Rural Reads review #5: The Last Runaway by Tracy Chevalier

Written by Adam Koszary, Project Officer.

We had to take February off for Rural Reads this year, which allowed us plenty of time to stew on our latest book: The Last Runaway. Its author, Tracy Chevalier, is probably better known for her other historical novel Girl with a Pearl Earring, since adapted into a movie.

the-last-runaway-pbSet in the 1850s, The Last Runaway is told from the perspective of young Quaker woman called Honor Bright, who sails with her sister for a new life in Ohio. Billed as a historical novel, the domestic detail and life on a Quaker farm certainly shine through, but we felt the book could have dwelt more on establishing a sense of place, as well as being more adventurous in exploring the issue of slavery at a pivotal point in American history.

After travelling to the United States, it turns out that life in Ohio is far less rosy and significantly less stable than life in the sleepy coastal town Honor and her sister hark from. America is presented as brash, practical and selfish. This is in comparison to the close-knit Quaker communities of England, comfortable with their bedrock of history, tradition and mild climate.

After a tragic turn of events, Honor finds herself having to rely on the kindness of strangers in this strange new land. Already homesick, Honor spends most of the novel in culture shock. She despises both the heat and the snow, the mud, the dust, the architecture and the people of Ohio. The characters are also stereotypically American: strong-willed, independent and outspoken, they strike a sharp contrast to our demure protagonist, whose highest virtue is silence. Eventually, however, she finds her niche in society, first working for a fiery old haberdasher with a slave-catcher for a brother and then, after a tumble in the hay, settling down with a husband on his family’s farm.

Slavery, however, is the only thing which Honor cannot bring herself to normalise, and so she joins the Underground Railroad. The Ohioan Quakers, although opposed to slavery in principle, take a passive resistance to it because of threatened prosecution and violence. Honor, who risks relations with her new family, the law and much else besides, nevertheless helps the slaves that pass through her land.

A view of 1805s Ohio

A view of 1805s Ohio

Although slavery is an underlying theme of the book, we felt it is not explored to any great depth. Slaves are often unseen, taking food left out in the night or hiding in the haberdasher’s shed, and only one or two runaway slaves have a voice in the book. Instead, the overwhelming focus is Honor’s reaction to slavery and how it clashes with her moral framework. Indeed, the group generally agreed that this is a book more about Quakers than it is about slavery. For instance, Chevalier is obviously comfortable and knowledgeable discussing practices such as quilting, sewing, farming, and the meditative nature of Quaker gatherings than about the lived experience of slaves. Personally, I feel that Chevalier struggled to hang an exciting narrative on the monotony of a Quaker woman’s life in 1850s Ohio. She is best when contrasting this monotony with Honor’s intense, internal monologues exploring love, fear and the ethical tug-of-war between her own morals and that of her community and religion.

In conclusion, the group was somewhat divided. This is by no means a bad book, but neither is it an excellent one. It is simply an easy read or, as one of us put it: ‘a good book to read on a sick day.’

Next month’s book is Jim Crace’s Harvest, nominated for the Man Booker Prize 2013. We are meeting at 17:30 in the Museum on April 24th.


Weekly What’s On: 31st March to 6th April

You can find full details of all our forthcoming events and activities in our What’s On and MERL Families guides, which are now available from the Museum or to download from our website You can also see all events on our online calendar

DennyReading University College: WW1 and beyond
Tuesday 1st April to 31 August, 2014
Staircase hall, MERL
Free, drop-in, normal museum opening times
Funded by Arts Council England as part of the Reading Connections project, and inspired by the University of Reading Memorial Book and Clock Tower memorial, this exhibition reveals the stories of the men and women with connections to the then Reading University College, who fell during the First World War. The exhibition also looks at the theme of War in a broader sense with interesting items from MERL and the SPecial Collections relating to other conflicts.
Part of our WW1 programme


Guided tourGuided tour
Wednesdays, Saturdays & Sundays, 3-3.45pm (Please note that we are closed on Thurs 17th April and over the Easter weekend)
Free, booking advisable
Let our fully trained tour guides tell you the stories behind the objects on display and visit the object store to see MERL’s hidden treasures.



Easter bunny maskToddler time
Friday 4th April, 10-11am,
£2 per child, drop-in
Suitable for families with children aged 2-4
Come along to the Museum with your little ones and enjoy rhymes, songs and craft activities. This week we’ll be making Easter bunny masks



Birds nestFamily fun in the Easter holidays!
Easter trail
5-16th April, normal opening times (NB. Closed Mondays & Thurs 17th and all Easter weekend. We reopen on Tues 22nd)
Suitable for families with children of all ages
Follow the Easter trail and locate the Easter eggs in the Museum and garden. Prizes for all!!

For details of our family workshops throughout the holiday, visit our family events page


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’ recent post) This exhibition gives a taste of what has been acquired and challenges visitors to suggest the modern-day objects that the Museum needs to collect for the future. 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 new Our Country Lives project.


Guest post: Our Country Lives project goes global with a ‘Stitch in Time’

MERL Fellow, Dr Jane McCutchan has written a guest post about her project with ‘Permeate’ trainee, Genell Watson, to encourage more visitors to MERL by local people with a BAME background

Local community and wider audiences are at the heart of our re-display and there are many chances to influence how we explore English rural life. ‘Green and pleasant’ was the theme chosen by the organisers for the opening ceremony of the London 2012 Olympic Games, ‘Dull and boring’ was the opinion given by an Afro-Caribbean visitor to the Museum, adding ‘Why would people from ethnic groups in Reading want to come here?’

MERL Curator, Isabel Hughes, understands the challenge. Recent census statistics show that about eight percent of the population of Reading comes from a black or minority ethnic (BAME) community.  However, our visitor surveys, carried out as part of MERL’s Heritage Lottery Funded ‘Our Country Lives’ project,  show far fewer local people from these backgrounds visit the Museum.

In 2013 MERL had the opportunity to take on a Museum Trainee Fellow, Genell Watson, which was made possible with a bursary from the Arts Council England’s funded ‘Permeate’ scheme.  As part of her programme of activity, Genell considered new ways of appealing to local people with a BAME background.

Genell was asked to identify objects which held special significance and top of the list were the sewing machines in the Barnett Collection.  She liked the sewing machines because her mother had one and used it to make clothes for the family, in Jamaica.

Here was a common thread, but how could this be transformed into possible contact and outreach? Unlikely as it may seem, this is where I came in. I am a former MERL PhD student, and was recently awarded a Fellowship to compare the marketing strategies of Fowler steam ploughing engines and Singer sewing machines.  I shared desk space with Genell under the eaves of the museum and it didn’t take long for us to discover a mutual interest in sewing.  I’m a textile artist in my spare time. I dug out my coursework books of eye-catching samples to share with Genell, and an idea began to take shape for a quilt project.

Genell knew local community groups, but would they visit MERL and take part in the project? There was only one way to find out. Over two very wet days in October 2013, the two of us went from local church hall to community centre – 17 in total, with a book of samples and a message, ‘Hello, we are from the University of Reading, Museum of English Rural Life, and would like your help.’  The response was incredulous, ‘What us?’ … but the invitation was received with great pleasure. All of the groups said they would like to visit MERL in the future, and ladies from Slough Roots and the Aman Group volunteered to make our quilt. Reasons for not accepting the invitation at this time were that programme schedules were already full, groups lacked funding for transport to the Museum, and members might be nervous and so a follow-up visit was requested. We have made an application to the Ashley Family Foundation for future funding in the hope that we can work with more groups.

 Sewing bee2

Seven ladies from Slough Roots and the Aman Group, and their Co-ordinator, Cynthia Knight, visited MERL in November 2013 to see old quilts from the collections.  Ready to greet them were three sewing machines from the Barnett Collection including a clone of Singer model 28, dating to the 1920s, made for the UK market by Mundlos and Co. of Magdeburg, Germany. Cheap German-made versions of Singer machines were commonplace, when the designs fell out of patent, and were often copied. This one was called a ‘Royal’.

Slough roots sewing bee

When all the quilt blocks had been assembled, a follow-up visit to Slough for a ‘Quilting Bee’ was made in March 2014. As more and more people stopped by to ‘join the party’, and put a stitch in the ‘Community Lives’ quilt, the noise level rose. The finished quilt will go on display at Slough Public Library on 19th May before returning to Reading to be hung in the Reading Room at MERL.



My Favourite Object #5: ‘Four Hedges’, a book by Clare Leighton

By Fiona Melhuish, UMASCS Librarian

The wood engravings of Clare Leighton (1898-1989) were among the most exceptional examples of the art form produced during the revival of the art of wood engraving in the 1930s. She illustrated numerous books, several of which she had also written, and wrote a manual on her craft entitled Wood-Engraving and Woodcuts, published in 1932. Leighton was born in London and studied at the Brighton College of Art and later at the Slade. In 1922 she attended classes at the Central School of Art and Design where she discovered wood-engraving under the tuition of Noel Rooke (1881-1953) who was a major influence in reviving the practice of wood engraving in the twentieth century. His students also included Robert Gibbings and Eric Gill. Through Rooke’s classes, Leighton discovered a career in which ‘head, heart and hand might join’ in the words of her poet grandfather. Her engravings have a very powerful sculptural and monumental quality and are very recognisable. The natural world and rural people and their working lives were key themes in Leighton’s work. Along with her contemporary, Agnes Miller Parker, Leighton played a part in raising the popularity of wood-engraved book illustration on rural life and the natural world and improving aesthetic standards in popular book illustration.



Engraving of an agricultural labourer using a scythe from ‘Four Hedges’


The Farmer’s Year : a calendar of English husbandry (1933) is considered as her finest work, with its strong, almost bleak, images of rural workers, and her own text which showed a keen understanding and sympathy for life in the countryside, nurtured by her travels in Europe. However, my favourite book by Leighton is her later publication, Four Hedges. Published by Victor Gollancz in 1935, it was both written and illustrated by Leighton and became one of her bestsellers. Leighton stated in a letter to her publisher that “I want to keep the balance between the flowers and plants themselves (for this isn’t to be a professional gardening book, but only a year in an ordinary garden), the living things in the garden and the effect of the garden upon me, too, as a living thing.”



Engraving of anemones from ‘Four Hedges’

The book is divided into monthly sections, with striking and exquisitely rendered engravings of flowers, fruits, birds and animals, many drawn in her own garden in the Chilterns, to accompany her commentary. The text is a personal and anecdotal celebration of Leighton’s enjoyment of nature and of her garden which she had created from a Buckinghamshire meadow, with observations such as “I mow the lawn. How many people know the right way it should be done? Feet should be bare; grass should be slightly damp. The cold, moist clover strikes up from the mower upon my bare feet, and blades of cut grass and bits of slashed weeds stick between my toes”.

One of my favourite engravings from Four Hedges is her illustration of two women gathering apples in the ‘September’ chapter [see image below]. As with many of Leighton’s illustrations, it has a beautiful composition and strength of form. As the writer Joanna Selborne observes, “[the] figures are monumental and rhythmic, as epitomised by the swinging body of the apple gatherer”.


Apple gathererresize

Engraving of apple gatherers from ‘Four Hedges’


Other works and items relating to Clare Leighton held by the University of Reading Special Collections and the library of the Museum of English Rural Life include two copies of The farmer’s year, a copy of Leighton’s manual, Wood-engraving and woodcuts, and a proof-pull print entitled The quay held in the Miscellaneous Prints Collection. All of these items can be viewed at the Special Collections Service reading room on request. A further two publications Country Matters (1937), a collection of essays on country people and their occupations, written as “a record of an enduring world” and a catalogue for an exhibition of Clare Leighton’s work at the Ashmolean Museum in 1992 have been ordered to add to our holdings of material relating to this gifted artist.

References and further reading

Clare Leighton. The farmer’s year : a calendar of English husbandry, written and engraved by Clare Leighton.
London : Collins, 1933. Two copies are held at MERL LIBRARY RESERVE FOLIO–9390-LEI

Clare Leighton. Four hedges : a gardener’s chronicle, written and engraved by Clare Leighton. London : Victor Gollancz Limited, 1935. A copy is held at PRINTING COLLECTION–635.09422-LEI

Clare Leighton. Wood-engraving and woodcuts. London : The Studio, 1944. A reference copy is held in the Mark Longman Library at the Special Collections Service at MARK LONGMAN LIBRARY–761.2-LEI

Joanna Selborne. British wood-engraved book illustration, 1904-1940 : a break with tradition. Oxford : Clarendon, 1997.  A copy is held at SPECIAL COLLECTIONS REFERENCE–769.9420904-SEL and a loan copy is held on the 3rd floor of the University of Reading Library at FOLIO–769.942-SEL

University of Reading Rural History Centre. The art of the country : farm work and country life through artists’ eyes: an exhibition of pictures on loan from a private collection.  Reading : University of Reading, Rural History Centre, 1996. A copy is held at MERL LIBRARY PAMPH BOX–9390-UNI 29754



Engraving of grape hyacinths from ‘Four Hedges’


Many thanks to David Leighton for his kind permission to reproduce some of the illustrations from Four Hedges.

Weekly What’s On: 24 to 30th March

You can find full details of all our forthcoming events and activities in our What’s On and MERL Families guides, which are now available from the Museum or to download from our website You can also see all events on our online calendar

 Selecting objects#MuseumWeek
Join us this week for a virtual event over on Twitter. MERL is joining museums across Europe in a week-long @TwitterUK campaign. Look out for tweets on a different theme each day. On Monday we’re giving an insight into a ‘Dayinthelife’ of staff and volunteers at the Museum. Tomorrow there’ll be a ‘guess the object’ quiz as part of #MuseumMastermind. We’d love to hear your #MuseumMemories on Wednesday – tell us about your visits to MERL! You can also get involved by tweeting questions for our Curators which we will answer on Friday (#AskACurator) and if you’re visiting this week, why not take a selfie and tweet it on Saturday using the #MuseumSelfies hashtag!



Guided tourGuided tour
Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays, 3-3.45pm
Free, booking advisable
Let our fully trained tour guides tell you the stories behind the objects on display and visit the object store to see MERL’s hidden treasures




Rural reads library booksRural Reads book club
Thursday, 27th March, 5.30-7pm
Free, drop-in (£1.50 for tea & biscuits)
Join us to discuss this month’s book ‘The Last Runaway’ by Tracy Chevalier and bring along your suggestions for our next ‘rural read’
For details visit the Rural Reads web page



Copy of H&P comic cuts - compressedToddler time – biscuit special!
Friday 28th March, 10-11am,
£2 per child, drop-in
Suitable for families with children aged 2-4
Come along to the Museum with your little ones and enjoy rhymes, songs and craft activities.
We are launching our Village Fete Biscuit Bake-Off competition at Toddler Time this week! Bring along home-baked biscuits and Andrew Palmer, a descendant of the famous Reading biscuit family will taste them! Try biscuits baked from an old Huntley & Palmers recipe and decorate biscuits with lots of sugary things!! Join us for this special event – free entry for anyone bringing homemade biscuits!


MERL on Twitter: from dabbling to #MuseumWeek

Alison Hilton, MERL Marketing Officer, looks back at 5 years of MERL on Twitter and forward to an exciting @TwitterUK campaign

I have been tweeting for MERL since 2009. I signed up following a training course in which I was introduced to the wonders of social media (Back in the day before I was even on Facebook myself!) At a time when the first courses on ‘social media strategy’ and ‘digital marketing’ were appearing in museum marketing training programmes, we were a fairly ‘early adopter’ among UK museums (the US being well ahead, our first follows and followers were @Guggenheim and @FieldMuseum!)

Since then, our approach to social media has moved on a long way from ‘dabbling’ and ‘seeing how it goes’! As for 100s of other UK museums (this is the list of the ones we follow), social media has become an indispensable channel for communicating with visitors, journalists, local communities, researchers, and partners as well as for networking with other museums, funders, stakeholders, and local and national organisations.  We now have almost 5000 followers, mostly in the UK (74%), but also scattered throughout the world! Over the years, tweets have led to people ending up volunteering and working at MERL, and we even had a visit from our local MP as a result of an impromptu tweeted invitation!

Social media is now an essential part of the marketing plan for every event and every project. We are gradually moving away from random, ad hoc posts about day to day stuff to a more thoughtful, almost strategic approach. I have a plan, with aims and objectives and I think about what we want to achieve through Twitter, Facebook,  and Pinterest. We’re also trying to analyse and evaluate what we do. Though we haven’t necessarily worked out the best way to gather and make sense of all the statistics it is possible to gather, it has been fairly obvious recently that the careful use of the hashtag can be very effective, that people love pictures and that our followers are interested in hearing about (and seeing) our collections. 

Some of our best days on Twitter (i.e. most replies, retweets and favourites), for example, have been when we have taken part in Mar Dixon’s #culturethemes. This first happened by accident, when a colleague spotted #museumsocks and happened to remember that we had a pair as part of the uniform issued to Land Girls.  We were amazed by the response to a picture which would otherwise not have been seen by any but the most dedicated researcher! After that, we looked forward to finding out the next theme, and started planning our participation. Inevitably, #museumcake was popular with staff and even prompted Assistant Curator, Ollie Douglas to write a blog (and most of the rest of us just to eat lots of cake) At Christmas we were able to add some bizarre contributions to #museumfestive and we contributed a few #museumselfies. Our Project Officer, Adam, even managed to get creative for #museumdinos last week! (Twitter even emailed me to say this way our most successful post last month!)


@MERLReading: Did you know it’s #museumdinos day? Have a look at this Cretaceous beast of burden hauling our Miller’s Wagon..

As well as being fun, #culturethemes has also helped us increase followers amongst colleagues in the Museum sector and people interested in museums and collections in general. At the same time, I have been trying to build more of a following amongst people tweeting about themes and issues relating to our collections, such as agriculture, farming, and craft, particularly in the light of ‘Our Country Lives’ our Heritage Lottery funded redevelopment project. Following and interacting with @farmersoftheuk recently led to a series of tweets on the hashtag #nativebreeds with pictures of animals from our archives being retweeted to 1000s of people, literally in the field, who may otherwise not have known about our photographic collections.

Blue gray

Thus, and coming to the point,   I leapt at the chance to sign MERL up to @TwitterUK ‘s #museumweek from March 24th to 31st. I was pleased to see that other Museums and collections at the University were also keen (@UreMuseum @ColeMuseum @RNGherb). Suported by Mar Dixon, the idea is exciting, structured and strategic and aims to “connect people to artwork, culture, history and science in new and interactive ways” through specific themes and hashtags for each day. At MERL we are taking the opportunity to take a slightly more strategic approach to our tweeting than usual and have had a brainstorming meeting with colleagues keen to take part – including some who have never tweeted before! We are aiming to try out some new ideas and see what our followers like best, and hopefully come up with some regular future features for our Twitter feed.

So, please follow us @MERLReading and look out for our tweets during #museumweek, from March 24th to 31st. There will be opportunities to get involved with your own photos, reviews, memories, quizzes and questions for the curators.

Collections Based Research opportunities

There are currently several opportunities to work and study with the University of Reading’s museums and collections:

Collections Based Research Programme Director
We are seeking an outstanding candidate to be responsible for the formulation, development and delivery of a strategic programme of University of Reading (UoR) collections-based research (CBR). Please see the University website for details of this job opportunity.

Deadline for applications: 18th March 2014

Postgraduate studentships
A number of PhD studentships are currently available in a variety of different disciplines including English Literature, Typography and History. Details can be found on the Collections Based Research website.

Deadline for applications: March 29th 2014.

 MERL Fellowships
MERL Fellowships are open to scholars wishing to undertake collections-based research here at the Museum. The scheme aims to foster and facilitate research that will enhance and extend understanding and knowledge of the countryside, food, and farming, with an emphasis on exploiting the Museum’s outstanding collections. Applications are invited for the Gwyn E. Jones MERL Fellowship scheme for 2014-15, tenable for up to twelve months, to support academic research in subject areas associated with the Museum of English Rural Life (MERL) at the University of Reading. For details, please visit the MERL website

Deadline for submissions: 1st May 2014.


Weekly What’s On: 17th to 23rd March, 2014

You can find full details of all our forthcoming events and activities in our What’s On and MERL Families guides, which are now available from the Museum or to download from our website You can also see all events on our online calendar


BBC filming at MERLSeminar series: Untouchable England
MERL and the BBC: Rural re-enactment and gestural reconstruction in the 1950s
Dr Ollie Douglas, Assistant Curator, Museum of English Rural Life
Tuesday 18th March, 1pm
MERL’s earliest curators rapidly adopted the techniques of public history in order to salvage a way of life seen to be disappearing and cement a technology-centred approach to the past. During the 1950s, their short set-piece re-enactments played a prominent role in television broadcast contexts. This talk explores how reconstructive approaches to rural objects provided insight into the less tangible world of past gestures and actions.

This Seminar will be followed by a small pop-up exhibition in the Museum’s mezzanine store featuring objects used in television recordings or with connections to radio.

For full details of the series, visit our website


WW1 letterCollecting memories: WW1 roadshow
Wednesday 19th March, 10am to pm
Free, drop-in
Organised by students from the History Department, this WW1 Roadshow is an opportunity for members of the public to bring in their letters and photographs relating to WW1 in Berkshire to share with experts in First World War history. For details of this event, and more events in our WW1 programme, visit the MERL website 



Spectacular 2008 117Guided tour
Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays, 3-3.45pm
Free, booking advisable
Let our fully trained tour guides tell you the stories behind the objects on display and visit the object store to see MERL’s hidden treasures.




Planets mobileToddler time
Friday 21st March, 10-11am,
£2 per child, drop-in
Suitable for families with children aged 2-4
Come along to the Museum with your little ones and enjoy rhymes, songs and craft activities. This week we’ll be making planet mobiles to tie in with the weekend’s Science Week Stargazing events.


Reading Science Week events

Protest_poster_small‘Performing Protest’: riots against technological change in the 19C
Saturday 22nd March, 11.30am & 2.30pm
£4 (£2 concs) Book. Suitable for ages 16+
There are still tickets left for both performances of this hard-hitting dramatic event, part of Reading Science Week. Relive the causes and effects of the Swing Riots in Berkshire, and decide whether to support the peasants or the landlords. Book now to avoid disappointment. Call 0118 378 8660 or email  For full details, and to view the trailer, visit the MERL website.


developments option 1 v2Stargazing: exploring the universe from the comfort of Reading
Saturday 22nd & Sunday 23rd March
6pm ’til late, free, drop-in
MERL is once again happy to host this Reading Science Week event. Fun for all the family, regardless of the weather. With the help of the local astronomical society, there will be the chance to look through some powerful telescopes, hear talks and have a go at activities.




Ricordate-croppedItaly at war: a selection from the archives
Tuesday 11th February to 30th March
Staircase hall, MERL
Free, drop-in, normal museum opening times
Highlights from the University’s fascinating records relating to Italian history. 



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’ recent post) This exhibition gives a taste of what has been acquired and challenges visitors to suggest the modern-day objects that the Museum needs to collect for the future. 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 new Our Country Lives project.


Press release: Science Week is a riot at Uni Museum

Protest_poster_smallVolunteers at the Museum of English Rural Life (MERL) will present a Reading Science Week event with a difference on Saturday 22nd March.

Reading Science Week is part of National Science and Engineering Week (NSEW), a ten-day national programme of science, technology, engineering and maths events and activities across the UK aimed at people of all ages. The ‘Performing Protest’ event at MERL, which is owned and managed by the University of Reading, will tackle the issue of protest against technological change in agriculture in the 1830s. The performance will tell the true story of William Winterbourne, accused of leading the rioters in what became known as the Swing Riots.

The team of volunteer tour guides at the Museum have written a piece of immersive theatre with the help of Volunteer Co-ordinator Rob Davies, who has a background in amateur dramatics. They will perform the dramatic, hard-hitting production against the backdrop of the Museum which houses many of the tools made redundant by technological change, as well as the machinery which replaced them.

The volunteers will play characters who bore witness during this tumultuous period, telling the audience stories of life and work in the countryside at the time. The audience will meet William Winterbourne (accused of being the illusive ‘Captain Swing’) played by volunteer Clive Pugh and will take part in a court case where they will be invited to decide whether to support him or the landowners who were trying to protect their new machinery.


Rob Davies said ‘The ‘Swing Riots’ was a national crisis which engulfed the English countryside and resulted in the imprisonment, transportation and in some cases the execution of those involved. The introduction and rise of the threshing machine took the only winter work available away from the farm labourers, without this work many labourers and families faced starvation. This sparked riots and the threshing machines were attacked. We will explore the causes, events and aftermath of the Swing Riots both locally and nationally.

“The event was the idea of some of our volunteers who have a keen interest in the history of agricultural labourers. The team have devised characters for family tours in the past, but this time they wanted to tackle an historical event that saw great change in the countryside. They have spent hours researching, planning, rehearsing and even making costumes and a promotional ‘trailer‘! We’re looking forward to a very exciting event.’

Volunteer Keith Jerrome has been the driving force behind the event and has a keen interest in the Swing Riots, especially the local story.   He says, “Many have heard of ‘The Tolpuddle Martyrs’, the Six Men of Dorset transported to Australia for forming a trades union in 1834. Four years earlier hundreds of agricultural labourers were gaoled, many transported and some executed after what has become known as “The Swing Riots”. Setting fire to ricks and smashing the threshing machines they saw as the cause of starvation and degradation swept across Southern England. This has been “hidden history” and we seek to give back a voice to the people of ‘Captain Swing’.”

The event will take place at 11.30-12.30 and again at 2.30-3.30pm on Saturday 22nd March. There will also be an exhibition presenting objects and documents relating to the riots, such as flails and court deportations.  Booking is essential and tickets, which cost £4 or £2 concessions, can be bought from the Museum. For further details and to book tickets, visit the MERL website

MERL is also hosting Reading Science Week’s ‘Stargazing’ events this weekend, for more details see Reading Science Week programme


The press are welcome to attend. Rob Davies is available for interview and high resolution images are available on request. Please contact Alison Hilton, MERL Marketing Officer on 0118 378 8660.

Discovering the landscape #3: Milner’s ‘Landscape Gardening’

Written by Claire Wooldridge, Graduate Trainee Library Assistant

As progress continues to integrate the library and archive of the Landscape Institute into our MERL collections, here’s a brief look at one of our favourite items:

Keszthely, Milner's Landscape Gardening 1890

Keszthely, Milner’s Landscape Gardening 1890

The art and practice of landscape gardening by Henry Ernest Milner (London: Simpkin, Marshall, Hamilton, Kent, And Co, 1890).

Henry Ernest Milner (1845-1906) was a landscape gardener and the son of landscape architect Edward Milner (1819-1884).  In 1890 Henry Milner published Landscape Gardening using examples from his father’s work.  In his preface, Henry writes of his father:

By this prosecution of his art in such extended practice, he attained a purely exceptional experience, the opportunity for which ripened his artistic powers; … I too have had ample opportunities to practically illustrate the art that I love and the work that I delight in. 

Edward Milner was indeed a renowned landscape gardener, training under Sir Joseph Paxton and becoming the principle of newly formed Crystal Palace School of Gardening in 1881.  At this time Henry was invited to go into partnership with his father.  After Henry’s publication of Landscape Gardening Milner received several important commissions including the grounds of Wembley Park, the enlargement of Princes Street Gardens, Edinburgh, Gisselfeld, Denmark as well as various works on Swedish royal gardens. In 1897 he received the Victoria medal of honour in horticulture.

Milner also ruminates on how a landscape gardener is charged with interpreting and drawing out the natural beauty of the landscape: (p. 5)

It is the province of the Landscape Gardener, as I understand the art, to appreciate the multitudinous means whereby Nature expresses her beauty, and to use those means artistically as to arrange their force for producing the delightful result he desires to achieve.

Containing sections on topics such as use and positioning of terraces, water, fountains, planting and hothouses in gardens, this title contains several beautifully illustrated and partly coloured plates depicting aspects of garden plans.  It also features a fold out plan of Peverey gardens and sepia plate Milner’s work on the gardens at Keszthely (Hungary).

Peverey plan, Milner's Landscape Gardening 1890

Peverey plan, Milner’s Landscape Gardening 1890

Sepia plate, Milner's Landscape Gardening 1890

Sepia plate, Milner’s Landscape Gardening 1890


This title will be integrated into our MERL Library reserve collection due to its fine illustrative plates, age and value.  Kept in our purpose built rare book and archive store, it will be available to the public upon request once catalogued.

More information about Milner and our archival holdings of the work of Milner and his father can be found on our page for the Milner White collection.