It is with great sadness that we have learnt of the death of our longest serving volunteer, Gerry Westall, who passed away peacefully shortly before Christmas. A former employee of Sutton’s Seeds and a well-known local historian, Gerry brought an enormous depth of expertise and knowledge to the Museum of English Rural Life (MERL) during the 20 years that he volunteered with us.
In June 2011 the University of Reading acknowledged Gerry’s long service, along with that of his colleague Ron Butler, at a special event celebrating volunteering.
In his letter inviting guests to the event, Professor Gordon Marshall, the then Vice-Chancellor, noted that the event would “mark the significant achievements and impact of our many students and local volunteers who have made a personal contribution within our institution and our wider community over the past year.” It was very fitting that Gerry’s service was highlighted at such an event, because his contribution was not only a long one but, more importantly, a significant one.
For many years, Gerry, with his friend, former colleague and fellow-volunteer Ron Butler, were the Museum’s only volunteers. Starting in the old MERL buildings on Whiteknights, Gerry made his mark, often quite literally, on many collections and projects. Of course, most important to him was the Sutton’s archive and he poured many hours into supporting the cataloguing, enhancing lists, identifying people and places in photographs and, with the Earley Local History Group, producing a wonderful publication celebrating the firm’s history. Gerry also maintained links with the company and with former staff members, enabling MERL to learn of and acquire countless additional items which might otherwise have been lost to researchers.
Gerry’s other great project related to the local history photographic collections at MERL. Those who worked closely with him would never cease to be amazed by his ability to recognise a street or a shopfront, long since disappeared, and from that recognition to build a picture of the people and their connections to the prominent companies and families of Reading. This immense knowledge was generously and unswervingly shared with MERL and, through the lists and catalogues that Gerry enhanced, with the wider community. Some photographs escaped recognition, but these were exceptional: such episodes were always great fun, as Gerry, along with other members of the team, attempted to guess the location and pushed suggestions back and forth.
This sharing of knowledge extended to Gerry’s regular local history notes in the local newspaper, for which he drew on both MERL’s collection of old photographs, and his own personal collection. Gerry would always recognise the limits of his knowledge, and publishing the images allowed him to bring other local residents into the project – although anyone who knew Gerry knew that he was rarely if ever mistaken in his identifications! Gerry was also very keen to ensure that MERL received recognition locally for the strength of its collections and for the work that it does.
Since learning of Gerry’s death, many colleagues, former colleagues and other volunteers have spoken to us of his enthusiasm and kindness. As a member of the team (and he could hardly fail to be that, so long had he served), he was always ready with a bit of gardening advice, or a word of support or encouragement, or with a suggestion – always constructive and positive. Gerry knew that his days in management had passed, and was always at pains to allow the professional staff to make decisions – although he would have made a fine curator or archivist. He took an interest in people and often joined the other staff and volunteers at coffee time for a chat. It is not only his knowledge that will be missed, but also his camaraderie.
Volunteering at MERL was not a chore for Gerry: in 2012, when the Museum achieved the Investing in Volunteers Standard, he was chosen to comment on his experience and said the following: “I find volunteering at the University Museums and Special Collections Service extremely rewarding and very much feel part of the team. What I enjoy best is the local collections which I have been interested in for most of my life. I’ve been going through the local photos and putting captions underneath, sending them to the local newspapers which are then published. I have learnt a lot and continue to learn.”
The thoughts of everyone at MERL are with Maureen, and with all of Gerry’s family and friends.