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History Revealed - using the local archives

History Revealed - using the local archives

Helen Millar explores the local archives to find out just what can be learned from the documents and photographs stored so carefully…

Do you know who lived in your house before you did?  Perhaps you do but possibly not the generations before that. I don’t know about you but I’ve decided that just because I’ve left the UK there’s no need to abandon my usual behaviour - I’m a nosey parker who’s fascinated by people, places and their histories.  So I was delighted when philosophy teacher and friend Frank Svensen introduced me to the archives here in Angoulême. We’re lucky enough to have both the Municipal Archive (the dour grey multi-story building near the station) and the Departmental Archive. But every town or village with more than 1,000 inhabitants will have its own archive, and for which your first stop is always the Mairie.

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History can be a touchy subject; anyone who has delved into their own family history will have ruffled feathers, so as incomers we need to tread softly. Penny moved into a house with a barn and, although her French is good, she was troubled by a seeming distance between her and her neighbours. Something was being kept secret. Eventually a new friend admitted that people thought the house was haunted, but Penny was much too robust for that. She wanted to know more about the family, their farm and the village, so much so that her French neighbours were equally enthused, joined her for walks around the neighbourhood looking for traces of the past, and were able to use the local archives to great effect.

We’re often constrained by lack of language but it’s obviously important to talk to the older residents of your area. Forty years ago, when my sister bought a ruin in the Dordogne the elderly owner took her round the building and told her the history of three generations of farmers, and yes, there were the inevitable bullet holes left over from the Occupation. But the woman insisted that this was their history, and if British people wanted to live in the area they should appreciate what locals had lived through. My sister wholeheartedly agreed. I’d only been days in Angoulême when I was stopped by an elderly gentleman who told me about his war years as a very young man spent doing forced labour in Germany. I was honoured to listen - but personal testimonies often die with their owners, so archives are vital.

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Archives work both ways; like life, you have to put things in to get things out. Tim bought a village property and found boxes of letters and accounts from an 1890’s hosiery business. Reluctant to throw them out, he offered them to the local mayor, who was so impressed by his sense of patrimoine that they became firm friends and Tim, a retired shopkeeper, was able to pursue the history of the commercial life of his now very quiet village. On the other hand, amateur genealogist Françoise was delighted to find a cache of letters written by her great aunt that had been deposited in the archive at Périgueux. Again during a house clearance, someone had done the right thing, and years later they turned up during research on the occupants of a different house since the family name had been cross-referenced. What luck. The woman’s letters revealed that she was a keen cyclist, so Françoise was able to identify some of the unlabelled photographs in her family collection of women on bikes. Bloomers and all, the lady had obviously got around in style.

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I know I chose to live in my house because it reminds me of my childhood home, but with benefit of sunshine and no outside lav. Thanks to Frank’s research I’ve found that my luminous garden room was an atelier for a woman who turned wooden bobbins for the silk industry – my own mother did home knitting on a huge industrial machine that shook our house, and I played amongst bobbins and cones. So there are still links that we expats can make.

It was quite by chance that Frank Svensen met an elderly retired headmistress of one of the town schools. He and Gerard Benguigui were writing a book about the wartime roundup of Jews then resident here. Polish, German and Russian refugees had found a welcome in the town but eventually the occupiers caught up with them, and on 8th October, 1942, they were assembled in the music school for deportation to Drancy. Fortunately they were destined not to be forgotten, thanks to the class registers the headmistress had squirreled in her attic and that are now, of course, safely in the archive. A mine of information, they not only contained date and place of birth and address but parents’ professions - tailors, shoe-makers, rope-makers and milliners - details that add a human face to history. It was through the chilling entries next to children’s names - ‘arrested by the Germans, left for unknown destination…’ - that the deported families were eventually traced. With painstaking cross-referencing, all those deported are now remembered on a new memorial at the School of Music. Knowledge about particular addresses has also uncovered those forgotten histories of French residents who carried out numerous acts of kindness and personal bravery, and their names are honoured too.

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Frank tells me that there are still over eighty boxes of German papers and arti-facts to be opened. The archivists are enthusiastic and meticulous, and feel especially fortunate because papers are backed up by extensive photographic material. A local photographer was forced to work for the Germans and he kept all his negatives!

So remember, you may have important clues in your own house. A property in Montignac was used by the Germans for stabling cavalry horses. During renovation all sorts of lists and diagrams have been found scribbled on the walls and, thanks to the owner, rather than being painted over, this important evidence will be photographed and sent to the archive. It’s even led to further detective work by a neighbour who now thinks that puzzling bronze nameplates she’s found in her garden were the names of horses.

So there’s no need to stop exploring. Just because you’ve left the UK, your interest in history need not end. After all, we Brits will go down in the archives as some sort of invaders. Whether it’s a village, house, business or family name you wish to research, resources are available and your interest is very much appreciated. The Association Généalogique de la Charente boasts over a thousand signed-up members, who last year alone made over two million online searches. Look out for their meetings.

Just to bring history up to date, Frank received a rapid response from the authorities, much to the delight of his children, when he found an unexploded shell in his garden left over from the liberation of Angoulême!

Factfile

Useful addresses:

Les Archives Municipales d’Angoulême: 

33 avenue Jules-Ferry – 16000 Angoulême.

Tel: 05 45 38 91 97

Email: archives_municipales @mairie-angouleme.fr

Website

 

Association Généalogique de la Charente

Website 

 

The book:

La Rafle d’Angoulême 8 Octobre 1942 told by the survivors and written by Gerard Benguigui and Frank Svensen.

Published by Le Croit Vif (publishers of regional history)

Website

Helen Millar presents AngloFile, the English-language radio slot for RCF Accords (www.rcf.fr). In the UK, under the name of Rosemary Mason, she was one of the original writers for EastEnders.

PHOTOS: ©Archives municipales d’Angoulême

© All Rights Reserved - originally published in Living Magazine April 2014