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…
Working from home in 2020 might involve a networked computer and video conferencing but if you are working from your kitchen table, you have more in common with a 19th century home worker than you might expect.
Picture anywhere between half a dozen to a dozen children gathered on a flagged or earth kitchen floor in the kitchen of a roadside cottage, receiving rudimentary lessons perhaps in reading or sewing from an elderly woman, and you have what was a fairly typical example of a 19th century dame school.
There was no national system of education before the 19th century, and the opportunities for a formal education were restricted mainly to town grammar schools, charity schools and dame schools. In the 19th century two societies were responsible for much elementary education; The British and Foreign Schools Society (named such in 1814) was founded by two Quakers in 1808, and the National Society for the Education of the Poor in the Principles of the Established Church throughout England and Wales for Anglicans was formed in 1811 from the Society for the Promotion of Christian Knowledge. The schools built by these societies are commonly referred to as British Schools and National Schools but for areas without access to these schools, a dame school would have been one of the few options. It was not until 1870 the Education Act paved the way for state run schools by providing for the election of school boards, with the power to build and manage schools where provision by the two voluntary societies was inadequate. And in 1902 the responsibility for providing elementary, secondary and technical education passed to 330 Local Education Authorities (LEAs). You can find out more about education in Wiltshire through the centuries and the kinds of records that you can find in another of our blogs “Schools Out for Summer!”
There are few records for dame schools, although 19th century parliamentary report provide some information. Nevertheless, we know they were a feature of education for several centuries: in the mid-17th century Charles Hoole wrote in A New Discovery of the Old Art of Teaching Schoole that education was too important to be be ‘left as a work for poor women, or others, whose necessities compel them to undertake it, as a mere shelter from beggary’.
A valuable picture of education in the mid-19th century is also given by the return prepared by the Revd. W. Warburton, H.M.I., to a House of Commons order in 1859. The resulting Account of Schools for Children of the Labouring Classes in Wilts (available at the History Centre under shelfmark AAA.372) gives details of attendance, staffing, buildings, equipment, and curriculum every school open to inspection, usually with comments on teachers, pupils, and management. There were 140 day schools liable to inspection and 428 others (including dame schools). The number of dame schools is not precise but Warburton estimates the number of children attending dame schools as about 1,900 (approximately 6% of the total number of scholars in Wiltshire at the time). It is likely there were between 100-200 dame schools in Wiltshire in the mid-19th century.
The second half of the century saw an overall decline in dame schools following the introduction of government grants for the building and improvement of schools. For example, prior to 1858 a dame school with 20 to 30 children existed in Collingbourne Ducis but this closed following the construction of the new parochial school in 1859. However, some dame schools survived and even continued to be established: Warburton remarked that ‘They are not uncommonly set up, especially by the dissenting bodies, as a tentative step, in order to discover whether a more regularly constituted school would be likely to draw in a given place’. As well as to test local demand for education, they were set up due to the need of the mistress to earn an income: Warburton notes ‘It is difficult to exaggerate the shifting, changeable character of private dames’ schools, owing their origin as they do, in many cases, not to the educational necessities of the district, but to the domestic necessities of the teacher.’
The following examples of communities where dame schools existed can be found on our Community History pages (which are well worth checking out!)
The study of palaeography is something which is one of the most enjoyable aspects of an archivist’s training, but it is not something which is the exclusive preserve of the professional. Anyone can learn to read old handwriting – all it takes is patience, determination, and lots of practice!
Handwriting styles Over the centuries there have been several major styles of handwriting and handwriting from the medieval period to the 18th century will (generally speaking) fall into one of those styles, going from Anglicana (medieval period) to bastard Secretary (15th century) to Secretary (16th-17th cent) and italic (overlapping with Secretary) to mixed hands (late 17th cent – 19th cent). From 19th century onwards we’ve seen the rise of personal handwriting which doesn’t conform to a set, taught style, and ironically 20th and 21st century writing can be more difficult to read than Tudor, depending on the writer! In addition there are specialist hands used only in certain central law courts. A comprehensive survey of both handwriting styles and the tools used for writing from medieval times to the 18th century can be found at: http://scriptorium.english.cam.ac.uk/handwriting/history/