‘How to be Rural’: Agricultural Instruction in the MERL Collection

‘How to be Rural’: Agricultural Instruction in the MERL Collection

Amy Thomas

For the last six weeks I have been working on the ‘How to be Rural’ UROP project, which aimed to begin research into the niche genre of agricultural manuals and handbooks. I have spent my time working in the reading room at the Museum of English Rural Life and looking through the shelves in the MERL and Special Collections library.

I began by creating a book list that ended up being 180 books long and it took me around three weeks of searching through the library website and shelves to do this. I looked at each book on the list and made notes on the content, design, illustrations and the author. The publication dates of the books on the list range from 1704 to 1998. By physically looking at all the books, I could see how the agricultural instruction genre and general book design had changed through the years. The earliest paperback books I looked at were published in the last few years of the 19th century.

Once I had this list, I started to think about what and who I should research more for the temporary exhibition that will be in MERL. While the genre of books is quite niche, there were so many ways I could go with the research and the showcasing of that research. There was no way I would be able to research and organise an exhibition that would be inclusive of the whole genre, so we decided to focus on a man named Thomas Tusser who was alive in the 16th century and Dorothy Hartley who wrote her own books but also researched Tusser and edited an edition of his work in 1931.

Tusser, arguably, created the English agricultural instruction genre in 1557 with his book called A Hundredth Pointes of Husbandrie. I decided to find out more about him and why he wrote his farming tutorial book, a book that was written all in verses that rhyme and have a memorable rhythm. It is believed that he managed to get a formal education at Eton and Cambridge because of his singing voice and charm which provided him with patrons throughout his life. He spent ten years at court working for Lord Paget during Edward VI’s reign but left because he had a “yearning to farm”. He tried and failed at farming three times in his life and always retreated to work in music when that happened. It seems that his patrons helped him financially when he lost his livelihood by finding him work or possibly lending him money to lease a new farm. He died in 1580 with no money because he lent it to his brother. Tusser wrote six editions of his book during his lifetime and expanded A Hundredth Good Pointes of Husbandrie to Fiue Hundred Pointes of Good Husbandrie. It had been republished through the centuries and the latest edition available at MERL was published in 1984.

We also wanted to show a more recent iteration of the ‘Tusser tradition’ of agricultural instruction. A Book of Farmcraft was written in 1941 by Michael Greenhill and Evelyn Dunbar and published twice in 1942. It was written for Land Girls in response to them “always doing things the wrong way” and often having no farming experience before going to work on farms that need their help for the war effort. Evelyn Dunbar was the illustrator for the book. Greenhill and Dunbar met at Sparsholt Farm Institute where Land Girls were trained, Greenhill was an agricultural instructor and Dunbar was a war artist that depicted women’s efforts on the Home Front.

Using this research, I will plan an exhibition for MERL and write a blog for the Special Collections website. The booklist I compiled will also be added to the MERL catalogue for the use of further research.