Amazing Stories from the Web
continued from No. 3/2009
Part 10. THE ELUSIVE SOMERSET HOUSE
Pre-Reading: Discussion Questions
1. When you need to find some data, what do you do?
2. Are there regular Births, Deaths and Marriages columns or sections in your local newspapers?
“Did you go to Somerset House?” asks a character in Agatha Christie’s novel The Body in the Library. Miss Marple, the indefatigable village detective, says she didn’t. “But you gave me an idea”, the old woman continues. She goes to Somerset House, London, and then the mystery is solved. Somerset House crops up in many books written by the “Queen of Suspense”, as well as in many other books by different authors. People go to Somerset House as a matter of course, to learn about births, marriages and deaths; wills are also to be found there.
At the end of the 1980’s, something happens to this landmark. Search as you might, you will not find any mention of this wonderful place, unless you come across a description of historical buildings, or a history of architecture. The mysterious house is here, so to say, and yet it is not what it used to be. What’s happened to it?
Let us turn to Wikipedia, the well-known web encyclopedia, to check the main facts. We learn that Somerset House is a large building which dates from the eighteenth century; it is situated on the south side of the Strand in central London, overlooking the River Thames, just east of Waterloo Bridge. A building of the same name was first built on the site more than two centuries earlier.
Encyclopedia Britannica tells us that this house was first built for the Duke of Somerset in mid-16th century. He was born Edward Seymour in 1500. Edward became a statesman, and rapidly rose to prominent positions in the country, especially after his sister Jane Seymour was married to King Henry VIII. When Henry VIII died in 1547, Edward Seymour became Duke of Somerset, and Protector of England: his nephew, King Edward VI, was only ten years old at the time.
If we look closely at the history of England in the sixteenth century, we will notice that the children of King Henry VIII from his various marriages succeeded one another every few years. We may read the amazing story of Mary I, Queen of England for five years, 1553–1558. Or an even more amazing story of Jane Grey, who was proclaimed Queen, and who managed to hold the throne for a very short time. Then we’ll find that Elizabeth I, King Edward’s older sister, daughter of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn, became Queen of England in 1558, and remained on the throne until her death in 1603. The history of the royal family in those centuries reads like a novel of suspense.
But let us not forget Somerset House. The present building was completed in 1776–1786 to a design by Sir William Chambers, a very well-known English architect. It used to house the General Register Office (known as GRO) of births, marriages and deaths, which has been moved to St. Catherine’s House, Kingsway. Its East Wing, added much later, is part of King’s College, London.
For many years, Somerset House was a place people went to if they wanted to see a copy of anybody’s birth, marriage, or death certificate, or read a record of those events. Family Records Center, or FRC, contained all registered records. The births, marriages and deaths indexes were in large, heavy, hardcover books (red covers for births, green for marriages and black for deaths) in three sections respectively, with each section arranged in chronological order. Using the details from an index, a copy (certificate) of the corresponding birth, marriage or death entry could be applied for at the cashiers’ section on the same floor. Other indexes at the FRC included some births, marriages and deaths of British nationals which took place abroad, indexes of legal adoptions in England & Wales from 1927 onwards, and various indexes of war deaths in the armed forces in both World Wars.
The most amazing fact about Somerset House is that anybody could apply for, and get a copy of any document. One did not have to be related the person one was interested in.
The births, marriages and deaths indexes were originally at Somerset House until the 1970s. In the early 1980s, the births and marriages indexes were at St. Catherine’s House, at the northeast corner of the intersection of Kingway and Aldwych, and the deaths indexes were at Alexandra House, farther up Kingsway. After more space was made available at St. Catherine’s House, the deaths indexes were moved from Alexandra House. Finally, they were all moved to the FRC in 1997. Throughout the FRC, there was free access to a wide range of family history material, databases and internet websites. Staff were always available to provide help and advice on family history research and there were regular one-to-one family history surgeries and computer skills tutorials. Talks on family history topics took place every week. Other events, including exhibitions and conferences, were organized. There were good facilities for customers with special needs, and there was a small bookshop next to the entrance on the ground floor and a refreshment area with vending machines and lockers for personal belongings in the basement.
Its main resources were indexes to civil registration of births, marriages and deaths on the ground floor (provided by the GRO), and the Victorian census returns on the first floor (provided by The National Archives).
In 1986, the United Kingdom adopted its Data Protection Act. For many more years, copies of various records could be obtained freely, or researched online. However, in 2006 all the records were moved to closed National Archives. Today, if you need any data about personal records, you have to apply for a permission to study them, and prove that you really need them for family or historical research, for matters connected with inheritance, crime, et cetera.
Somerset House remains an important landmark and a tourist attraction in Central London. Today, it is mostly associated with the arts. It is also very popular with the film industry: sometimes, it is even used to “portray” Buckingham Palace!
elusive (adj.) hard to find, see or catch
indefatigable (adj.) never tiring
landmark (n.) an easily recognizable object, like a tree or a building, by which one can tell where one is
Protector (n.) historically, a nobleman chosen to rule the country during the childhood or illness of the king, often a relative
facilities (n. plural) things such as transport, equipment, et cetera, which help one do something in a certain place
census (n.) an official counting of a country’s total population
If you are interested in this story, you can simply enter “Somerset House” into the address line, or use a search engine <yahoo.com>, <google.com>. You can also use “wikipedia.org> for more information about this historical landmark, its past, present and future.
to be continued