The Wiltshire and Swindon History Centre has made a little bit of history itself this year - it’s celebrating its 70th anniversary. SARAH SINGLETON paid a visit

A LETTER written by Hans Christian Andersen, the elaborate wax seal of Richard I from the 12th century and an agreement for the marriage of Henry VIII and his third wife Jane Seymour – these precious relics of our local history are all available to see at the Wiltshire and Swindon History Centre.

Celebrating its 70th anniversary this year, and its tenth year at its new, purpose-built facility in Chippenham, the history centre is a portal into centuries of local history.

With around eight miles of archives, full of records, letters, documents and maps, the history centre gives everyone a chance to step into the past. Whether you want to research family history, explore the past of your local area, or simply have a nose through some of Swindon’s stories, the history centre is easy to reach and welcoming to all.

Both heritage services manager Terry Bracher and education officer Ruth Butler are evidently passionate about their work, and for them, the novelty of exploring centuries-old papers and parchments has not worn thin. They show me around an archive room, and upstairs, to wide-windowed rooms full of hi-tech equipment where ancient papers and books can be restored and conserved.

“One of my favourite records is the earliest reference we have to the presence of black people in Wiltshire,” said Mr Bracher. “In the parish register for Calne we have Maria Mandula, described as ‘aethiops’, in 1586.”

He also recommended an illuminated legal document with a picture of Oliver Cromwell, Lord Protector, in the O of Oliver.

The history centre’s 70th anniversary will be celebrated with a day of family fun on Saturday, October 28, with knights and archery from the College of Chivalry, a chance to meet a highwayman, a display of Pelham Puppets, Paste Paper Making led by the archive conservators, discovering rare objects preserved by the Object Conservation team, digging into the past with the archaeologists and a display of archive treasures, including those relating to kings and queens, Beatrix Potter, Florence Nightingale and US presidents.

Visitors will be able to take behind the scenes tours, taking a look at the archive strong rooms and conservation labs, and to explore their family history. Refreshments will be available from a pop-up café.

The Wiltshire and Swindon History Centre opened in 1947, when the importance of maintaining a centralised and secure collection of documents and archives was recognised and a commission encouraged local authorities to set up records offices. The first building was a converted mattress factory in Trowbridge, but an inspection in 1998 by the National Archives resulted in the building being condemned for not providing appropriate facilities for the long-term preservation of the archives, so a project began the following year for a new purpose-built building.

It was not an easy journey – the first plan for a joint facility with the Royal Photographic Society and the Kennet and Avon Canal Trust in Devizes, was rejected by the Heritage Lottery Fund in 2001.

A new scheme for a history centre in Chippenham for heritage services and a county local studies library was opposed by campaigners in Trowbridge and Salisbury, but in the end Chippenham was chosen as the best site, in terms of access for Swindon-based residents, as well as road and rail links to the rest of the county. It was built on the old cattle market site, in Cocklebury Road, just a few minutes’ walk from the railway station.

Although the Heritage Lottery Fund also rejected this new application, Wiltshire Council and Swindon Borough Council went ahead without outside financial support. The building was finished in October 2006 and the new £11.1 million state of the art Wiltshire and Swindon History Centre opened to the public in October 2007.

Over the course of its 70 years, the centre has amassed many more archives. In August 1989, the Great Western Railway made the largest single contribution with over 1700 boxes of records. The Lacock estate, Westinghouse and many other local organisations have made deposits, as well as individuals – who have donated World War I diaries, for example.

Interestingly, handwriting is the recording method that has stood the test of time while more complex technologies have come and gone.

Although you can still read Victorian records, the Domesday Project of the 1980s was recorded on a laser-disc, to be read by a BBC master computer using a technology that did not catch on, so all the data has become almost unreadable.

New technology has been useful in other ways, though. You can use an app called Lacock Unlocked on your mobile device, and use it on a visit to the village to access information and documents about key places in the village. And you can search the history centre catalogue via the web from your own home.

Interesting Swindon archives include records of a civil defence exercise from 1948, using the imaginary scenario of Martians invading. As well as the GWR records, you can check out medieval documents about the settlement that would one day become the town we know now – apparently Highworth was the more important village, until the railway came along and changed Swindon’s fortunes forever.

Around 20 thousand people visit the history centre every year, and a hundred volunteers help the staff keep the centre running.

“We are much happier in the new building,” explained Mr Bracher. “We have more deposits, we have state of the art facilities, and it is very accessible. As well as local people from Wiltshire and Swindon, we have visitors from around Britain and the world.

“We have changed and become more outward looking, with more outreach and community engagement.”

The new history centre has greatly expanded its programme of events and educational outreach too. Next up is renowned historian and broadcaster Michael Wood, who will be talking about Alfred the Great and the Battle of Edington, on Thursday November 16 at 7pm. Tickets are £10 and booking is essential.

For more information, visit the history centre website at