Ann Heeley obituary

Other lives: Member of the committee of the Friends of the Somerset Rural Life Museum

My friend Ann Heeley, who has died aged 76, made a huge contribution to the study of social history in Somerset.

She was born Ann Williamson in Warrington, Cheshire, the eldest of four children. Her father, Barnet, was a dairy farmer, while her mother, Mary (nee Williamson – the two were distant cousins), was a cheesemaker whose business was based in Shropshire. She attended Seascale school, an independent school in Cumbria, then the Elizabeth Gaskell College of Domestic Science in Manchester, and worked as the catering manager at Montgomery House, a student hall of residence.

In 1961 she met David Heeley, a research assistant in economics at Manchester University, and they married the following year. In 1970 they moved to Somerset when David took a post with the shoemakers Clarks, in Street, and the family settled in Butleigh. Ann involved herself in village life and started to gather information about its history. She was a member of St Leonard’s church in the village and of the parish council. She also led Sunday school for several years and jointly edited the parish magazine.

In 1975, Ann volunteered to help the newly developing Somerset Rural Life Museum (SRLM) in Glastonbury. Asked to gather information for the forthcoming exhibitions, she interviewed strawberry growers in Cheddar using a cumbersome reel-to-reel tape recorder. Fascinated by the conversations, she embarked on 40 years of dedication to what has become the Somerset Voices oral history archive, one of the most significant regional archives in the country. Ann contributed more than 700 recordings of Somerset people.

The SRLM’s first galleries featured the life story of a Victorian Somerset farm worker, John Hodges; it was no coincidence that he lived in Butleigh, too. Ann shared her research with the museum staff, enriching the story with details of the village and its community. The exhibition opened in 1978, with an accompanying booklet. It proved extremely successful, with two redisplays over the following years.

Ann served on the committee of the Friends of the SRLM for more than 30 years, her posts including secretary and chair, and she held leadership roles on the research, education and publications teams. In 1996 she was elected regional secretary of the British Association of Friends of Museums, and subsequently national secretary from 2000 to 2002.

Ann contributed her own research and co-authored many of the SRLM’s publications and teachers’ resource packs. She lectured throughout Somerset to local societies and to regional and national meetings. She helped to establish and lead the first regular Victorian activity programmes for primary schools at the SRLM and worked with other volunteers to digitise the museum’s documentary and photographic records. In 2010 Ann was appointed MBE in recognition of her work on behalf of the SRLM.

Ann is survived by David and their three children, Jane, Michael and Barnet, by four grandchildren and by her siblings, Patricia, Susan and John.

Martyn Brown

The GuardianTramp

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