The Covid pandemic has affected us all. Last year the Wiltshire & Swindon History Centre put out a call to arms, asking for contributions to a new collection that we are building; ‘Living in Lockdown: A Creative Response to Challenging Times’. We had an amazing response! A big thank you to everyone who has contacted us with material to include. It’s been exciting to look at the scope and variety of Wiltshire’s responses to the issues we face and continue to grapple with.
I’d like to share with you some of the material we have received to give an idea of not just the variety, but also to show how a collection is created, collated and preserved for the future here at the History Centre. We see our collections as the county’s treasures. The precious knowledge contained within them about you, our county’s residents and communities, and how we have faced the Covid challenge can now be discovered and studied by future generations thanks to your generosity and the facilities here at the Wiltshire & Swindon History Centre.
We began our collecting process by sending out details of the project Living in Lockdown via our website and social media channels, utilising the help of some of the other teams we work with, such as the communications team at Wiltshire Council. As soon as the material started to wing its way to us, we began entering it on a spreadsheet; basically an ‘accessions’ record to help us register all the material, document where it came from and where it is being stored at the History Centre. We soon built up hundreds of entries, with donations from History Centre staff and other teams within Wiltshire Council such as Wiltshire Libraries, plus local residents, groups, organisations and creative practitioners living and working in the county.
Many types of formats have been received (paper copies, digital images and documents, CDs) and types of material, from cards, booklets, local newsletters, official letters, drawings, newspaper articles, writing and poems - the list goes on…
The creativity that has come out of these dark times has been wonderful to see. From artworks to music, poetry, writing and photography – it shows how intrinsically intertwined creativity is within us as a positive response to challenge and change, and how valuable and essential culture is to us as human beings and communities. We feel honoured to play our part in this cultural experience.
The type of material will determine where it will sit within the collection. The History Centre is home to an archive and a local studies library. They have distinctive specialisms, for example on a basic level, the library deals with published material and the archive unpublished, but there are also some crossovers, for instance photographs could sit within the Local Studies Historic Photograph and Print collection but also within the archive collection too. We also have a new digital repository for born digital works. This is great for us, as it means the History Centre is well placed to welcome all sorts of material. The only items we can’t take are 3D items which are better placed in one of Wiltshire’s fantastic museums!
The next stage in the collection’s journey will be for myself as the County Local Studies Librarian and one of my Archivist colleagues to assess the collection and formally decide where everything should be placed (this is called ‘appraisal’). This usually involves a lot of excitement and quite a bit of time, as I know I always find so much of interest, but I must take a proper look at it all – we have to spend time getting it right, don’t we!
The documents and creative items will go into the archives, with the books and pamphlets that have been published finding their home in the local studies library. We have yet to make a decision on the digital material, but it is safe to say it will be stored in the most appropriate location. Anything left over after this process will make a valuable addition to the Ephemera collection in Local Studies. We usually define it as a miscellaneous collection of materials that you might often throw out, but believe me, in the future, these items will be a fantastic source of information…
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’