-quality stone. The Corsham mines were extensively worked with miles of tunnels, chambers and air shafts and became the ideal underground storage location for the War Office during the Second World War and of further use during the Cold War – but that’s for another blog! MWI31707 - Stone Quarry Tunnel.
The path makes its green way through the field (hovering kestrels are a bonus) and crosses a lane which leads to Guyers House, MWI65891 - Guyer's House, originally a 17th century farmhouse and now a hotel and restaurant. It was the home for 14 years of Lancelot Charles Brown, the great grandson of Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown, the landscape architect who enhanced Corsham Court and laid out the gardens and parkland. Hopefully he had a chance to admire the work of his great grandfather!
After a short distance across a paddock, the next field is reached, one which became a golden sea of colour in May and June. I’ve never been a fan of rapeseed fields but to walk through the crop was quite a pleasure during the dark news of Covid-19.
In late July the field is brown with drying oil pods, but the eye is drawn away from this to the spitfire swifts, flying just overhead for their insect meals.
To the right of the path a square, concrete structure sits in the field – is this a ventilation shaft from the tunnels?
The path reaches a country lane which leads to Pickwick Lodge Farm, a beautiful 17th century farmstead of regular courtyard plan. Note the 19th century gabled stone porch.
MWI65890 - Pickwick Lodge Farm.
If you are very lucky, you will be escorted on your walk by the farm cats for quite some way…
A few weeks ago Max posted two blogs listing some of the fantastic online resources available to family and local historians during the lockdown. It looks like we’ll all be waiting a little while longer for archives to start reopening, so in the meantime I thought it would be useful to highlight some more valuable sites that can help us scratch the history itch during these strange times. We often get enquiries from customers looking to find out more about a relative who served in the armed forces and given the recent VE Day celebration this seemed like a timely topic.
Trooper George Sweetman, Royal Wiltshire Yeomanry (WSA 3560/10/22)
Before we dig into some of the websites that offer access to soldiers’ records, it’s worth bearing in mind a few things. First, the sources that follow largely deal with historic records from before 1922. It is possible to get some material after that date, but soldiers’ service records after 1922 are still with the Ministry of Defence. Access to these records can be provided, for a fee, as long as the service member is no longer living - please see https://www.gov.uk/government/collections/requests-for-personal-data-and-service-records for more details.
Secondly, as with many other types of historical records the further back in time we go the sparser and less revealing the records become, and this is particularly true for ‘other ranks’ (Privates, Lance Corporals, Corporals, Sergeants and Warrant Officers). Before the First World War ‘service records’ as we would recognise them today did not exist for enlisted men, though they are more complete for officers. As such, if you are looking for soldiers serving before World War One you will very likely need to piece together information from multiple different sources, and even then, it’s likely that many of the records have not survived. Personnel records were more comprehensive after 1914, however more than two-thirds of these were destroyed by an incendiary bomb in 1940 and so the surviving papers are very incomplete.
Royal Wiltshire Yeomanry collection WSA 3560/10/22
Finally, looking at military records can be quite confusing if you don’t know which unit your relative served with, where that unit was stationed at a given time, or whether they were an enlisted soldier or an officer. Just as we recommend when taking your first steps in family history, it’s worth asking relatives what they remember and checking family documents to gather as much information as you can. A little work before you start can save you a huge headache further down the line.
With that, let’s have a look at some of the sites providing access to military records. Sadly, not all sites offer free access, but those that charge offer a free trial and I have provided a link to these trials where possible.
Most military service records are held at The National Archives, mostly but not exclusively in the War Office files. Obviously we can’t access the originals right now, and the majority of the files aren’t digitised, but at the moment any that are available electronically are free to download for as long as TNA remains closed (you will need to register with the site first). Luckily for us a lot of the War Office’s records are also available through TNA’s Digital Microfilm Project. This link will take you to the project home page which has instructions on how to access the material; to see which records are available from the War Office, scroll down until you see reference numbers beginning ‘WO’. It’s also worth searching TNA’s catalogue Discovery as some of the records are searchable by the soldier’s name, for example WO25 (registers of service) and WO374 (officers’ service files, 1898-1922). TNA also have an excellent series of guides on how and where to find information on members of the armed forces and they’re well worth a read.
Findmypast has an excellent collection of British Army Service Records transcripts and digital images which are indexed and searchable. It is a subscription service, but they’re currently offering a free 14-day trial for new members. The transcripts give a wealth of information including service number, rank, regiment and unit, birth year and birth county. The images accompanying the transcripts can give you even more information, including the soldier’s physical description, occupation, name and address of next of kin, religion and their service history.
Ancestry is, like Findmypast, a subscription service, but they also offer a free trial. Ancestry’s collection of Military Records covers everything from First World War pension records through to the Roll of Honour for seamen 1914-1945 and is well worth searching.
Some of the material on Ancestry is provided via their affiliate fold3 which hosts military records. Once again it’s a subscription service but they also offer a free trial, albeit only for seven days. The material is primarily American, but there’s a vast amount of material relating to Britain and the Commonwealth. Most useful will be the British Army Lists which contain information on officers in the regular army between 1882 and 1962, British Army WW1 Service Records, Medal Roll index cards, and British WW1 Wounded and Missing, though there are many other excellent collections on the site, all of which seem to be indexed by soldier’s name.
Royal Wiltshire Yeomanry WSA 3560/10/22
If you know that the soldier you are searching for was killed during a conflict then the Commonwealth War Graves Commission website can also be helpful. You can use its search function to find fallen soldiers, which in turn can give you information such as the soldier’s rank, service number, service branch, date of death and place of burial. If there is an inscription on the grave marker, this can be shown as well.
Finally, the websites of regimental museums can also provide a wealth of information. For example, The Wardrobe (The Rifles Berkshire and Wiltshire Museum) has a comprehensive history of the regiments related to Wiltshire, and also offers excerpts from unit War Diaries (which give an indication of what a unit was doing on a given day). These can be invaluable for getting a flavour of the actions soldiers took part in during a conflict.
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.
Don’t forget to visit this wonderful touring exhibition inspired by the British Museum and telling the story of Wiltshire in 100 objects. Supported by the Arts Council England and managed by Wiltshire Museum, Devizes, the project showcases the varied nature of objects held throughout Wiltshire by its museums. These museums range from military collections, industrial sites, art galleries, heritage centres and small village museums as well as national collections.
The 100 objects are diverse and each gives an insight into the rich history of Wiltshire. They have been classified amongst ten major themes...
Wiltshire has a history of an association with the military and during the First World War the county was home to one of the few female run remount depots at Russley Park, near Swindon.
Remount depots were established by the army in order to provide fresh, healthy and well trained horses, donkeys and mules for army use in peace time and during times of conflict. In 1887 the remount section was established within the army replacing the earlier responsibility that each individual regiment had for providing its own animals. The South African War (1899-1902) had established a ‘best practice’ in order to get the most out of these animals and a horse registration scheme was introduced. This identified suitable animals for possible purchase and army use and depots to deal with them were established at Woolwich, Arborfield near Reading and Melton Mowbray, employing three inspectors to oversee the potential purchase and care of the animals.
In the event of war it was estimated that 110,000 animals would be needed and in 1912 and 1913 a horse census was undertaken, dividing the country into 24 sections each with a Remount Officer responsible for the identification of potential horses. This groundwork proved invaluable and when the First World War began 140,000 horses were purchased efficiently and quickly.
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.