Looking into the history of where you live is a fascinating and exciting process. Here’s my quick fire guide to help you make the most of resources on offer in the county.
1. Don’t Re-Invent the wheel!
Make use of secondary sources produced by others who have already done the leg work. Many such sources can be found at the Wiltshire & Swindon History Centre and even in your nearest public library. Don’t forget that many books can be obtained on loan from the Wiltshire & Swindon History Centre – just look them up on the library catalogue and pop in to your local library to make your order.
2. Local Knowledge is Invaluable
Contact your local history group. They are friendly and approachable, and have great experience and knowledge about many matters of local history. A list of all the county’s groups can be found here. Visit your local museum and find out more about the information available at your disposal. Become familiar with the resources on offer at the Wiltshire & Swindon History Centre in Chippenham by making a visit or enquiring remotely where you can receive 5-10 minutes of research or advice by staff members free of charge. The Wiltshire Buildings Record holds details on many of the county's buildings and it is definitely worth contacting the team.
3. Pick up Clues
The origins of an area can often be suggested by field names relating to the type of land use and/or previous land owners. Documents such as manorial maps and tithe awards are invaluable guides. Find out if the Wiltshire & Swindon History Centre holds examples for your place of interest.
4. Dig out the Trusty OS map
A modern map can still be useful when looking back in time. Look at the settlement development by comparing it with a range of older maps at the Wiltshire & Swindon History Centre; use it to study the contours to see how the land lies, and more…
5. Make the Most of your Walking Boots
There’s nothing like taking a stroll around the places that are familiar to you, but take a closer look. Look at the architecture and the way the built environment has developed, and consider:
• How did the settlement expand/contract or move? The origins were usually focused on the church or manor. Consider the date and distribution of the surviving buildings which may give a clue to the changes in fortune of the area over time
• Water sources – necessary for long-term occupation of a site
• Road changes – have these changed and if so, why? Could it be a change in land ownership, was the land used differently, did occupations or local trading change, did toll roads affect the area?
• Topography – what is the soil type for agriculture? is there a source of building materials? a source of fuel? what is the lie of the land?
6. A Little Arm Chair Research
Additional resources can be found online, such as British History Online which holds digital copies of the Wiltshire Victoria County History Volumes. Wiltshire Community History is an online resource for information about individual communities including schools, churches and a potted history of many of the county’s parishes. Wiltshire’s Historic Environment Record holds information about archaeological sites and finds, parks and gardens, listed buildings and more. Make the most of this fantastic resource. The Historic Photograph and Print Collection at the Wiltshire & Swindon History Centre is available online alongside the collections of a number of Wiltshire’s museums. Images can show how a site has altered over time and are a useful resource. The census and wills are also a useful aid for tracking occupations. There is an index to Wiltshire wills on the Wiltshire & Swindon History Centre website, and you can access Ancestry for free at WSHC and your local library. Find My Past is available at Swindon Central Library.
And one last piece of advice…
Always have in mind the question; Why here? What makes this place special?
And enjoy the experience – I guarantee you won’t be disappointed!
WLHF Webmaster and Community History Advisor at the Wiltshire & Swindon History Centre