Discovering the landscape: lost landscapes of Michael Brown

In this post Amber Roberts, recipient of MERL’s landscape academic engagement bursary talks about her work on our Michael Brown collection (Landscape Institute collections).

Michael Brown’s work is unfortunately little known to today’s landscape architects. Thanks to a generous research bursary from MERL I have been able to delve into his archive and begin to uncover Brown’s idiosyncratic approach, his lost landscapes and his lost research.

Michael Brown Collection (AR BRO)

Brown (1923-1996) was an Edinburgh-born architect and landscape architect whose career had an international scope and strong links to key designers of the mid-twentieth century, such as Ian McHarg, Dan Kiley and Basil Spence. Brown’s projects covered all scales of landscape architecture and are of particular interest due to his commitment to integrating the theories and practices of landscape and architecture that resulted in a body of work that was both inventive and pragmatic. Brown stated:

The art and aesthetic delight of landscape must emerge out of solving down to earth problems elegantly and simply.

With this focus on the solution of ‘down to earth problems’, his work navigated the complex tensions of the profession that existed both then and now by advocating an objective, theoretical and interdisciplinary approach.

If spaces between buildings are to be used to their best advantage it is essential that methods of analysis and comparison be evolved which will enable the designer to analyse the functions and uses of external spaces very rigorously.

This approach is particularly evident in his work at Livingstone Road, London (1962 and later awarded a Civic Trust Award 1968) developed with the architects George, Drew and Dunn Partnership, a project that is due to be lost to a £300m regeneration project. By undertaking a disciplined survey and analysis of the site Brown identified key issues and opportunities that ranged from the particular microclimate of the site to cut and fill balance and pedestrian movement lines. Brown interwove this analysis with the ‘Court House Concept’ of his tutor McHarg to develop a series of spaces that were given careful detailing landform and levels to create a range of soft spaces.

Great West House, Michael Brown Collection (AR BRO)

Beyond the layout of the courtyard system of open space, Brown sought to foster a sense of ownership for the spaces among the new residents. This was a key approach of Brown’s that he had begun to develop during his early British work with SPAN Housing. Brown himself became a resident of Fieldend and member of the Resident’s Association for the upkeep of the landscape within the estate. The courtyards at Livingstone Road were each given a distinct character and function that was embellished with sculptures and wall panels and Brown actively promoted a resident’s association for the scheme.

Overall Brown had a deeply personal and idiosyncratic approach to landscape,  his publications and designs offered exemplary solutions responding to complex issues from housing and motorway design to the design of public squares. Each of which combined his joint skills in architecture, urban design and landscape. Brown’s breadth of projects are testament to his rich and varied experience merging together disparate ideas and skills.  This research on Brown will be presented with Lead Researcher Dr Luca Csepely-Knorr at the Society of Architectural Historians Conference in Glasgow next month.

Find out more about Amber’s work or our Landscape Institute.

Poultry Show, Telford

Written by Caroline Gould, Deputy University Archivist

The MERL attended the Poultry Club of Great Britain National Show at the weekend (19-20 November 2016). It was held at the International Centre, Telford. The MERL took a display of items from the David Scrivener Collection, an expert on poultry.

David Scrivener Collection

David Scrivener Collection

It was the first time The MERL had attended the show. Guy Baxter, David Plant and Caroline Gould spoke to over 180 members of the Poultry Club and general public over the weekend.  We had some fascinating conversations. It was a wonderful experience. I was totally amazed by seeing all the different breeds of poultry in one place and couldn’t stop myself taking pictures.

Prize poultry

Prize poultry


The Poultry Club of Great Britain agreed at their AGM to provide a £25,000 grant to the Museum of English Rural Life to catalogue, digitise and conserve the David Scrivener Collection of slides, postcards, prints and books. The grant will also pay for activities of public and academic engagement. We wish to thank the Poultry Club for their generous grant and we are very enthusiastic about the forthcoming project. We will keep you informed of our progress.


Poultry at show

Poultry at show



Childrens entries at the show

Children’s entries at the show

Archives featured in the Galleries

Written by Caroline Gould, Deputy University Archivist

Sheep Dipping

Sheep Dipping

The new galleries were opened on 19 October 2016, after a £3million redevelopment programme with £1.8 million from the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF).  Prior to the redevelopment, the galleries contained a large number of objects with little interpretation. We were keen to include archives, archival film and photographs through the new displays aiming to revitalise the way visitors engage with the Museum’s extraordinary collections.

In February 2014, we started researching the archives and photographs to identify items for possible inclusion in the galleries. Our strategy on how to include archives in the galleries developed over time.  However, we found five main ways to feature archives.

We have included photographs in the galleries to aid interpretation of the objects and themes. In Gallery 2, ‘A Year on the Farm’, the largest photograph measures 2280m x 2500m, it shows sheep dipping in progress (John Tarlton Collection).  Our sheep dip object is placed in front of the photograph.

We have used archives in cases on a limited basis. The cases are likely to remain quite fixed. This is a challenge if we wish to permanently preserve the archives. The cases are not environmentally controlled and prolonged opening of volumes for display will, in time, damage the item. We therefore will need to

Blacksmith account book of Wiltshire 1934-1939

Blacksmith account book of Wiltshire 1934-1939

monitor the archives selected carefully. However, having said all this the items we have selected look great. I am particularly pleased with the blacksmith account book of Wiltshire 1934-1939 in the wagon walk.

In three galleries we have created 18 drawers under cases which feature archives and books. The items will change every 4-6 months. This provides an opportunity to display more of the collections which have previously only been consulted in the Reading Room. Visitors will be able to browse these collections and hopefully see new items when they next visit. Currently in Gallery 3, ‘Town and Country’, we have a drawer in the ‘Grow your Own’ section. This displays a minute book and report from ‘The Women’s Farm and Garden Association’ which details the setting up

Minute book and report from ‘The Women’s Farm and Garden Association’

Minute book and report from ‘The Women’s Farm and Garden Association’

the Women’s National Land Service Corps, which later became the Women’s Land Army, dated 23 May 1916.

There are some wonderful gaming interactives in the new galleries; lambing time appears to be the favourite at the moment.  Two interactives feature over 790 photographs from The MERL collections. ‘Then and Now’ is located in Gallery 3 it allows visitors to explore our photographs for the local area. We have included current photographs for Caversham, Wokingham and Hambledon. Gallery 4 features the ‘Voices and Views’ interactive, for each county we have included 10 photographs and some sound clips. Another interactive in Gallery 3, features the evacuee archive; it allows visitors to explore the stories of eleven individuals: nine evacuees, one teacher and one host son. Included in the display are contemporary photographs, letters and diaries.

The MERL holds over 1500 archival films, including films of the Ministry of Agriculture Film Library, National Dairy Council and Ransomes, Sims and Jefferies promotional films.  In Gallery 6 ‘Forces for Change’ we have a screen to show ten archival films, edited to seven minutes each. The current selection includes two compilations from Screen Archive South East and the Wessex Film and Sound Archive. The Britain on Film Rural Life programme has funded four events in West Sussex, Hampshire, Kent and Berkshire. The project is funded by The British Film institute. The compilation films at The MERL will be screened until the end of the year.

We created six photo albums featuring twenty photographs or documents. Gallery 2 ‘A year on the Far

‘Making Rural England’ photograph album featuring crafts and the home.

‘Making Rural England’ photograph album featuring crafts and the home.

m’ shows farming through the seasons, while three photo albums in Gallery 3 ‘Town and Country’ complement the featured objects: the horse, the steam engine and the Land Rover. Additionally in Gallery 5 ‘Making Rural England’, two photo albums feature crafts and the home.

We have worked on selection of these items for over two years. It is now wonderful to visit the galleries and see visitors enjoying the displays.  A special thanks to Caroline Benson, Photographic Assistant without whom the above would have been impossible.

Shaping the Land – why is the first of our new galleries all about trees?

Written by Guy Baxter, Archivist

The introductory text

The introductory text

The first space that visitors to the new MERL galleries enter is deceptively simple. It contains one object (a timber carriage), one large picture (an oak tree) and one literary quotation. Thanks to the projected animation and immersive soundscape, visitors can also see and hear the seasons change in the woods.

The gallery was conceived to give visitors the idea of being out in the countryside – after all, the Museum is in the middle of a large town. This is where we hint at the idea of there having been a “natural” environment, before people came along and started “shaping the land”. The theme of woodland reminds us that a greater proportion of England would have been wooded in pre-historic times, and so our ancestors would have faced the massive task of clearing trees in order to grow crops and graze animals.

But the gallery also carries a number of smaller and more subtle messages. Let’s start with the oak tree. Not only is this a powerful symbol of England – it appears on the “English” version of the pound coin after all – but the image chosen is the first photograph ever taken of an oak, by William Henry Fox

The Fox Talbot tree and the timber carriage

The Fox Talbot tree and the timber carriage

Talbot. Of course, his connection to Reading is well known given that he produced The Pencil of Nature, the world’s first photographic book, in the town. His oak tree is shown in the winter, standing strong against the ravages of time. Longevity is another trait of oak trees that suits the context of the gallery: the “timeframe” here is one of centuries not years.

The second idea that we introduce is seasonality. This is done through our animation which effectively shows all four seasons in one day – not such a rare occurrence in England! The animation, made by the Netherlands-based firm ShoSho, shows a woodland and also some land beyond that has been cleared – but with a lone oak in the background as well. In this gallery we introduce the changing seasons in nature partly as a prelude to the next section, A Year on the Farm, which examines how the seasons relate to the food that we grow and eat.

The animals that occasionally appear in the animation include a gall wasp. This was partly inspired by Dr George McGavin’s amazing documentary on oak trees in which he notes not only the symbiosis between the gall wasp and the tree but also the subsequent use of oak gall in the production of ink. So much of what is in our library and archive – indeed so much of our recorded history and knowledge – owes a debt to that relationship between insect and tree.

In front of the animation stands the timber carriage – a large and constant reminder of man’s interaction with the land. The carriage itself, also known as a ‘timber jill’, was used for hauling timber by

Photograph of a timber carriage in use

Photograph of a timber carriage in use

the Hunt Brothers of Waterside Works, a firm of millwrights in Soham, Cambridgeshire. The donor, Mr Tom Hunt, requested that they be recorded as ‘in memory of Thomas B. Hunt, Millwright, of Waterside Works, Soham, Cambs.’ This was his father, who died in 1954 at the age of 95 and was working almost up to the last. It was given to the MERL in 1955 – the year that we opened to the public for the first time – so it’s appropriate that it should be “object number 1 in gallery number 1” as we re-open.

We have also displayed a photograph, from the Miss Wight Collection, to show a similar carriage in use. The photograph was taken around 1935 in Aconbury Woods, Herefordshire.

The quotation, chosen by Dr Paddy Bullard in the Department of English and American Literature, is from the Victorian poet Gerard Manley Hopkins. It comes from his poem Pied Beauty. We also considered another of Hopkins’s poems, Binsey Poplars in which he mourns the felling of trees in 1879;

The quotation and the images of leaves

The quotation and the images of leaves

and we looked at using a section from A Shropshire Lad by A. E. Houseman (verse 31) which describes the same wind blowing through the trees that blew on the Romans many centuries before.

Finally, we added some images of leaves – manipulated by our photographer Laura Bennetto to reflect the style of Fox Talbot’s early leaf photographs. The actual images were provided by the Dr Alastair Culham at the University Herbarium and show the following native English varieties: oak, elm, ash, beech, willow, hawthorn, hazel, elder and apple. The leaf motif has also been used to decorate the new areas of glass in the Museum’s introductory area.

This has been a really fascinating gallery to work on and – because of its seeming simplicity – also quite a challenge. We took inspiration from many places and, made some fascinating discoveries along the way – not least David Hockney’s brilliant Yorkshire Wolds film. It has also been a really collaborative effort and one that has, we hope brought out the best of our creative, technical and curatorial skills.

War Child

The MERL is very excited to announce the publication of War Child, an online ‘mixed-media book’ which explores our Evacuee Archive from a fascinating new angle.  In this visually stunning work, Teresa Murjas, Associate Professor in the Department of Film, Theatre & Television at the University of Reading, and alumnus and film-maker James Rattee have woven together an intricate tapestry of content focusing on the story of how the archive came into being and how it continues to shape the life of its creator, Martin Parsons.

war child2 sm
The inspiration for this unique project came from Teresa’s initial meeting with Martin in 2013 when he was speaking about the Evacuee Archive at a meeting for scholars interested in the University’s Collection Based Research programme:

 I became particularly curious about the Evacuee Archive through my meetings with Martin. His willingness to talk to me lies at the centre of the project. My interest about how the archive came into being was generated in discussion with him. The project attempts to tell a story of the archive’s growth through focusing on a series of edited audio fragments from our dialogue and on imagery that investigates and reflects on a small collection of significant objects. These key elements act as ‘guides’ on a sometimes light-hearted journey of exploration into a few of the possible reasons why this archive exists, and the relationships and attachments associated with it. This is why the title of the project incorporates the phrase ‘meditating on an archive’. It might also be possible to argue that the new material we have collected and drawn together as part of the project is an extension of the archive held at MERL, or perhaps that it creates a new gateway to it.

warchild-boatsmThe British Government scheme to evacuate children from cities during the Second World War began in September 1939. Children, usually without their parents, were sent to areas of Britain that were considered safer from bombing and the effects of war, these were often rural areas.  Our collection contains written memoirs, oral history interviews and research material relating to former evacuees and war-children.

In his career as a historian of Second World War child evacuation and lecturer at the University of Reading, Martin accumulated a wealth of research materials and documents which he generously donated to the Museum helping to make our Evacuee Archive the largest resource of its kind outside London’s Imperial War Museum.  While ‘War Child’ displays many of these records and artefacts in an accessible and unique format, the real power of the project is combining the materials collected with audio files, which exhibit its creator’s extensive knowledge of the collection and its origins.  As Martin’s daughter, Hannah, explains in an audio clip from ‘Meeting Five’ of War Child, her father is the archive and it is a rare treat for this kind of memory to be captured alongside the physical collection.

Understanding and exploring this aspect of our archive was however, a natural process for the creators of War Child:

A lot of my research and teaching focuses on the work of arts practitioners whose interests lie in communicating the experiences, memories and stories of children affected by war. ‘War war child - masksmchild’ builds on that research and teaching, in that it seeks to both point towards and respond to, what is a very important conflict-related resource for researchers, whatever their age and background – namely the Evacuee Archive. Seeking to understand and explain how war continues to affect children remains an ongoing and urgent necessity. Consulting and contributing to this ever-expanding archive can form part of that process.

When exploring the War Child site, I personally found Martin’s discussion of the evacuee luggage label of particular interest.  Not only does Martin describe how these labels were a symbol of the immense logistical feat achieved during the War, he also emphasises the dehumanising effect they had on the evacuated children.  Significantly, these labels were often kept as prized possessions and have become an evacuee’s own version of a military medal, with people proudly displaying their labels on Remembrance Day for the march past at the cenotaph.  Meanwhile, for Teresa, one of the most interesting artefacts from the collection is actually one that is missing:

 war child- dollsmI am really interested in the section about the doll. Arguably, I got disproportionately excited about the doll in the archive that cannot be found! No one really knows where it has gone, or when it went. Working through our disappointment, but also our, in retrospect, persistent questions about what it was like, what it would be like to find it and so on, could probably be a bit wearing for Martin at times, I think, and he was extremely patient. Nevertheless, those discussions feel very rich and complex now, because there was this strong sense of investigation about them, on everyone’s part. For me, that section feels in some important way as though it is at the centre of the work.

While War Child is a fantastic companion piece to our Evacuee Archive, it is also an illuminating archive in and of itself; a significant chapter of the story, containing records and memories of the experiences of those most closely involved in developing the collection and bringing it to MERL where it can be preserved for and shared with generations to come.

It would be great if people felt motivated to re-visit War Child over time. It contains a lot of material, and coming back to that in stages, as we have, can shed new light.

Written by Louise Cowan, Trainee Liaison Librarian

Discovering the Landscape: From London traffic to an Italian Prisoner of War camp

Book Production War Economy Standard stamp

Book Production War Economy Standard stamp

Over the course of a large scale cataloguing project, many hundreds of items pass through your hands.  Since acquiring the library and archive of the Landscape Institute in late 2013, we have made nearly 2500 books available to readers here at MERL.  Added to this figure are metres of journals and pamphlets – and this is to say nothing of the huge amount of varied and fascinating archival material that has been catalogued and made to available to readers so far (more on this next time).

Town Planning and Road Traffic by H. Alker Tripp (London, Edward Arnold & Co.,1942)

Within this wealth of material it is inevitable that some items catch your eye or stick in your memory more than others.  Striking cover designs, exquisitely illustrated plates, or an unexpected personal relevance are often those that stay with you.

Surprises keep things interesting!  Sometimes that faded cover, with its generic title, gives way to a book with a fascinating story or provenance – often raising more questions than you can answer – which transform the item you hold in your hands from every day to truly unique.



Town planning and road traffic, by H. Alker Tripp.

London: Edward Arnold & Co., 1942.

Title page with inscriptions in pencil relating to a prisoner of war camp

Title page with inscriptions in pencil relating to a prisoner of war camp

Sir Herbert Alker Tripp (1883-1954) was a senior English police official, who for much of his career, worked to find ways to address London traffic problems.  Blackouts and the blitz following the outbreak of WWII led to an even more complicated traffic situation in London.  In 1942 Tripp’s Town Planning and Road Traffic was published.  Tripp looked ahead to post-war reconstruction of urban areas and made pioneering suggestions about big new roads that could connect towns: motorways.

As with all of our LI books, Town Planning has an LI book plate pasted down on the inside cover.  It also has a small label which tells us that the book was donated to the LI library by Maria Shephard.

Bookplate showing previous life of the book as part of the LI library, donated to them by Maria Shephard (Tripp, Town Planning, 1942)

Bookplate showing previous life of the book as part of the LI library, donated to them by Maria Shephard (Tripp, Town Planning, 1942)

Maria Teresa Parpagliolo Shephard (1903-1974) was an Italian landscape and garden designer.  A member of the Landscape Institute (frequently contributing to their journal) and involved in the setting up of IFLA, Parpagliolo worked and travelled across Europe as a pioneer of European landscape design.  Parpagliolo trained with Percy Cane in the early 1930s and worked on a string of high profile projects including the Regatta Restaurant Garden at the Festival of Britain in 1951.

In 1946, Parpagliolo married Ronald Shephard, the “‘town major’ of the British military in Rome, whom she met during Rome’s liberation by the Allied Forces. She followed him back to England in 1946” (Dümpelmann, 2010).

Landscape architects gifting their books to the LI library after their deaths is not unusual in itself.

Pencil inscriptions and an ink stamp on the title page relating to a ‘Camp Leader’ at a ‘Campo Concentramento 82’ – however – are not something I have seen before.

Curiouser and curiouser.  Pasted on to the back of the title page is a label confirming that the book was sent to ‘The Camp Leader’ via the ‘Prisoner of War Post’.  According to the I Campi Fascisti project, Campo Concentramento 82 was a prisoner of war camp in Laterina, near Arrezzo, where the Italian fascist state held thousands of British, Greek, New Zealander, South African and Greek prisoners of war during WWII.

Prisoner of War Post label

Prisoner of War Post label

A further notable feature of the title is the ‘Book Production War Economy Standard’ stamp printed onto the back of the title page (you can see this at the top of the post).  We have a small number of other books within our collections which also feature this intriguing marking.

The book production war economy agreement the schedule with an introduction and notes on interpretation. 1942. MARK LONGMAN LIBRARY--070.5-PUB

The book production war economy agreement the schedule with an introduction and notes on interpretation. 1942. MARK LONGMAN LIBRARY–070.5-PUB



We have all heard of rationing during WWII, but did you know that even paper was rationed?  From 1940-49 paper was rationed, with publishing companies having to cut back on their use of paper by 60%.  In 1942 ‘The Book Production War Economy Agreement’ between the Ministry of Supply and the Publishers Association introduced strict guidelines which covered, for example, print size, words per page and blank pages.  Published in 1942, Tripp’s Town Planning could have been one of the first titles to published under this scheme.  It does contain one large fold out plate.  Despite these restrictions, demand for books grew during WWII.



Why was this title sent to a prisoner of war camp leader via the prisoner of war post?  Perhaps in the context of needing to rebuild urban areas after the war.  How did Maria Parpagliolo have this book?  Could a member of her family, or her husband, have been connected with the camp?  Perhaps she purchased it as a reference book and the provenance is incidental.  This fascinating book gives us a tantalising insight into this historical period – but raises more questions than answers!

Fold out plan at the back of Tripp, Town Planning, 1942

Fold out plan at the back of Tripp, Town Planning, 1942

Please contact us (using the form below or at if you have any further information.

For more on Maria Parpagliolo, Sonja Dümpelmann has published several articles and a book (such as Dümpelmann, S. (2010). The landscape architect Maria Teresa Parpagliolo Shephard in Britain: her international career 1946–1974, Studies in the History of Gardens & Designed Landscapes, 30:1, 94-113, DOI: 10.1080/14601170903217045).

For more on publishing in war time, Valerie Holman’s Print for Victory is a great start.

Claire Wooldridge, Project Librarian

Reading Readers – Hilary Matthews

This month, University of Reading PhD student Hilary Matthews tells us about her research into livestock portraiture of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century.

As a Reading University PhD student, I am looking at how the paintings and prints of livestock in the late eighteenth/early nineteenth century functioned within the society that produced them. My research is centred on the Museum of English Rural Life’s own collection of livestock paintings and I make a weekly 4 ½ hour round trip from my Essex home to work on the museum’s associated archives and agricultural books and ephemera in the Reading Room.

Hilary with Jacqueline Winston-Silk, Art Collections Officer, in our art store (Photo by Martha Fleming).

Hilary with Jacqueline Winston-Silk, Art Collections Officer, in our art store (Photo by Martha Fleming).

When I explain to people what I am researching the first question is invariably what do the paintings look like and secondly why were they depicted like this?  To answer the first I always tell people to close their eyes and visualise portraits of cattle, pigs and sheep with huge bodies, tiny heads and short legs. It’s amazing that when I say this almost everyone goes “oh yes I know what they look like”.  The second question, why painters depicted them like this, (although some did depict them more naturally), lies at the heart of my research.

The desire to satisfy the food demands of the rapidly growing urban population made farmers and landowners continually seek to breed animals that would satisfy this demand. My research reveals that in doing this the lines of the strong class system of the period were continually stretched and reshaped as landowners, often without the skill and knowledge to breed the best quality livestock themselves, had to rely on the poorer, but better, livestock breeders to provide them with the best stock. This stretching of the class boundaries does not seem to have applied when patrons commissioned artists to paint their animals though. To immortalise their livestock, the aristocracy seem to have engaged society artists whilst the lowly farmers employed jobbing sign painters. However, as I am discovering in the Museum of English Rural Life’s archives, this was not always the case.

A Shorthorned Heifer, Seven Years old (The Heifer that travelled) by Thomas Weaver (1811), and print engraved by William Ward  - Object No. 64/102

A Shorthorned Heifer, Seven Years old (The Heifer that travelled) by Thomas Weaver (1811), and print engraved by William Ward – Object No. 64/102

Apart from recently studying art history, I have also studied agriculture and for many years, I have bred, exhibited and judged pedigree livestock. I try to incorporate all these aspects into my research and so, for instance, in trying to understand a painting like Thomas Weaver’s, The White Heifer that Travelled, (below), I have tried not only to appraise this work as an art historian but to look at it scientifically too. A heifer is a young cow that has never calved but even allowing for artistic licence this heifer was obviously huge. Although she could have been born as a freemartin, (a freemartin is a female calf from a set of mixed twins and is invariable infertile), by trawling through the Museum of English Rural Life archives I have learned that she may have been speyed.  Around the late 1790s, farmers experimented on female cattle by surgically removing what they quaintly called the ‘lusts’. This stopped female cattle coming into season and allowed them to fatten much quicker. This sort of information helps me to understand the paintings far better – you could almost say that it puts meat onto the bones of my research.  However, in this instance I don’t think this particular heifer requires any more meat on its bones!

Find out more about animal portraiture and our collection in this blog post from October 2015 by Art Collections Officer, Jacqueline Winston-Silk.


Weekly what’s on: 22nd Sept to 5th October

Full details of our events this term can be found on our website, and events in the Our Country Lives programme are listed here


BeckettSelfPortraitandChaplinweb597777_36826Samuel Beckett in London – the Murphy Notebooks
Weds 1st to Saturday 4th October

As part of  the University of Reading’s Beckett Week, a celebration of the University’s internationally renowned collection of manuscripts from the Nobel Prize-winning writer will be on show at MERL. The display showcases fascinating items from a key period in the famous author’s life, including the Whoroscope Notebook and the Murphy manuscripts.



jethro 8 cutout flipToddler Time
Friday 3rd October, 10-11am, £2 per child, drop-in
From this month, Toddler Time will be monthly (first Friday of the month) and we’re moving (find out why) to The Learning Hub at the Institute of Education, right next door to MERL. Please come to MERL (to pay and park as usual) and we’ll go over to the new venue together. We’ll still be enjoying songs, rhymes and stories followed by a craft activity inspired by the Museum’s collections and garden.


country lives logoInformation Day,
Saturday 4th October, 2-4pm
Free, drop-in

Come and see the current displays for one last time, learn more about the project, see the first artist impressions of some of the proposed new galleries, and find out how you can get involved…


  • Hear a short presentation outlining plans for the new galleries, facilities and activities
  • See artists impressions and initial plans for the new galleries
  • See some of the hidden treasures from the stores which will feature in the new displays
  • Have a go at object handling – an example of the kind of activity which will be available in the new museum
  • Take part in an ‘image keywording’ activity with staff to discuss contrasting images of the countryside & help inform one of the new galleries focussing on percetpions of the countryside (Read this blog post to find out more)
  • Make a chocolate box decorated (as seen at the Berkshire Show!) with nostalgic rural images and see the objects which inspired them
  • Find out about the new Family Forum & Youth Forum and sign up to take part in consultations to have your say in the future of MERL
  • Enjoy delicious tea & cake!


greenhamCollecting the countryside: 20th century rural cultures
Until Autumn 2014
Temporary exhibition space
Free, drop in, normal museum opening times
Since 2008 the Museum of English Rural Life has been adding even more objects to its collection, with support from the Heritage Lottery Fund’s Collecting Cultures programme, in order to represent each decade of the last century. (Find out more in Curator, Isabel Hughes’ blog post) This exhibition gives a taste of what has been acquired. The exhibition will help the Museum to explore how to incorporate more recent histories and representations of the English countryside into its displays as part of the Our Country Lives project.

Coopering in the MERL collections

Image from the Farmers Weekly Collection at MERL.

Since May I’ve been working on the Reading Engaged project to research content for the new galleries which will form part of MERL’s redevelopment project, Our Country Lives. True to my passions as ever, I’ve been taking the opportunity to focus on researching craft, as we’re hoping to dedicate a large part of one of the galleries to craft. We hope to use different crafts that we have examples of in our collections to highlight key issues affecting the heritage craft sector, bearing in mind that there is no one-size-fits-all story for craft. We also want to ensure that the galleries are up to date and reflect the current state of making and show the many varied and vibrant ways in which these crafts exist today.

One of the crafts I’ve researched so far is coopering. The only things I knew before I started came from the headline ‘only one Master Cooper left in England’ and from watching the fantastic video of a cooper knocking up a cask that we currently have on display in the Museum. When you start to think about it, you realise how incredible coopering really is. Ken Kilby, author of several books on the craft, describes the barrel as ‘the greatest invention of all time’ for without it ‘most goods would have remained right where they were made, or not have been made at all.’

Cooper holding finished cask bound with many hoops (P DX318 PH1/41/83)

Cooper holding finished cask bound with many hoops (P DX318 PH1/41/83)

Casks (the term ‘barrel’ describes a particular size of cask) were used to transport all sorts of goods, wet and dry. Over the centuries, coopering gradually divided itself into three main branches, with an acceptance among coopers that certain branches were more skilled than others. The main categories are dry coopering (least skilled), white coopering and wet coopering (most skilled). When you think about it, it really is quite incredible to be able to make a watertight cask of a specified size which can withstand long years of rough handling with no glue or sealants, and hardly any measurements! Another great Ken Kilby quote: ‘There are no amateur barrel makers.’

By the end of the nineteenth century, the majority of cooperages were found in breweries, when Britain was brewing approximately 37 million gallons of beer. In 1889, Bass’s Brewery at Burton on Trent employed 400 coopers; and circa 1900 Shooters, Chippingdale and Colliers employed 630 coopers! Until World War II, coopering had seemed a secure occupation but by the 1950s most of the independent cooperages in Britain had closed, and during the 1950s–1970s wooden casks were phased out of the larger breweries. By 2010 only 4 breweries still employed a qualified cooper, and today Theakston’s are the only brewery to do so.

We have about 80 coopering tools at MERL, along with various coopered products including cider kegs, butter churns, cheese moulds and buckets. The majority of the tools come from two sets: one from the cooper’s shop at H. & G. Simonds Ltd., known as the Bridge Street Brewery, in Reading; the other from a cooper who served his apprenticeship at Reading Brewery 1948–1952 (we also have his certificate of indenture for his apprenticeship). The first set is currently on display in the Museum galleries. Take a look at the tools on our online database.

I’ve been working to create a ‘content pack’ for each craft I research. This includes reading up on the subject and writing introductory notes, looking at the related objects we have in the collections and identifying particular objects which can be used to illustrate specific points and, with the help of Danni and Caroline, investigating the Archives to see what we have in terms of documents and photographs.  I’ve also been in contact with Alistair Simms, England’s only Master Cooper (to become a Master Cooper you must have successfully trained an apprentice), who I’m hoping to visit in September, and Theakston’s Brewery.

If you want to find out more about coopering, come along to MERL on Saturday 23 August when Marshall Scheetz, historian and Journeyman Cooper at Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia, USA, will be giving ‘An introduction to cooperage’. The talk is free. Details here.


Written by Greta Bertram, Project Officer.

Biscuit recipe of the week: 1940s jam biscuits

By Shira Kilgallon, UoR History Student and MERL Library Volunteer

This week’s biscuit recipe comes from Ministry of Food pamphlets found in the MERL Library collections; two pamphlets have been used to give you a recipe with a twist (and a bit of a challenge!!).

This particular twist is definitely for the more experimental among both biscuit enthusiasts and beginners, as the recipe not only gives a fairly conventional and simple biscuit recipe, but also instructs how to make the jam from scratch. The recipe itself is fairly straightforward, but a little more complicated than previous weeks.

Both pamphlets are from the late 1940s post-war era. They thus contain, as you may find in any recipe books or pamphlets of the time, some rather misogynistic top tips for the ‘contemporary housewife’, which I’m sure you’ll be pleased to see have not been forgotten below! It is also interesting to note that the biscuit recipe was written with the intention of, as the title suggests, ‘Making the most of sugar’ when it was scarcely available due to rationing.

We hope this week’s biscuit recipe will inspire you through its challenging nature – or even its simplicity if you choose to just buy a jar of jam…

Making the most of the sugar

(from Ministry of Food Leaflet No. 21, Dec. 1946, MERL Library Pamphlets 7060 BOX 2/04)

The best way of stretching the sugar ration is by making full use of other sweetenings such as saccharin, honey, syrup or treacle, jam, marmalade, sweetened condensed milk and dried fruit.

Using Jam and Marmalade
Rinse empty jam jars with a little hot water and use this in sauces or for mixing puddings and cakes.


Jam Biscuits
3 oz. fat                              8 oz. flour            2 tablespoons milk           3 tablespoons jam
Rub fat into flour till the consistency of breadcrumbs. Mix together the milk and the jam. Add this to the fat and flour, knead well. Roll out very thinly, cut in shapes and bake in a moderate oven for 15 minutes.

(All spoons are level and all recipes for four.)

maff-jamJam Making

(from Ministry of Food Leaflet No. 28, 1946, MERL Library Pamphlets 7060 BOX 2/31)

Housewives who have saved sugar to make home-made jam are advised to follow very carefully the instructions given below.

  1. Fruit should be fresh and firm-ripe. Over-ripe fruit should NOT be used.
  2. Before the sugar is added, the fruit should be cooked slowly until it is quite tender, with just sufficient water to prevent it burning. Stir occasionally to prevent sticking.
  3. SUGAR is stirred into the softened fruit until dissolved and the jam then boiled rapidly until setting point is reached. Do not have the pan too full or the jam will boil over at this stage. Stir occasionally to prevent sticking.
  4. Removing Scum. Do this only when boiling has finished. Constant skimming is wasteful and unnecessary.
  5. Testing for setting point. Begin to test after about 10 minutes of rapid boiling (after sugar has been added). Remove pan from heat during testing.

To test: place a little jam on a cold plate; if setting point has been reached, the jam will wrinkle when pushed with a finger.

  1. Filling the Jars. To prevent fruit rising in the jars, the jam should be allowed to cool slightly in the pan.
    Put on wax disks while hot, and press down over the surface.

From the various types of jam recipes outlined in the recipe leaflet, we chose:

Raspberry Jam
6lb. raspberries                 6lb. sugar
Put the fruit in the pan and cook slowly until some juice has come out of the fruit. Add the sugar, stir until it is dissolved, and boil rapidly until setting point is reached.

Please try out the recipes and don’t forget to enter the MERL Village Fete Biscuit Bake-Off on 31 May!