May 032017

Here in Britain we are in the run up to an election and I hasten to add that the title of this post is not meant to have any political connotations. As spring has finally sprung in the south-west of England, I thought I would take a quick look at a few May traditions that take place in communities not too far from me. Sadly, my own places have nothing so special as some of these.

The first thing that comes to mind when you think of the English May-day is Maypole Dancing, a ritual that some believe derived from pagan fertility rites. The practice was frowned upon by those of a Puritanical persuasion and was banned by Cromwell in 1654, only to be restored along with Charles II.

There are other customs that celebrate driving away the darkness of winter and the coming of spring. The 1st of May marks the Celtic festival of Beltane and many May celebrations are associated with fertility. Padstow in Cornwall stages its iconic 'Obby 'Oss Day, when the red and blue 'osses vie for supremacy as their supporters process through the streets to the accompaniment of drums and more accordions than you are likely to see in one place anywhere else.

Also in Cornwall at this time of year is the Helston Flora Day when the Furry Dance is performed through the town as part of the Hal an Tow pageant.

Abbotsbury in Dorset hold Garland Day. Traditionally this was when the fishing fleet was decorated with flowers to bring it luck in the fishing season. The demise of the fleet means that the garlands are now processed through the streets instead.

Kingsteignton in Devon stage a Ram Roast, a Medieval tradition, commemorating the end to an historical drought. The story goes that a ram was sacrificed and the drought ended.

Devon is also the location for the Pilton Green Man festival. This is a more recent combination of the ancient fair for which Pilton was granted a charter in the fourteenth century and Green Man celebrations that are part of a wider May-time folklore tradition.

There are many similar commemorations throughout the country, in May and at other times of year. These occasions really were high days and holy-days for the inhabitants of our places and the traditions are well worth investigating as part of the recreation of the past of our communities.

May 012017

We have pleasure in advertising a conference that may be of interest to our members.

You are invited to attend the 2017 Family and Community History Research Society conference on May 6th at the University of Leicester. It is not too late but time is running out so if you are interested do sign up now!

The Conference and AGM takes place on 6th May 2017 and will be held as usual at the University of Leicester. This year the focus is on Communities: in particular the role and influence of land agents in the morning and Dissenters in the afternoon . The programme is available on their website.

Apr 302017

Welcome to the world of one-place studies! Twenty-six of our members are sharing something in their particular place for this year's A-Z Blogging Challenge. Our final entry is from Karen Bailey with a demonstration of how things have changed in Droitwich Spa. A big thank you to all of this year's participants for sharing your stories.

In My Place, Droitwich Spa in Worcestershire, England, there is currently ZERO spa facilities, despite its name. I know that it sounds like quite a negative place to end the A to Z task, but there’s light at the end of the tunnel!

There has been a long historical association with salt in Droitwich - since (at least) the Iron Age, people have been getting salt from the brine which flows below the town. The Romans, Anglo-Saxons, Normans, and everyone up to the 19th century regarded Droitwich highly for its valuable salt, but by the early 1800s when cheaper and easier sources of salt had been discovered, Droitwich had dropped into decline.

Salt Works

The view of Droitwich in the 1820s seen from Dodderhill Church (which has overlooked the town since the 1200s) would have been dismal: smoke and debris from the various salt works creating a grey smog and turning buildings black and dirty; chimneys, workshops, and slum workers housing, all contributing to an image of “grey industrial squalor”. With the decline of salt manufacturing, by the late nineteenth century, the ‘industrial squalor’ was replaced “by the sadder squalor of abandoned and derelict buildings”.

The town needed a new industry for it to progress and develop. Unbeknownst to the town’s inhabitants, the answer had already been found by accident in 1832, when a large-scale cholera epidemic hit the country. With no known cure doctors could only recommend hot baths to the escalating numbers of victims. However, with no fresh water supply, the poor had difficulty getting hot water. As a result, an enterprising doctor (reputed to be local surgeon William Robson Jacques) bathed them in the hot brine pans. Many recovered, often totally cured, and the “healing virtues” of the brine had been discovered. As a side-effect of bathing for the relief of cholera, patients noticed that other illnesses, such as gout and rheumatism, were also alleviated.

With this discovery, Droitwich reinvented itself as a popular new Spa town, where patients could come and bathe in brine. Dr Charles Hastings, founder of the British Medical Association and eminent physician at the Royal Worcester Infirmary, instigated a scheme in 1835 to build the town’s first brine baths. He drew attention to the success of nearby Cheltenham and Leamington spas and the many potential patients in the workers in Midland industrial towns who could not easily get to the coast for sea-bathing. His support meant that all the shares in the new “Droitwich Salt Water Bath Company” were sold in a matter of months.

St Andrews Brine Baths Interior

The brine baths brought with them a plethora of improvements in the town generally - the rail station and roads were improved, new housing estates were created, entertainment venues, pretty parks and a salt-water outdoor lido pool were built, and grand hotels were developed to accommodate the huge numbers of people who wanted to gain the benefits from a dip in the Droitwich waters.

Two World Wars and a decline in the idea of using spas and seaside resorts as replacements for conventional medicine lead to a deterioration of the fortunes of Droitwich Spa. In 2008, the last brine bathing facility closed down for financial reasons, and the future of Droitwich as a spa town looked set to end.

The High Street in 1913

However, this isn’t the end of Droitwich Spa’s story! There are plans to build a new brine bathing facility adjacent to the same outdoor salt-water lido pool that was developed in the first spa boom, in a style sympathetic to the existing 1930s building. Those of us that are passionate about the salt-bathing heritage of the town are backing this plan and are very excited for the future!

So, maybe the title of this post should have been "Zero...but only at the moment".

Proposed New Brine Baths

Apr 292017

Welcome to the world of one-place studies! Twenty-six of our members are sharing something in their particular place for this year's A-Z Blogging Challenge. We're betting there's some young people in your place and Janet Few challenges you to involve them in your one-place study.

A young person embracing history

Researching can sometimes be a solitary affair. Even if we work as part of group, society or community archive, those involved are often exclusively adults. If we want the next generation to take an interest in their heritage and to continue our good work, we have to begin to inspire them sooner rather than later. If you want young people to become active participants in your one-place study, you will need to do the groundwork. They will not arrive as fully fledged, dedicated one-place researchers. This means beginning by surrounding small children, perhaps those in your own family, with a sense of the past. Earlier this month I gave a presentation on this topic at Who Do You Think You Are? Live. This focused on very young children, perhaps those under the age of seven. If you would like to access the handout for this talk it can be downloaded from my website.

It may be possible to work with a nearby school, perhaps as an after hours ‘club’, or with a youth group or uniformed organisation, many of whom work for local history awards. Remember that working with young people is a skill not to everybody’s liking. You must also expect to undertake safeguarding checks before projects of this kind.

If you stage a local history event, can you include a young person’s element, perhaps in the form of a competition or treasure hunt? The important thing to remember is that any activities involving young people have to be on their terms, to appeal to their own interests. Involve technology is therefore normally a winner! Children will usually want to find out about things that are relevant to them. In a one-place context, this means, their family, their house, their school. Even if what emerges is not intrinsically useful to your one-place study today, it is important that young people have positive experiences of history and heritage, in that way they are more likely to become the one-placers of the future.

If you want more ideas, why not take a look at the video of our Hangout-on-air about involving young people, that was held in 2015.

Apr 282017

Welcome to the world of one-place studies! Twenty-six of our members are sharing something in their particular place for this year's A-Z Blogging Challenge. Janet Few shares a Christmas tale blending the old and new.

Apologies to anyone who is offended by the use of the abbreviated form of Christmas but X is always a tricky one. I thought I would use it as an opportunity to tell you about our one-place Christmas Tree. Back in October, it was decided that our village should stage a Christmas tree competition and exhibition in the local church during the Christmas season. Each club, organisation and institution in the village was invited to display a small tree that was to be decorated to reflect their activities. The bell-ringers were clearly on to a winner here as they could cover their tree in bells. Trying to think of a history group theme was much harder. We debated using vintage ornaments but the value of these was a deterrent, as they had to be left unattended in the church.

In the end, we decided to make our own decorations. We set small photographs of former residents of the parish in seasonal borders, printed these out and laminated them. We wanted viewers to be able to identify the people in the photos and were originally going to put their names on the reverse side of the picture. We did feel that this might encourage people to tug at the decorations with disastrous results, so in the end we put Christmassy pictures on the reverse of the photographs and provided a key, which was laid by the pot. Our ‘tree’ was to be twigs to give us ample hanging room and we decided to fill a large pot with sand to anchor the branches. There was a slight hitch when a sharp frost rendered the pile of damp sand that we were going to use frozen solid but the earth that we substituted worked well.

We were very pleased with the finished tree and honoured to be voted in to joint first place by those who came to look at the trees. This is a wonderful way of gently exposing the wider community to their history and heritage; please feel free to use our idea if you get the opportunity. Quite what we can come up with if there is another competition next year I don’t know.