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.’


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

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.


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.


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.


Ref: HP306

Laura Farrell

Reading Connections Intern

Evacuee archive now available

The Evacuee archive (ref D EVAC) has now been catalogued and the majority of the collection is available for consultation in our reading room.  Some parts of the collection are closed to the public, because of Data Protection issues.  Please contact us if you would like to know more about this.

It is a fascinating collection and is already being used by a PhD student, and Laura Farrell, one of the Reading Connections project interns  has been researching the collection, which will form the basis of a piece by Dr Teresa Murjas for the project. There will be a blog post about this very soon.

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A pair of moccasins, probably from an evacuee who was evacuated to Canada, although there are no details with them ref D EVAC K/2

Zoe Watson

Reading Connections Project Manager

Internship blog post – Evelyn Williams

I have been volunteering at Reading Museum since 2010 first as part of the Reminiscences Project, then Historypin and most recently Revealing Reading’s Hidden History. Through the internship, I have the opportunity to work full time for a period and see a lot more of how the Museum works. I hope to become more professional, efficient and effective in museum related activities and tasks. The role will also contribute to my own personal development. Working with colleagues from MERL adds a stimulating dimension to this project.

Research on the Reading Chronicle Collection continues and I am working with Project Officer Sophie to prepare information relating to the images that have been selected for an online catalogue.

My time is split between Reading Library where the microfilm copies of the Berkshire Chronicle are available to look at, and Reading Museum where I add to the data and information already held about the image.

Berkshire Chronicle has transported me back to the Reading of 1939 just before and just after the outbreak of the Second World War as it reports on how the outbreak of war affects life in the town. Some familiar local places, people and events crop up but I am learning all the time about Reading’s history.

Some stunning images have been selected to be showcased online covering the length and breadth of life in Reading. From these I have selected an image from June 1939 of the staff of the Berkshire Chronicle before they set off on their annual outing. The scene is in Valpy Street outside the Berkshire Offices and alongside Reading Museum, with Blagrave Street in the background, everyone is dressed up and ready to go.




Evelyn Williams

Project Intern, Reading Museum


The word spreads about ‘Reading at War’… even Tony Blackburn’s talking about it!

At this time of year many of us will reflect on those who have fought for their country and, in particular, on those who have made the ultimate sacrifice.

As we approach Remembrance Day,  the local press have taken a keen interest in the Reading at War aspect of the Reading Connections project, part of which aims to highlight the stories of the 146 individuals who feature in Reading University College’s Memorial Bookall of whom tragically lost their lives in the First World War. We are delighted that the Reading Post and BBC Radio Berkshire have been keen to focus on some of these incredible stories.

During their visit, two reporters from The Reading Post met myself and project volunteer, Jeremy Jones, and were shown the Memorial Book. They were introduced to some of the individuals who feature in it and explored the project’s designated flickr site. The flickr site is a fantastic resource as it not only allows people to view those individuals but it also contains, where known, further biographical details about them and their connections to Reading University College. These details are just the tip of the iceberg and, of course, we are appealing for anyone who has more information about, or photographs of, any of the individuals to get in touch.

Although we were unable to take the Memorial Book with us for our BBC Radio Berkshire broadcast, it was still very much the main focus of our discussion.

Tony Blackburn

Phillippa Heath, Tony Blackburn and Jeremy Jones at the BBC Radio Berkshire Studio  

There, Jeremy and I were interviewed as part of  Tony Blackburn’s show. Tony was incredibly enthusiastic and interested in the work we are carrying out. Not only was it a fantastic opportunity to promote the project, but it also brought to the fore the heart-wrenching stories of some of those students who gave so much.

If you missed the broadcast, it should be possible to ‘listen again’ at (the interview took place at 10.50 am on 07/11/13). All being well, the project will also feature in the Reading Post on 8th November, and a short edited video about the project will feature on their website. Our media coverage of the project will continue on Sunday, 10th November at 9 am when Guy Baxter, University Archivist, will also be interviewed on BBC Radio Berkshire about the Reading at War project.


Phillippa Heath

Reading at War Project Officer, Museum of English Rural Life