History of the Somerset Archives Service

1617 - Foundation and Early History

Somerset can claim a longer continuoulsy-known history of official record keeping than any other county in England.  A meeting of Quarter Sessions held at Wells in 1617 decided that a room should be provided "for the safe keeping of the records of the Sessions".

 

By 1619 Somerset possessed not only its own record room, but also a room adjoining for the use of searchers.  The record room stood next to the Chain Gate on the north side of Wells Cathedral, and remained in use for the next 200 years.

1817 - Wilton Gaol and Shire Hall

A short-lived successor was found in presmises at Wilton Gaol, Taunton, in 1817, before the records were moved to Shire Hall which opened in 1858.  Somerset County Council was formed in 1889 and its Clerk became custodian of the records.  A Records Committee of the County Council was appointed in 1901, and in 1907 the first part-time Local Record Officer was chosen.

​After the accommodation at Shire Hall was refitted, it was approved by the Master of the Rolls as a repository for manorial documents in 1931.  It was then possible for the fledgling Record Office to preserve not only the county's official records, but also the records of private individuals, landed families and corporate bodies.

1958 - A New Record Office

After the Second World War, the Record Office struggled with the large increase in records being deposited, notably major estate collections.  The need for a purpose-built repository was recognised by the County Council, and the new Somerset Record Office was opened in 1958.  The design of the building was carefully matched to the varied needs of archive preservation, archive storage, and the use of archives in the public searchroom.  For at least a decade after the building was completed, architects and archivists from all over the world would visit Somerset to gain ideas when planning their own new repositories.

 

The office was designated Diocesan Record Office in 1964, which opened the way for many more records to be deposited.  During the 1960's there was also a rapid increase in visits by researchers to the Record Office.  It had attracted fewer than 50 people in 1938, but 30 years later that figure had risen to 1,378.  Consequently, a second searchroom and extra strongrooms were added to the original building.

 

The Parochial Registers and Records Measure of 1978 called for the survey and inspection in some 500 Anglican parishes.  This led to many major deposits and coincided with the growing interest in family history, which was bringing researchers to the office in unprecedented numbers.

2003 - Changing Times

In the 21st century there has been, once again, the need to increase the quantity and quality of storage space for Somerset's archives.  From December 2003 the Record Office was part of Somerset County Council's Heritage Group, along with Museums, Historic Environment and the Victoria County History.

 

In 2010 the Record Office moved to new, purpose-built premises at the Somerset Heritage Centre.  This opened on Monday 27 September 2010, and brought together Archives, Local Studies, Museums, Historic Environment and the Victoria County History in a single location.

2014 - Present and Future

On 1 November 2014 the Somerset Archive & Local Studies Service became part of the new South West Heritage Trust.  It continues to provide a wide range of services from its base at the Somerset Heritage Centre.

 

The South West Heritage Trust is an independent charity committed to protecting and celebrating Somerset and Devon's rich heritage.  As well as the widely-praised Museum of Somerset and the current redevelopment of the Rural Life Museum in Glastonbury, the Trust manages state-of-the-art facilities in Taunton and Exeter to care for the extraordinary archive collections of the two counties.  The Trust also provides essential advice about the historic environment and manages historic sites.

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