VC5 and 6

Somerset and Vice-counties 5 and 6

The map below shows Somerset with Vice-county and modern (post 1996) boundaries.  Note how the boundaries differ at certain points: these differences are due to changes in the administrative areas over the years.  The big chunk of VC6 (to the north) that is outside of modern Somerset, is mainly the former county of Avon.

Somerset showing VC's and Modern County
Somerset showing modern and Vice-county boundaries
(produced by MapMate® using Digital Map Data ©Bartholomew)

Watson and Vice-counties

Hewett Cottrell Watson (1804-81), a noted English Botanist, devised a system of sub-dividing Great Britain into similar sized areas for plant recording.  These became known as 'Vice-counties'.  His system, which is independent of any change to administrative boundaries, is still in use today.

The original definitions comprised a set of hand marked-up maps with written descriptions, which are still in existence at the British Museum (Natural History).

Over the years this system has been refined and the last formal definition was made by the Ray Society in 1969.  This publication included 1:625,000 scale maps with the boundaries marked in red.

Definitions of Somerset Vice-counties

The Ray Society definitions1 (which include Watson's original descriptions) for Somerset are quoted below:

5 South Somerset. Somersetshire south of 'a line along the river Parret, from Bridgewater to Ilchester; and thence curving round to the northern extremity of Dorset'.  The latter part of this definition is not precise, and so the following line is adopted as being both clearly discernable and in close agreement with Watson's definition and original published maps: River Parrett up to junction with the River Yeo; River Yeo up to Ilchester: thence the road (A303) through Sparkford, Holton and Wincanton to the Dorsetshire boundary just west of Bourton.

6 North Somerset. Somersetshire north of the above line.  Steep Holme Island belongs to this vice-county.

This defines the VC5/VC6 boundary - to complete the picture we also need to consider the boundaries with our adjacent Vice-counties.  Watson generally used the administrative divisions of the time and we have to refer to these historic maps to resolve the boundary in detail.  Most definitions in current use (like those mapped above) are digitised directly from the Ray Society maps.

Pros and cons of Vice-counties

There are good arguments both for and against using this system.  However, as these areas never change (by definition) we can compare lists from today with those of the last 100 years or more.  It is likely that the Vice-county system will continue, at least for aggregation of regional data, into the foreseeable future.

1. Dandy, J. E., Watsonian Vice-Counties of Great Britain, The Ray Society, London, 1969.

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