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Somerset & Dorset
Family History Society

Welcome to the SDFHS

How can we help you? We will help you to find documented facts about the lives of your former family members which will unlock doors to your own personal family story. Although we do specialise in Somerset and Dorset and have extensive records from our two counties, our experienced Research Volunteers have skills which can help you trace your family roots, regardless of where they might have originated.

SDFHS Family History Centre

Broadway House Family History Centre, our home in Yeovil, is an ideal location in the centre of the town.

Online Talks

Online talks are being hosted by some of our local Groups, giving us the opportunity to engage with our members and the family history community worldwide.

Visit Our Shop

Are you looking for family history publications? Why not try looking in our on-line shop. We have a wide range of books and CDs relating to both Somerset and Dorset, as well as more general family-history and local-history publications.

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This is the story of Gertrude James the little girl who was the favourite of Fanny Legg, a female patient at the Asylum.You have to place Gertrude's story into the context of the time when the family would have been poor with other children in the home. The home would not have had any running water and just an open fire to heat and cook and would have been a very difficult environment for a child with Gertrude's many needs. Her story is also put into context with newspaper cuttings of the time in which Gertrude's case was discussed and Dr Pope Stevens had great reservations about taking Gertrude as a patient but where else could she go?It is noted in her medical notes that her father did visit her when he could.GERTRUDE LOUISE JAMES 1901 TO 1912Gertrude was born in Leigh on Mendip in 1903. Her mother, Ada Mary James, died at the age of 23 when Gertrude was three. Her father who was a coal miner, a hewer, remarried and Gertrude had two full sisters, Lily and Delcie and a half brother and sister, Archie and Minnie.Gertrude was first admitted to Frome Workhouse in 1904 at the age of three as her complex medical problems could not be dealt with in the home.The Frome Workhouse Guardians also felt that they could not cope with her needs and initially she was placed in the Bristol Orthopedic Hospital and Home for Crippled Children.March 18 1904"With regard to the sad case of Gertrude James of Vobster the Board agreed to pay the cost of her maintenance in the Bristol Orthapedic Hospital and Home for Crippled Children" June 22 1904 Bristol Times and Mirror.A Sad Case."Dr Rattray of the Bristol Orhapedic Hospital and Home for Crippled Children in Clifton reported the following sad case: Gertrude James aged four years, congenitally deficient in mind, dumb and unable to stand, also incurable has attacks of screaming which disturb the other patients. She is a suitable case for the Asylum at Wells." Not settling at the Bristol home she was eventually returned to the Frome Workhouse and from there to the Somerset County Asylum at Wells in July 1904.Reason for admittance: IdiocyBodily:A playful little child, eyes bluish grey, pupils dilated, palette low and broad.Mentally:Is noisy and fretful, cries and calls “Mama” at times, takes nourishment and sleeps.July 12 1904Has not been wet since arrival. A favourite on the ward with other female patients. One patient in particular, Fanny Legg, imagines that Gertrude is her child and will amuse herself with her.July 17 1904Grinds her teeth constantly, does not take notice of things and persons as a child of her age ought to, requires very close attention, in poor health.July 31 1904Peevish and noisy at times, cannot attend to calls of nature.August 7 1904Appears to have slight convulsions from time to time. Is teething. Requires full time attention from a nurse or patient in infantile nursing.Her mind is blank. She is dumb and unable to stand. Lies on a shake down on the floor to prevent injury from falling.October 12 1906Is childish for her years, cannot articulate but recognises the nurses when they return from leave.January 11 1907In good health, lively, takes diet well, mentally no change. No longer faulty in habits.April 24 1907A fat chubby little girl but deficient mentally.Has outbursts of temper when she throws herself about, constantly grinds her teeth, she has practically no intelligence.January 27 1908Has made no mental improvement with the advance of years, unable to talk, has to be constantly attended to and is able to recognise those who are kind to her.June 30 1908Idiocy. She is congenitally defective and unable to articulate being deaf and dumb. She does not seem educable in ordinary cleanliness and is noisy and passionate. She is helpless and requires close supervision.January 19 1909Is quiet, gives no more trouble than an ordinary child of her years. Will be recommended for discharge at next meeting.January 28 1909Was discharged by the committee on the 21 inst. And was this day removed back to the Frome Workhouse her family being unable to look after her.Two months later in March 1909 at the age of 8 Gertrude was returned to the Asylum with “Congenital Intellectual Insanity”She was 3 ft 6 inches and 3 st 7 lbs in weight.Bodily:A fat chubby cheeked child. Heart and lungs free form active disease.Mentally:She smiles away and tries to lay hold of me to play with. She is restless, fidgety and playful. Wants to suck things, her fingers or her clothing, does not dribble much.Intellectual insanity, epilepsy, developmentally backward for her years, cannot articulate, unable to recognise those around her, requires very close attention to keep her clean and tidy. Fair health.March 23 1909 Happy contented is petted by the old women in the ward most of the day, sucks thumb most of the dayOn March 26 1909 the Frome Board of Guardians considered Gertrude’s case in their monthly report published in the Somerset Standard."The Board has again under consideration the difficult case of Gertrude James who is at present in the Asylum but who the authorities do not wish to keep there. Dr Pope Stevens Medical Superintendent at the Asylum did not consider Gertrude a suitable case for Asylum care. The Asylum had cared for Gertrude from 1906 to 1909 and then recommended discharge to the family home but the father and step mother called two days before the discharge day and refused to take her home saying that could not give the child the care needed within the home and they could not afford to employ anyone to look after her.The question was; "Is there any other institution to which they could send her?"On April 23 1909 the report of the Frome Workhouse Board of Guardians on Gertrudes’ case reported in the Somerset Standard Newspaper included the copy of a letter from Dr Pope Stevens, the Medical Superintendent of the Asylum, agreeing to undertake the care of Gertrude.May 2 1909Today is sunk into armchair, her nose filthy and two fingers and her right thumb rammed into her mouth. She has the appearance of an absolute blankness of mind. She did not respond in any way when I addressed her. She cannot even stand without strong support by the hand.She is quite unable to do anything for herself has to be fed, dressed and cleaned. Is deaf and dumb.June 2 1909Has to be fed and generally looked after, she can be playful and likes the attention of the older patients.October 3 1909Is sometimes noisy, almost never wet. She is frequently attended to by staff and very much fuss is made of her by the female patients.February 19 1910Her mind is arrested developmentally. She requires the care of an infant of four. She cannot articulate and dribbles constantly.January 12 1911She grabs at those close to her and sometimes pinches and nips. She sucks old cotton reels most of the dayOctober 5 1911Infantile, sucks her fingers or old spools, has to be fed, no unreasonable trouble.January 7 1912Visited by her father today. This afternoon had a severe seizure, she has remained convulsed.March 7 1912Remains convulsed and does not respond to treatment.March 12 1912Convulsions continued and she died today at 10.40 pmCAUSE OF DEATH: ORGANIC BRAIN DISEASE AGE 11Buried in the Mendip Hospital Cemetery where she is remembered. ... See MoreSee Less
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THE POWYSES IN DORSETJoin us on Thursday 2nd February for the next of our winter talks, when Jerry Bird delves into the history of one of Britain's most extraordinary literary families, the Powyses. The three brothers, John Cowper, Theodore Francis and Llewelyn, all attended school at Dorchester and Sherborne and returned to Dorset later in their literary careers. John Cowper Powys is best known for his huge, sprawling, intensely mystical novels, several of which, including Maiden Castle, Wolf Solent and Weymouth Sands, are set in Dorset; the reclusive Theodore Francis Powys for his black-humoured allegorical tales of rural life; and the philosophical Llewelyn Powys for his beautifully-written essays, many of which are about Somerset and Dorset history, topography and folklore. Jerry will give a brief biography of the three brothers, with extracts from their Dorset writings.The talk takes place at the Digby Memorial Church Hall in Sherborne (DT9 3NL) and begins at 2pm. Doors will be open from 1.30pm. Admission is free for members of Sherborne Museum. £5 entry for non-members on the door. Refreshments included. ... See MoreSee Less
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Setting The Record Straight Episode 1: Really Bad Digitisation, Part 1 ... See MoreSee Less
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The inventor of 'Plasticine', William Harbutt was born in North Shields in 1844. After studying art in London, he moved to Bath to teach and became Head of Bath School of Art and Design from 1874-77. He then started his own school The Paragon Art Studio at 15 Bladud Buildings.Looking to create a clay substitute for his students - something that worked like clay but didn't dry out - he started experimenting in the basement of his house in Alfred Street and eventually came up with a successful formula. He patented his recipe in 1899 and, after a period of laborious domestic production involving grooved wooden butter pats to shape the slabs, Harbutt soon geared up to industrial processing in an old flour mill at the Grange, High Street, Bathampton.Plasticine proved to be huge popular with children, especially once he added coloured variations to the original grey.He was by all accounts a great boss to work for, arranging outings for his workforce and encouraging high-spirited ball games during the lunch break - which was quite happy to extend until there was a winner! In fine weather, the staff were allowed to leave work early 'to make the most of the sunshine'.William Harbutt toured the world, promoting Plasticine wherever he went and it was on one trip in 1921 at the age of 77 that, sadly, he caught pneumonia and died. His family carried on building the business and it boomed. However, disaster struck in the winter of 1962-63 when an electrical fault started a fire that razed the Bathampton factory, destroying equipment, artefacts and even the original formula! Amazingly in spite of this, they were back up and running in three weeks.Production continued at Bathampton until 1983 when the business was sold to Peter Pan Playthings Ltd and production moved to Thailand. The canalside site is now a housing development known as "Harbutts" in tribute to this great Bath business.Pictures (left column):1. William Harbutt2. Harbutt's canalside factory, early 20th Century3. Harbutt attending a local fete4. "Harbutts" on the site of the factoryPictures (right column):5. Early advertising, 19066. 1960's packaging7. Plasticine's modern heroes, Wallace and Gromit ... See MoreSee Less
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Happy Sunday! Join us today from 2pm at the Grange in Street (accessed via car park two for Clarks Village) for revelry and festivities for our annual celebration of the apple trees in orchard for the Wassail. Make or wear a headdress for your chance to win a special prize. Entrance is completely free. There will not be any cider for sale but we will be selling hot and cold drinks and specially made mulled apple juice - you are also welcome to bring your own drinks. See our website for the full programme alfredgilletttrust.org/wassail-2023/ #alfredgilletttrust #wassail #wassailing 🍎🍏👑🌳 ... See MoreSee Less
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Join us tomorrow from 2pm at the Grange in Street (accessed via car park two for Clarks village) to dance and sing and celebrate our apple trees in our walled orchard for our annual Wassail #alfredgilletttrust #wassailing There is no need to book and admission is completely free 🍎🍏🌳👑 alfredgilletttrust.org/wassail-2023/ ... See MoreSee Less
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This incredible photograph is of Mark Witcombe.Admitted to the Wells Asylum June 4 1898 from the Frome WorkhousePlace of birth: Kilmersdon, SomersetAge 58, married. Coal miner. Education: nil.Married to Sarah, children Annie, Rose, Elizabeth.1881 census living at 159, Highbury, Coleford near Frome in Somerset.Medical information on admittance: He is dull and takes no notice of remarks made to him. His whole demeanour is that of a lunatic.The staff from the Frome Workhouse state that: “He is continually undressing himself out of doors. Is destructive to his clothing, very troublesome at night, constantly getting up and walking about and folding and re folding his bedclothes.”Nothing is known about the history of Mark. He has been in the Union Workhouse for some time but owing to his troublesome and destructive nature had to be sent here.Physically he is a fit looking man (14st 4lbs) with a vacant expression. Several miner’s marks on back (scars on skin dyed by constant contact with coal dust)Fine tremors in muscles and tongue, speaks with a slur.Intelligence very poor. Knows his age and some of his family history and when asked questions on other subjects shows no comprehension. Has no knowledge of recent events.June 6 1898: Eats and sleeps well, shows no interest in anything.June 15 1898: Now at work in the hair shop. (This was where mattresses and other furniture were stuffed with hair.) Is quiet and gives little trouble.July 1 1898: Unable to do any work. Tremors now well marked.July 8 1898: Very demented, unable to converse.Mark rapidly declined in health over the next year and died aged 59 on November 22 1899 at 2.50pm in the presence of Night Attendant A. HunterCause of death: General Paralysis of the InsaneHis family, wife and children were shown in the 1901 census as still living in Coleford.Mark is buried in the Mendip Hospital Cemetery (D264)We will remember him.Please support and follow us on Facebook as volunteers work to preserve this very special place which is totally unique as it is the only surviving Asylum cemetery with its original layout, chapel and iron grave markers. The cemetery will re-open to visitors every Sunday from April 2nd 2023 11am to 4pm. There will be mid week openings dates yet to be decided. ... See MoreSee Less
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Don't forget our webinar on chapels in Somerset is tomorrow at 7.30pm. After a sneak peek this evening it looks to be a fascinating talk!Registration link: us06web.zoom.us/webinar/register/WN_G9pJnTyPRCOkrpWw5be9xQ ... See MoreSee Less
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United by friendship & their passion for preserving the past, a group of family historians began collaborating on a project during the Covid lockdowns. Now the fruits of their labours are available online. Introducing the 'A Few Forgotten Women' project. https://tinyurl.com/p5t6a29h