Digital Heritage Assistant Volunteers – Volunteer Week 2021

Published by Vickie Sellick on

Volunteering is a key part of our work at the Quantock Landscape Partnership Scheme and we will have many and varied volunteering opportunities throughout our whole scheme. Our work began last year and during a challenging period of national restrictions we were very pleased to be able to introduce an enthusiastic workforce of Digital Heritage Assistants, making use of enforced periods at home, fulfilling desk-based roles.   

Some of our Digital Heritage Assistant Volunteers have been helping to transcribe Land Tax returns for Quantock parishes as part of the South West Heritage Trust’s Somerset Land Tax Project. An incredibly valuable project, it helps provide a digital resource for anyone interested in exploring local histories. We spoke to one such volunteer, Lynne Abbott, who told us a little about the work they’ve all been doing and why she wanted to get involved. 

Lynne runs a guest house from Nether Stowey and is a keen member of the community there, she says how she found herself at a “loose end during the recent lockdown”. “The weather was so wonderful last year” (during the first national restrictions) and when winter came she got involved in a WarmBaby project, knitting for premature babies. Something she hadn’t done in ages. It was part of a Facebook community page and she heard about it through someone in the village and how they were donating their craft to the local hospital. The WarmBaby movement had “gone viral” and communities started to expand to help other people, such as Ugandan refugees.  

However, when the recent national restrictions set in, Lynne found herself looking to help out locally wherever she could, to support the national effort. She offered to help at the local surgery, but “they were inundated with people looking to volunteer”. When she heard the Quantock Landscape Partnership Scheme were doing varied things she approached our Historic Heritage Officer, Dan Broadbent, to see if there was anything she could do from home. “We couldn’t go into the Heritage Centre at the time so that’s how we got involved with the Land Tax transcribing”. 

The Land Tax returns for Somerset survive very well and are key sources for researching the history of houses. They are also a valuable source for both social and village history. “You take photographs of handwritten documents and type them up into an Excel spreadsheet so they can be used online”. Returns were originally drawn up by Land Tax assessors, with duplicates kept alongside records of the local courts, known as Quarter Sessions as they were traditionally held four times a year. The system was closely linked to voting rights as eligibility to vote was based upon property ownership, which Land Tax returns could help to demonstrate. The earliest returns for most parishes’ date from 1766 and the system ended in 1832 with the Representation of the People Act, 1832.  

It’s work that Lynne had done in the past when she wanted to explore her own family history and saw how helpful it was to have everything “digitised so that it’s easier to read. All this information becomes widely accessible”.  

Under the guidance of South West Heritage Trust archivist Kate Parr, volunteers like Lynne have been working from home and learning palaeography skills to decipher the handwriting from these digital images of the original documents. Lynne remembers how when she first wanted to explore Land Tax records she had to travel to London and “view it on microfilm, the whole process was very time consuming”.  

Despite the lockdown, our Land Tax volunteers were able to contribute an incredible 92 hours work in March and 55 hours in in April. In doing so they are helping the Trust towards its ultimate goal of creating full transcripts of every Land Tax return for the county Somerset, along with a set of digital images of the entire collection. 

Lynne says how they started “small, on anecdotal things like land ownership, beginning with small parishes first as not everything has been photographed” it’s more manageable to work with a small area. She admits it “isn’t always scintillating work”, but enjoys how you get to learn about the history of a village.  

Lynne also volunteers as part of the Quantock Hills AONB team on their Historic Monuments project. An activity that is sorely missed for its social and emotional interaction on the hills – getting to be part of a team outdoors. “Zoom meetings and working from home just aren’t the same, you can’t share [experiences] in the same way”.  

Lynne had been involved in a walking for health group before Covid-19 but they had to stop all the walks during lockdown – they “can restart them now, but they still have the restrictions on interaction”. Lynne’s noticed how interesting this time has become, how people are still quite frightened about interacting with others. The walks were originally designed for maintaining physical health but now they notice how much it means to their mental wellbeing – there’s a desire for company, socialising as a way to support mental health.  

This time has taught Lynne that her “drive for volunteering to avoid boredom and do something for the community. It’s a social thing”, she says. As restrictions begin to ease and more volunteering opportunities are on the horizon, I think we all agree that the ‘social thing’ is what we’re looking forward to the most.   

Lynne working on the Land Tax records at home

Incidentally, here are some interesting facts about the parish of Charlinch that Lynne has been transcribing: 

A lot of the properties were owned by the Earl of Egmont and according to Wikipedia the second Earl, was a prominent politician and notably served as First Lord of the Admiralty 1763-66. In 1762 he was created Baron Lovel and Holland, of Enmore in the County of Somerset, in the Peerage of Great Britain, which gave him an automatic seat in the British House of Lords. His seventh son was Prime Minister 1809-1812, the Rt. Hon. Spencer Perceval who was assassinated by John Bellingham in the lobby of the House of Commons in 1812. Lord Egmont was succeeded by his eldest son, the third Earl 1728 -1822, who sat as a Member of Parliament for Bridgwater. The twelfth Earl never married, and upon his death on 6 November 2011 the earldom and all of its subsidiary titles became extinct. 

Spaxton and Charlinch both had a church and parsonage. The Church of St Mary at Charlynch  dates from the 11th century with a tower probably of 1867. It is a Grade I listed building but was deconsecrated in 1981 when the alter was moved to Spaxton Church. The Church of St Margaret in Spaxton has some parts from the 12th and 13th centuries but is predominantly from the 15th century, and was restored in 1895. It is also grade I listed. During the 19th century, Henry James Prince, former curate of Charlynch founded the notorious religious cult of the Agapemone at Four Forks from 1846 to 1956. 

There were three water powered corn mills in the parish on the Peart Water stream, which rises in the Quantocks and flows to Cannington, now flowing from Hawkridge Reservoir built in 1960 to Ashford Reservoir. One of the mills, Splatt Mill is now Grade II Listed and had an overshot waterwheel. Berta Lawrence writing in 1952 in ‘Quantock Country’: ‘In the early twentieth century the mill ground 300 sacks of wheat and barley each week including Russian, Persian and American grain. Six horses were kept as transport to and from Bridgwater Railway Station twice a day ..’ 

We hope you enjoy these snippets of history uncovered by Lynne and the work of the volunteer team. If you’re equally curious about history and would like to get involved in the helpful task of unlocking these archives, then please get in touch.