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An Introduction to Wells City Archive : Street Society
Protecting the past with an eye to the future

An Introduction to Wells City Archive

On Tuesday 28 February the Street Society welcomed guest speaker Dr Julia Wood, who entertained with a brief history of time according to Wells City Archives, which are housed at Wells Museum.  The first part of the talk was based on the artefacts in the Wells City Archives and the second on those relating to Street and Glastonbury.

The Wells City Council funds the care of the archives moved to their present purpose-built home at Wells Museum in 2011 from their former home in the old Victorian Jail Cells underneath the Wells Town Hall.  Facilities include a research room where an enthusiastic group of volunteers has succeeded in making fascinating new discoveries   The Great Seal of Henry VIII has inexplicably found its way into the collection having been discovered during the move.  The obverse shows Henry on his throne, complete with orb and sceptre, while the reverse shows him charging into battle astride his horse.  The seal would have been used to validate or seal documents.  The archive is unusual in that it houses Wells City Archives, some Wells Cathedral archives and a considerable portion of the documentation of Medieval Wells, the remainder being held at the Heritage Centre.   The ‘modern’ collection within the archives dates from 1974.

The archive contains thousands of documents ranging from the sublime to the mundane. The Wells Cathedral archives has many documents but the Wells City archive has the medieval portion, the oldest dating from 1the 12th century and a good collection of maps which should eventually available to view on line.   Artefacts include the Wells City, Episcopal and Royal charters dating from 1164 – 1688, and medieval title deeds.  The Convocation Books provide an almost unbroken record of the old Common Council (before the Municipal Corporations Act 1835) for nearly five centuries.  These provide a written record of the City Council affairs from 1378- 1845, the earliest being written in Latin..  Sadly some volumes from the English Civil War period are missing.  The volume for 1553-1623 contains little cartoons of gloves.  It was the practice for a newly elected Freeman to give a gift of gloves to his newly acquired brethren as a sign of friendship and possibly that his ‘hands were clean’.

Wells was honoured by a royal visit In 1613 when Queen, Anne of Denmark, wife of King James I  lodged in the Bishop’s Palace.   In order to suitably impress the royal visitor, the Bishop decreed that the streets should be cleared of ‘beggars and rogues’ and the streets ‘pitched’. The Queen was greeted by the Mayor and Aldermen in their scarlet gowns, with the rest of the burgesses dressed in their best.   Each of the city companies (the different trades) presented a tableau –Carpenters; Shearmen, Tuckers; Tanners, Chandlers and Butchers; the Cordwainers; the Tailors and the Mercers all played a role.

The Wells 1821 Book of Lands and Tenements, which authorised the exchange of lands or hereditaments, is a work of art and full of interesting detail. Family historians may find it a great resource.  Intriguing Victorian material brings the collection forward into the 19th century towards living memory and into the 21st century. This includes clubs and societies, railways, health, water supply, allotments, royal visits and markets. These, with the collection of maps, plans, prints, posters and photographs could keep a researcher absorbed indefinitely!  You could find out where your forebears went to school, who sang in a local choir, or who was engaged in local affairs.  If railway history is your guilty pastime, you could view photographs of the station where the trains used to stop before a supermarket took its place.

In 1951 the City of Wells received a Grant of Arms which until then had never been legaly registered and at the time of the local government reorganisation and the formation of Mendip District Council, Wells lost its City status and was redesignated as a Parish.  After negotiations Wells received the 1974 Queen Elizabeth II Charter allowing the use of the title “City”., which is now one of Wells City Archives most important documents.  The twentieth century documents have provided the archive with contemporary treasures to safeguard and preserve for the future.   Today’s interest in family history can also be indulged in the archives where the volunteers have been busily entering information for launch on-line this Spring.

Although there is a wealth of material about Wells, information about Glastonbury and Street is more limited, which is an indication of status over the centuries.  The earliest document about Glastonbury is the 12th century Charter of Bishop Savarick Fitzgeldewin whose ambition was to be Bishop of Bath and Abbot of Glastonbury.  The last Abbot of Glastonbury was Richard Whiting who met a horrific end during Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries.

Glastonbury and Street material includes information about the area’s contribution the Great Exhibition of 1851 when the railway was used to transport larger items.  After Queen Victoria opened the exhibition on 1 May, over the next 6 months over 6 million people visited for one shilling per head.  Many of the exhibits later went to the Victoria and Albert Museum.  The archives holds a copy of the prize-winners’ catalogue, a possible indication that someone from Wells was awarded a prize.

The renowned collection of Phillip photographs is also in the archive, which provide a look back in time, many gems are there to be seen including Turnpike Cottage, the Holy Thorn, St John’s Church Glastonbury, The Tribunal, the Tithe Barn, to name but a few.

The history of the Glastonbury Canal from Glastonbury to Highbridge is also available. The canal was authorised by Parliament in 1827 and opened in 1834 but was largely abandoned in 1854, when the railway was built along the towpath. Glastonbury and Street railway station was the biggest station on the original Somerset and Dorset Joint Railway main line from Highbridge to Evercreech Junction until closed in 1966.  It was the junction for the branch line to Wells- which closed in 1951.  Opened in 1854 as Glastonbury, it had three platforms, two for Evercreech to Highbridge and one for the branch service to Wells.    The site is now a well-known timber yard, but remnants of the past remain with replica level crossing gates at the entrance.

In April there is an archive exhibition of court papers 1850-1874.  All sorts of incredible stories are there to be unearthed by visitors. A look at the Wells City Archive website will provide details.  Look out for the ‘Snapshots of Wells’ display at the Bishop’s Palace in Wells from May to September and the ‘Know Your Place Exhibition at the Bishop’s Palace until 28 April.

For more information follow this link: Wells City Archive