A brief history of the Society

Taunton Castle by Harry Frier
Taunton Castle by Harry Frier

Somerset Archaeological and Natural History Society was founded in 1849 following discussions among ‘several gentlemen of Taunton and its neighbourhood’. It was one of several such organisations established in the English shires during the 1840’s and reflected the early Victorian growth of interest in county history and the natural environment.

By 1851 the Society had 420 members – including large numbers of the Somerset gentry and clergy – and published that year the first volume of its annual Proceedings. It was also beginning to collect items for a Society library and museum.

The Society’s early home was in the Victoria Rooms (since demolished) at the centre of Taunton. In 1874 the organisation’s status and ambitions were transformed when it acquired Taunton’s medieval castle as its new headquarters. The castle had for centuries been the administrative centre of the great manor of Taunton Deane and became notorious in 1685 as the setting for the Bloody Assizes following the Monmouth Rebellion.

Work undertaken in the late 18th century converted part of the building to judges’ lodgings, but by 1874 repairs to the whole fabric were needed urgently. In 1884 the Somerset Room (the Great Chamber of the medieval castle) was reroofed. In 1899–1900 the Great Hall was repaired and refitted as the Society’s chief museum space, and in 1908–9 the Adam Library was created. By the early 20th century the Society had succeeded in rescuing Taunton Castle. It had also secured a national reputation as a collector and publisher, and as a promoter of field meetings and archaeological excavation.

No individual achieved more for the Society during its first one hundred years than Harold St George Gray, Assistant Secretary and Curator from 1901 to 1949. From 1904 he collaborated with Arthur Bulleid in excavating the Iron Age lake villages at Glastonbury and Meare and also directed other excavations throughout the county. It was Gray, as well, who guided the Society through a major controversy when, in 1922, Frederick Bligh Bond was dismissed as Director of Excavations at Glastonbury Abbey. Bond had relied increasingly on help he claimed to receive from the spirits of Glastonbury monks.

Gray’s successor, Wilfred Seaby, planned the major refurbishment of the museum, and by the time he departed in 1952 had completed negotiations which brought the Low Ham Roman pavement to Taunton. Financial difficulties which had affected the Society at least since the Second World War were greatly eased in 1958 when the castle and the museum collections were leased to Somerset County Council, an arrangement which has continued ever since. In 2011, after £7m pounds of investment supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund, the museum reopened to the public as the Museum of Somerset, still with the Society’s collections at its heart.

Today the County Council funds a new organisation, the South West Heritage Trust, to manage the Museum of Somerset and the Society’s extraordinary museum, archive and library collections. There is close partnership between all three organisations, and the Society, while retaining a presence in Taunton Castle, now has new headquarters at the Somerset Heritage Centre, opened in 2010. More than 170 years after the Society was created, its role in protecting and promoting Somerset’s rich heritage and natural environment is as important as ever.