THE HISTORY OF THE SOMERSET ARCHIVES SERVICE


1617: Foundation and early history

Somerset can claim a longer continuously-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

A short-lived successor was found in premises at Wilton Gaol, Taunton, in 1817, before the records were consigned to Shire Hall, which opened in 1858.  The 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 Local Record Officer, a part-time post, was chosen.

Shire Hall

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 countyís 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 when new repositories were being planned.

The office was designated Diocesan Record Office in 1964, which opened the way for many more records to be deposited.  During the 1960ís 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 1378.  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 of records in some 500 Anglican parishes.  This led to many major deposits of parish records and coincided with the growing interest in family history which was bringing researchers to the office in unprecedented numbers.

Present and future

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

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