Suttons in World War I

This, the centenary year of the First World War, has heightened many people’s awareness and understanding of the conflict. The anniversary has also been an opportunity for us to delve into our collections, looking to see what they tell us about the contemporary reactions to World War One. This fascinating extract is just one of those that has been discovered:

Extract from a leaflet in the 1915 Suttons Seed Catalogue (TR SUT P2/A75)

To Our Customers

The stupendous conflict in which almost the whole of Europe is engaged, and the constant vicissitudes of the war, have dwarfed many features of every-day life which under normal conditions would demand attention …business must be carried on in as complete a manner as circumstances will permit, and in no section of trade is this more true than in the case of the great industry with which our House has been so prominently identified for more than a century.

The immense importance of producing home foodstuff of all kinds, on as extensive a scale as possible, was realised at the outset and large quantities of vegetable seeds were supplied by us to clients throughout the kingdom in August last [1914?]

Economy with efficiency has been the basis upon which our vast business has been built up, and in compiling our catalogue for 1915 we have endeavoured to keep the cost of seeds as low as is consistent with that efficiency which is essential.  It is perhaps unnecessary to remind our patrons that ‘cheap seeds’ are invariably the dearer in the end.

Photograph of premises adapted for use by troops as recreation rooms.

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Suttons Seeds roll of honour (TR SUT P2/A76)

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For more information on the Sutton Seeds collections please click here.

For information on events which are taking place as part of our commemorations of the First World War, including details on our fascinating seminar series, please see MERL Seminars: The Great War and the countryside and Special events 2014.

Zoe Watson

Project Manager/Project Archivist, Reading Connections

 

Experts look deep into Historic World Objects

As the Reading Connections project draws to an official close, a number of consultancy visits have been run as part of its ‘World Cultures’ theme. The most recent of these was a seminar to assess the potential of the Historic World Objects collection for future community engagement, but we’ll hear more about that in a blog post to follow. A wide range of people have been involved in organising and attending these sessions, and towards the end of February one of the Reading Connections interns, Farah Qureshi, helped facilitate an object research visit. She’s written a post about her experiences of the day:

‘As part of the Reading Connections project, a selection of historic world objects collected and donated to Reading Museum between the late-nineteenth century and the mid-twentieth century have been highlighted for further study. Including clothing, weapons, musical instruments and tools, the objects represent historic international cultures and give us an insight into the cultural interests and travels of Reading residents.

As an intern involved in Reading Connections, I joined in helping while museum consultants visited the Reading Museums stores at the end of February to have a close look at these objects. Two of eight consultants who will contribute to the World Cultures theme of the project, Len Pole and Marina De Alarcón, were invited to Reading on the basis of their expertise. Len (freelance, formerly Royal Albert Memorial Museum & Art Gallery, Exeter) is predominantly a specialist in West-African material, and Marina (the Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford) is mostly a specialist in South American material, although their knowledge seemed to know no limits!

After studying Anthropology for my University Masters, I appreciated the opportunity to spend two days working with Len and Marina, learning from Reading’s ethnographic collections. Both consultants have worked extensively with ethnographic collections across the world, and had an impressive wealth of information to share. While they analysed a range of objects, I found that my knowledge of world cultures was greatly enhanced observing the functionality of objects, which often shed light on cultural practices. I wrote down their observations, preparing notes to be attached to database records, and enjoyed being involved in their discussions exploring the purposes of the objects.’

Sword

This ‘executioner’s sword’ from the DRC seems to have been a hit with multiple consultants and project staff!

Craft catalogued!

MERL 74/131/63. A rug made by Mrs Eva Norris of Reading and part of the Hemeon Collection of rug-making tools and thrift rugs.

MERL 74/131/63. A rug made from strips of French knitting sewn together. Made by Mrs Eva Norris of Reading and part of the Hemeon Collection of rug-making tools and thrift rugs.

I have just completed enhancing the digital catalogue records for the approximately 4500 objects in the MERL collections which were originally classified as ‘craft’ (see previous post). Some of these had been enhanced during previous cataloguing projects, while others were essentially empty records. I started with the 1300 untouched records, and then went back to edit the others. Each record has now been enhanced with information about provenance, use and historical context. In some cases, further enhancements incorporating more specialist information, such as details to do with materials and techniques, have also been added. The crafts at MERL are divided into seven materials-based categories – clay, leather, metal, straw, stone, textiles and wood – so I worked through the records material by material to enable me to cross reference them, to rationalise object names and descriptions, and to generally bring all the records into line with one another.

I have also systematically keyworded all of the records to make them more easily searchable on MERL’s online catalogue. This element has tied in with the work I’ve been doing on another project at MERL, Countryside21, which has involved updating the MERL Classification and developing a structured keywording system based on it.  Each craft record now has a top level process-driven and materials-based keyword – CRAFTS : clay-working, CRAFTS : leather-working, CRAFTS : metal-working, CRAFT S: stone-working, CRAFTS : straw-working, CRAFTS : textile-working, CRAFTS : wood-working. The generic keyword CRAFT S has been given if the material is not known, is not listed, or crosses many materials. Further and more specific keywords have then been added to help narrow down the searching, based on craft disciplines which are well-defined or of which we have significant numbers of objects, e.g. brick and tile making, saddlery, tinsmithing, stonemasonry, rope making, rug making, basketry etc. Take a look at the project page for a full listing of craft keywords.

During the cataloguing, I’ve come across large craft collections which I had no idea we had (such as the Hemeon Collection of rug-making tools and samples), collections which have enthralled me (my love of our basketry collections is well known), and collections which have left me asking ‘why?’ (such as the Alec Coker Collection of corn dollies).

It’s enormously satisfying to have completed this work, and I know that it will be an incredibly useful resource – especially to craftspeople. It will also be beneficial to future projects at MERL, as the importance of knowing what you have and what you know about it (all of which can now be easily found) cannot be understated. However, I’d also like to think that the craft cataloguing isn’t over – it would be great if craftspeople, when looking at our catalogue, could let us know if we’ve made mistakes or if they have further information to add (email merlobjects@reading.ac.uk). Furthermore, I really hope that engagement with craftspeople in terms of building connections, opening dialogue and raising awareness of our collections, which formed the second aspect of the craft strand of Reading Connections will become an ongoing activity at MERL.

 

Greta Bertram, Reading Connections Project Officer

 

MERL remembers WW1

 

You may be forgiven in thinking that all has gone quiet regarding the WW1 part of the Reading Connections project but, in fact,things have been busier than ever.

Since the beginning of the year, of course, there has been a significant appetite for commemorating the centenary of the First World War, most obviously, in the media. This interest has also been evident locally where attention has been focused on the impact of the conflict on Reading. Among those delving into this fascinating aspect of our local history have been the University’s History students who, last month, ran a WW1 Roadshow at MERL. This event, as well as showcasing the students’ research on the First World War and Reading, also invited members of the public to bring their WW1 documents, photographs and artefacts and show them to the students and to a panel of experts, including John Chapman of the Trooper Potts Memorial Trust (pictured).

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Of course, as can be seen in this photograph, we couldn’t resist the opportunity to display the Memorial Book and objects dating from the First World War in the MERL collections during the event.

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The Memorial Book is just one of the artefacts which has been selected for display in a free exhibition,  Reading University College: WW1 and Beyond, one of the highlights of the Reading Connections WW1 project. The exhibition was installed yesterday and, as with all installations, involved many hands on deck. The photographs below include Danni Mills (Reading Connections Digitisation and Data Officer) adding the final touches to the displays.

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Reading University College: WW1 and Beyond opened today and will remain on display until the 1st August in the MERL Staircase Hall. Its main focus is the University’s Memorial Book which features those individuals who had connections to the then Reading University College who lost their lives in the First World War. That said, it is a display which also examines how our collections relate to other conflicts. Among the more surprising and remarkable objects on display are a selection of tiles from Hiroshima which were donated to Special Collections in 2011.

Throughout the exhibition’s duration, our appeal to find out more about those individuals who feature in the Memorial Book still continues. Our appeal launched last Autumn and asks for the public to look at our flickr site where all of the individuals in the Memorial Book are featured and, if they can, to provide information on them. To access our flickr site please click here.

 

Phillippa Heath

Reading Connections Digital and On-line Engagement Officer.

 

Historic World Objects: research and beyond

Although we’ve been pretty quiet on the blog post front, plenty has been going on in the World Cultures part of the project since last autumn. Adam and I have been busy researching the 600 objects that were chosen and re-photographed for inclusion in Reading Museum’s new online catalogue. This is quite a varied process as there is a lot of variety in the amount of information already available about the objects. Some records might tell you who collected the object, when, from where, what it is, and what it was used for. Others are less informative; my personal favourite is the record that simply states ‘This is a mat’. As ever in documentation and research, you are rather at the mercy of whatever information was originally collected about an object at the time it was donated to the Museum! This isn’t to say that the sparser records are lost causes – if anything, they’re the most satisfying to research, for those ‘breakthrough’ moments when you make a connection or identification.

Mozambique door rubbing

A rubbing of a door carving from a hut in Mozambique, sent to the Board of Study for the Preparation of Missionaries as a teaching tool, researched during a recent consultancy visit.

To date we’ve researched around 475 objects, which puts us just over three-quarters of the way to meeting our target. Unfortunately this does mean that we’re now getting to all the trickier objects that, earlier on in the process, we put aside for later! The research process is generally pretty fun though – especially as I seem to have the capacity to become interested in just about anything. As just a small sample, we’ve researched: traditional Burmese puppet theatre, Tunisian ceramics, Zulu bead-work, West African musical instruments, Northwest Coast Native American basketry, Scandinavian birch bark shoes, Portuguese ox yokes and Venezuelan devil masks. Keep an eye out for announcements about the launch of the online catalogue, if you’d like to see the rest of the 600 objects!

Historic World Objects consultancy

Investigating an object described as a ‘Congolese executioner’s sword’ during consultant Chris Wingfield’s visit.

The other main focus of activity over the past few months has been planning the Historic World Object consultancy. We’ve invited six ethnographic specialists to visit the collection and offer advice on research, conservation, and the potential of the collection for future engagement projects. These will take place between now and the end of April, but the first three consultants, Len Pole and Marina De Alarcón, and Chris Wingfield have visited over the past few weeks. I will write a blog post about the outcome of all the visits closer to the end of the project. In the meantime you should hear soon from one of the interns working on the project, Farah Qureshi, who helped out with one of the consultancy days, about her experience of working on this part of the project.

Felicity McWilliams, Project Officer

 

Reading Connections in the Lake District

Walter Lloyd and Project Co-Ordinator Sarah Thomas getting to grips with some of the tools.

Walter Lloyd and Project Co-Ordinator Sarah Thomas getting to grips with some of the tools.

Last week I was lucky enough to visit the Lake District for a couple of days to help out on a project called Walter’s Tools, which has been funded by the HLF’s ‘Sharing Heritage’ scheme and led by The Woodmanship Trust. Walter Lloyd is a fascinating 89-year old who has been (and still is to a certain extent), amongst other things, a bow-top caravan builder, charcoal burner and fell-pony breeder. He has a barn piled from floor to roof with all sorts of agricultural equipment, including a wide selection of hand tools from a variety of rural trades and crafts.

The Walter’s Tools project aims, with the help of a team of volunteers, to catalogue and restore these hand tools to create a ‘tool library’ for use by craftspeople and educational organisations – basically, the tools can be borrowed and, most importantly, used! It’s a fantastic idea! I really do love working at MERL but it can be sad knowing that the tools in our collection have reached the end of their functional lives – not because they’re no longer in a suitable condition but because that’s what museums do – so it’s great to know that there’s a project happening which runs counter to that vein. The tool library will be housed at Stott Park Bobbin Mill near Newby Bridge in Cumbria from 2015.

By Monday afternoon the sun was shining and the shelter was finally up.

By Monday afternoon the sun was shining and the shelter was finally up.

Having spent the last year at MERL working on the craft strand of Reading Connections, which has been all about cataloguing craft collections and making connections with craftspeople, I was really keen to get involved in Walter’s Tools and to share some of my craft cataloguing experience. It was quite a challenge in some ways, as a collection like this doesn’t need the same sort of cataloguing as a museum collection. Working with Sarah Thomas, the Project Co-ordinator, we assessed the needs of the cataloguing and devised a cataloguing workflow to take into account what needs recording, at what stage in the process, and how best to do it. The much more exciting aspect of the project – the restoration of the tools – is yet to come. A local blacksmith and a local handlemaker will be working on site with volunteers to restore and refurbish the tools into a working condition. In some cases this means a good scrub with wire wool, in others it’s a case of sharpening or re-handling.

By Tuesday afternoon we'd started sorting through some of the tools and giving them provisional numbers.

By Tuesday afternoon we’d started sorting through some of the tools and giving them provisional numbers.

The project is only just getting underway, so a lot of the time during my visit was spent preparing the site – clearing rubble, putting up a shelter, and shovelling huge piles of woodchip. I had a wonderful time! The weather was beautiful and it was great to be out of the office and doing something active on a Monday and Tuesday! We also started to do fish out the tools from the piles in the barn, put them into crates and conduct an initial assessment as to whether they were suitable for inclusion.  We managed to give 200 tools provisional numbers by the time I left on Tuesday afternoon.

There must have been over one hundred billhooks in Walter's collection.

There must have been over one hundred billhooks in Walter’s collection.

There’s a lot to do and I think Sarah’s got her hands full running the project, but I’m very envious! I really hope I can go up again in a couple of months’ time and do some more volunteering – perhaps a weekend scrubbing billhooks?

 

Greta Bertram

Project Officer

A ‘badger’ of bodgers at MERL

Some of the objects the bodgers looked at. Unfortunately, although there was lots of photo-taking, we forgot to take any photos of the group!

Some of the objects the bodgers looked at. Unfortunately, although there was lots of photo-taking, we forgot to take any photos of the group!

On Monday MERL hosted a visit from the Berkshire Bodgers, a local group of greenwood workers which was formed in the summer of 2013. The visit was part of craft connections element of the Reading Connections project, to engage with local craftspeople to raise awareness of our collections, the work we’ve been doing with them and their availability for research purposes.

MERL has a wonderful array of greenwood craft products and tools – including bowls, spoons, walking sticks, handles and chair spindles. One of the highlights for many woodworkers is the chance to see George Lailey’s lathe, tools and bowls. Lailey lived and worked in the Berkshire village of Bucklebury (find out more on the Sense of Place project blog), and is widely known as the ‘last bowl-turner in England’. He turned wooden bowls on a foot-powered pole-lathe until his death aged 85 in 1958. It was reported that the craft died out with him, but it has since been revived and is now popular with many greenwood workers.

The majority of the spoons at MERL (unfortunately we have no spoon-carving tools) were part of the British Council collection, which was put together in 1946 as a touring exhibition sent to Australia and New Zealand to show crafts that were still being practised in the British Countryside. Many of the pieces in the Collection were made specifically for the exhibition and have never been used. The spoons were beautiful – so highly finished – and some were surprisingly large!

Historically, the term ‘bodging’ refers to the craft of turning legs and other cylindrical parts of chairs. The examples we have at MERL were turned by Sam Rockall, the last in a line of bodgers who worked in the Chiltern beech woods. We’re lucky enough to have a few of the tools he used, as well as some spindles.

We had an amazing turnout for the visit, with eighteen bodgers – so we divided into two groups. While half looked at the Lailey material on display in the galleries, the other half had the chance to look and handle some of the other greenwood craft items, as well as exploring the Mezzanine and the wider collections. And during the lunchbreak we took a few minutes to listen to a BBC recording with George Lailey made in the late 1940s.

I love visits from craftspeople, as their enthusiasm, passion and knowledge is incredible. Simon Vowell, who demonstrated bodging at the MERL Fete in 2013 and helped organise the visit, said he was “vibrating with excitement”. And Chris Allen, head of the Berkshire Bodgers, described MERL as a “bodger’s heaven”. The visit also provided Phillippa Heath, Digital Content and Online Engagement Officer for Reading Connections, with the opportunity to conduct some oral history interviews with some of the bodgers, with more to follow next week. And the visit also got me really excited about the spoon-carving course I’m going on in April with Martin Damen, who also demonstrated at last year’s MERL Fete. So all in all, a great day all round!

Thank you to all the bodgers who came to visit. We really hope you enjoyed your day – it was great to have you! And don’t forget to take a look at our online catalogue to find out more about our craft collections.

 

Greta Bertram, Project Officer

MERL collections to be given a human voice

As you will have gleaned from previous posts, a really important aspect of the Reading Connections project is to make the MERL and Reading Museum collections accessible so that they have the potential to be viewed and used by as large an audience as possible. Partly this has been achieved through the creation of digital resources (such as the Memorial Book flickr site which details those who had connections with the Reading University College and who lost their lives during the First World War). As 2014 gets underway, however, an additional oral history strand will come into force which will provide another way for communities to engage with the collections.

Oral history (or the the conducting of interviews with people who participated in or observed past events and whose memories and perceptions of these are to be preserved as an record for future generations) has been increasingly used in museums as part of their interpretation.In particular the last 20 years, which has witnessed the reinterpretation and the democratization of museum spaces, has also seen an increased use of oral histories in heritage settings. For many museum professionals and visitors, this has been a welcome change. Mark O’Neill (Director of Policy and Research for Glasgow Life) describes that: “museums are places where people go to think and feel about what it means to be human”. Oral testimonies can provide a human voice, increase relevance and can capture aspects of life which are informal and unwritten and which might otherwise disappear without trace. We are now in a position where more museums than ever are taking notice of the things that people remember.

In MERL we are lucky to have an extensive Evacuee Archive which comprises, among other things, interviews conducted with evacuees during the Second World War. The interviews were carried out by the Research Centre for Evacuee and War Child Studies at the University of Reading. The collection mainly relates to evacuation schemes within Britain and the British children who were sent overseas to Canada, the USA, South Africa, and Australasia. As part of the Reading Connections project a group of volunteers have formed a Transcription Group and will transcribe the interviews in full. These transcriptions will then be catalogued and made publicly available. Also as part of the project, we will be conducting new interviews. These interviews will complement the different themes of the Reading Connections project including: Reading at War, Craft, Local Collections and Village Communities and we are set to interview a range of individuals from craftspeople to members of the Women’s Land Army. These will go far to further enhance our collections.

Phillippa Heath

Reading at War Project Officer, Museum of English Rural Life


Reading Connections – the half way point

The project has reached the half way stage and the project team have achieved a lot so far:

Reading at War

Phillippa Heath and, project volunteer, Jeremy Jones have been to talking to Tony Blackburn on BBC Radio Berkshire, and have been interviewed by the Reading Post about the World War I Memorial book held by the University.  People have been discovering the Flickr site and adding more information on the people in the memorial book enriching the information already held.

Zoe Watson and Danni Mills hosted a visit from the Berkshire World War I project.

The Evacuees Archive is now available for research use.

Project intern Laura Farrell has been researching using the Evacuees Archive, and Huntley and Palmer archive for performance pieces by Dr Teresa Murjas.

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Ian McDonnell Jessiman evacuated to Vancouver, Canada in 1940 (D EVAC A/2/23)

Village Communities

Dr Ollie Douglas and with Dr Bridget Yates recently gave a talk entitled Looking for Lavinia: An American collector in 1930s in Berkshire, which generated good feedback and some new leads to follow up on.

Craft

Greta Bertram recently gave a successful talk to Southcote Library.  She has now finished cataloguing all clay, leather, metal, stone and straw crafts (leaving just textiles and wood crafts to go), and has enhanced craft catalogue records by adding images to them.

Historic World Objects

With photography work completed over the summer, all 600 objects selected for the online catalogue now have at least one high quality photograph. Research is well underway, with project officers Felicity McWilliams and Adam Koszary having fully researched 120 of the 600 objects so far. Plans are also underway for museum ethnography specialists to visit the collection and offer advice about its potential for further research or community engagement.

Local collections

Danni Mills has reached the milestone of digitising 4000 images, and has catalogued 2 500 images from the Collier collection.  Sophie Fitzpatrick has been working on Reading Chronicle glass plate negatives, and approximately 500 images have now been researched and prepared on MODES out of approximately 2000, with the help of project interns Sarah Beattie and Evelyn Williams.

We are looking forward to achieving even more by the end of the project.

Zoe Watson 

Project Archivist/Project Manager

Intern Laura Farrell writes about her research


I have spent the last few weeks at MERL carrying out research for two unusual exhibitions which are to be mounted by MERL in collaboration with Reading Museum in the Spring/Summer of 2013. The exhibitions, which will involve elements of film and/or live performance, will be produced by Dr Teresa Murjas (Associate Professor in Theatre & Performance), James Rattee (PhD film-maker) and Sonya Chenery (PhD performance-maker) from the Department of Film Theatre & Television at the University of Reading. The research I am carrying out will form the basis for their two interactive, installation-based pieces.017

Postcard from child – D EVAC

My first area of research is the Evacuee Archive – MERL holds a very large collection of film, photographs, press reports, correspondence and documentation of all kinds relating to the evacuation of civilians during World War 2, as well as hundreds of interviews with evacuees (and, occasionally, with those who played host to them, taught them or otherwise played a part in the vast and complex operation of evacuating over three million people).

What has struck me most is the diversity of the evacuee experience. Like many people, I have long been familiar with the classic image of evacuation – large groups of small and bewildered children, probably from the East End of London, shepherded onto trains with gas masks in hands and labels tied to their coats to be billeted with strangers at an unknown destination. Delving into the MERL archive reveals the experience of less well-documented evacuee groups – the many who were “privately” evacuated to family and friends both in Britain and overseas, those sent overseas as part of the government’s CORB (Children’s Overseas Reception Board) scheme, the smaller children evacuated with their mothers, and the many who spent the war in temporary boarding-school -style “camp schools”. The evacuees’ stories range from the touching (happy days helping on the farm, lifelong friendships made with loving ‘second families’) to harrowing accounts of neglect and abuse, and everything in between.

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D EVAC A/1/384

My second area of research is the archive of Reading’s famous Huntley and Palmers biscuit factory, with particular reference to their role as a major supplier of army biscuits to the forces during World War 1. Reading Museum has an intriguing collection of original army biscuits (some still in excellent condition after a hundred years, which gives some idea of their hardness) which were carved, decorated, painted, written on and sometimes sent home as mementos, love tokens and even picture frames by bored Tommies at the front. The Huntley and Palmers archive at MERL sheds light on the manufacturing processes involved in producing thousands of tons of the biscuits, with handwritten recipes, correspondence with the War Office, and a great deal of documentation showing how the company struggled to fulfill their orders as ingredients and even packaging became more and more scarce and a significant proportion of their workers left to join the forces.  I hope the exhibition will shed light on this period of Reading’s industrial history, as well as giving the public a chance to see some truly fascinating objects.

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Laura Farrell

Reading Connections Intern