Reading Readers – Hilary Matthews

This month, University of Reading PhD student Hilary Matthews tells us about her research into livestock portraiture of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century.

As a Reading University PhD student, I am looking at how the paintings and prints of livestock in the late eighteenth/early nineteenth century functioned within the society that produced them. My research is centred on the Museum of English Rural Life’s own collection of livestock paintings and I make a weekly 4 ½ hour round trip from my Essex home to work on the museum’s associated archives and agricultural books and ephemera in the Reading Room.

Hilary with Jacqueline Winston-Silk, Art Collections Officer, in our art store (Photo by Martha Fleming).

Hilary with Jacqueline Winston-Silk, Art Collections Officer, in our art store (Photo by Martha Fleming).

When I explain to people what I am researching the first question is invariably what do the paintings look like and secondly why were they depicted like this?  To answer the first I always tell people to close their eyes and visualise portraits of cattle, pigs and sheep with huge bodies, tiny heads and short legs. It’s amazing that when I say this almost everyone goes “oh yes I know what they look like”.  The second question, why painters depicted them like this, (although some did depict them more naturally), lies at the heart of my research.

The desire to satisfy the food demands of the rapidly growing urban population made farmers and landowners continually seek to breed animals that would satisfy this demand. My research reveals that in doing this the lines of the strong class system of the period were continually stretched and reshaped as landowners, often without the skill and knowledge to breed the best quality livestock themselves, had to rely on the poorer, but better, livestock breeders to provide them with the best stock. This stretching of the class boundaries does not seem to have applied when patrons commissioned artists to paint their animals though. To immortalise their livestock, the aristocracy seem to have engaged society artists whilst the lowly farmers employed jobbing sign painters. However, as I am discovering in the Museum of English Rural Life’s archives, this was not always the case.

A Shorthorned Heifer, Seven Years old (The Heifer that travelled) by Thomas Weaver (1811), and print engraved by William Ward  - Object No. 64/102

A Shorthorned Heifer, Seven Years old (The Heifer that travelled) by Thomas Weaver (1811), and print engraved by William Ward – Object No. 64/102

Apart from recently studying art history, I have also studied agriculture and for many years, I have bred, exhibited and judged pedigree livestock. I try to incorporate all these aspects into my research and so, for instance, in trying to understand a painting like Thomas Weaver’s, The White Heifer that Travelled, (below), I have tried not only to appraise this work as an art historian but to look at it scientifically too. A heifer is a young cow that has never calved but even allowing for artistic licence this heifer was obviously huge. Although she could have been born as a freemartin, (a freemartin is a female calf from a set of mixed twins and is invariable infertile), by trawling through the Museum of English Rural Life archives I have learned that she may have been speyed.  Around the late 1790s, farmers experimented on female cattle by surgically removing what they quaintly called the ‘lusts’. This stopped female cattle coming into season and allowed them to fatten much quicker. This sort of information helps me to understand the paintings far better – you could almost say that it puts meat onto the bones of my research.  However, in this instance I don’t think this particular heifer requires any more meat on its bones!

Find out more about animal portraiture and our collection in this blog post from October 2015 by Art Collections Officer, Jacqueline Winston-Silk.


Discovering the Landscape #23: New Towns, Landscape and Gordon Patterson

Guest post written by Penny Beckett, Chair of FOLAR

MERL is to host FOLAR’s third AGM and Study Session: New Towns, Landscape and Gordon Patterson – Celebrating mid 20C Design on Saturday 19 March 2016.  MERL staff will mount an exhibition of related New Town material selected from the Landscape Institute’s archive and from other collections held at MERL, including the CPRE and Land Settlement archives.

The theme of the afternoon study session (and exhibition), is to shed light on various aspects of twentieth century New Town design and planning and explore how the ideas generated last century can help inform the designs of such new settlements in the 21st Century.

Click here for more info & to book.

Boys fishing on the lake at Stevenage Town Gardens. Copyright HALS.

Boys fishing on the lake at Stevenage Town Gardens. Copyright HALS.

FOLAR has an impressive line up of speakers:


Elain Harwood: Housing, Traffic and Landscape – detailed urban planning in the New Towns.

Senior architectural advisor at Heritage England (HE), Elain is responsible for post war research and listing programme and has been an active member of the Twentieth Century Society for many years.  Her most recent book Space, Hope & Brutalism; English Architecture 1945-1975, was published by Yale University Press in 2015, and she is currently working on a book for HE about English New Towns.  

Radburn planning at Brontë Paths, Stevenage, 1962. Image Elain Harwood

Radburn planning at Brontë Paths, Stevenage, 1962. Image: Elain Harwood

Tom Turner: Landscape planning for London and the New Towns in the 1940s (talk and video).

A landscape architect and garden historian, for many years Tom taught at the University of Greenwich.  He is a firm believer in the need for open and vigorous debate on all aspects of landscape architecture and garden design.  In 1998 he launched and in 2015, with Robert Holden, he launched the website of the Landscape Architects Association to promote the profession’s capabilities.  Tom’s presentation will include a short film, drawing on his books, Landscape planning, 1987, and City as landscape, 1996, and making a recommendation for a landscape urbanism approach to the design of new towns in the 21st century.

London’s Green Belt and proposed location of New Towns. Image: Tom Turner

London’s Green Belt and proposed location of New Towns. Image: Tom Turner

Oliver Rock: Landscape without Boundaries.

Rock is a landscape architect with HTA Landscape Design practice.  In 2011, the practice won the Landscape Institute’s Heritage & Conservation Award for their restoration of Stevenage Town Gardens.  

View of Lake, Stevenage Town Gardens, c. 1960. Copyright HALS.

View of Lake, Stevenage Town Gardens, c. 1960. Copyright HALS.

These gardens were originally designed (1959-61) by Gordon Patterson.  As the award citation puts it, HTA’s design ‘captures some of the optimism and civic spirit of the original (design) while ensuring the gardens remain relevant today’. Oliver will also be talking about the practice’s current restoration of Hemel Water Gardens, a scheme originally designed by Geoffrey Jellicoe.  

Restored lake, Stevenage Town Gardens, 2011. Copyright Tim Crocker.

Restored lake, Stevenage Town Gardens, 2011. Copyright Tim Crocker.

FOLAR hopes that Gordon Patterson, for many years the landscape architect for Stevenage New Town will be able to join us. His archive is one of the latest additions to the Landscape Institute’s collections at MERL.

From the Land Settlement Association Archives at MERL. CR_3LSA_PH1_A_15_1

From the Land Settlement Association Archives at MERL. (CR_3LSA_PH1_A_15_1)

Lastly, Caroline Gould, the University’s deputy archivist will be talking about the New Town related material from other special collections held at MERL, including the CPRE and Land Settlement archives.

For further details and to book for the FOLAR study session and exhibition email: or click here.  Tickets for the FOLAR study session and exhibition: £10.  Bookings are limited so please book early.

How we went viral: a good story, good luck and good friends

Written by Adam Koszary, Project Officer.

It all started with a story that, five or ten years ago, would have remained within the four walls of the museum and gone no further: our assistant curator found a dead mouse in a Victorian mouse trap.


The trap was behind a glass case in our store; it was not baited and it was not on display. And out of the thousands of tasty objects the mouse could have chosen to call both home and dinner, it zoned in on one of the few objects designed to kill it.

As a humane trap, the mouse is meant to be found and then released. Tragically, our mouse would have died a lonely death. Since we check our collection for pests regularly, and don’t expect our traps to be achieving their original purpose, this mouse was simply unlucky to get trapped in a time-frame between check-ups.

We thought the story was interesting and posted about it on our blog and Tumblr. Fast forward five days and it has become global, viral news.

See our other blog post for more information about the trap and an update on what we’re doing with the mouse.

Interest in our Tumblr spiked, and then rapidly returned to normal levels.

And we’re not exaggerating.

Since the original blog post, we have been interviewed by the BBC and the Canadian public radio broadcaster CBC. After featuring on BuzzFeed the story of our mouse rippled throughout the internet, ending up on The Daily Mail website, ABC, The Huffington PostI F***ing Love Science and more. We trended on Tumblr, where our post has over 3,000 notes, and have been chosen as a feature of their History Spotlight category. We made the front page of Reddit, and our imgur gallery has been viewed 374,552 times. Our blog has had 67,521 views since the original post, more than the past two years put together.

Not bad for our debut on BuzzFeed.

Not bad for our BuzzFeed debut.

We thought everything had died down by Sunday, but then news started trickling in that we were trending on Facebook across the world. And not only that, but that we were trending higher than the SuperBowl, North Korea and…Beyonce:



Suffice to say, we've never had it so good on Facebook.

Suffice to say, we’ve never had it so good on Facebook.

So what was the viral timeline of events? It all started with our original blog post, which was also cross-posted to Tumblr, and from there:

Our mouse made the 'front page of the internet', better known as Reddit.

Our mouse made the ‘front page of the internet’, better known as Reddit.

Needless to say, there does not seem to be one recipe for going viral. What seems essential, however, is recognising when you have a good story, writing it well and having nice pictures.

From there it took getting our story in front of the right person – in this case Buzzfeed’s Hayley Campbell – and then watching the dominoes of ‘clickbait’ websites fall. We also nudged the story along, soliciting a retweet from a ‘power user’ of Twitter and Tumblr, Neil Gaiman, as well as posting updates and providing different angles on the story, such as our image gallery on Reddit.

We were lucky that we had been building our expertise and capacity in social media for some years, meaning we could hit the ground running when it became obvious the story was a hit. Our online network of museum professionals and journalists was essential to its success; without Nick Booth alerting Hayley Campbell to the story, it may not have kicked off in the first place.

However, before we publish blogs from now on, we’ll definitely be asking ourselves: ‘Would we be happy if this went viral?’ In hindsight, we were glad to have explained the ethical and practical issues involved with having a dead mouse in a museum object, as well as why and how it may have happened. Trust is very important to a museum, and if this story had gone viral without us considering the deeper issues we may have suffered immense damage to our reputation. There are many other stories about the important work we do as a Museum which we’d preferred to have gone viral, but nevertheless we hope those who saw the story have learnt a bit more about conservation, the continuing relevance of museum objects and how even the smallest of tragedies can captivate the world.

The mouse is currently being prepared by our Conservator.

The mouse is currently being prepared by our Conservator.

How a mouse died in our Victorian mouse trap

Written by Adam Koszary, Project Officer.

If you’ve been on the internet for the past few days then you may have heard about the mouse which died in our Victorian mousetrap.


We are very pleased and a little surprised to have gone viral, and since our original blog post have some updates on our rodent friend. For one thing, we think that the mouse is a she. Our conservator believes that she was trying to build a nest and while nibbling the label on the trap, the string attaching it to the object fell inside. Chasing the string, the mouse found itself trapped.

The trap works with a see-saw mechanism.

The trap works with a see-saw mechanism.

David Drummond, who donated his collection of traps to the Museum, provides this diagram of the trap in his 2008 book, 'British Mouse Traps and their makers', 2008.

David Drummond, who donated his collection of traps to the Museum, provides this diagram of the trap in his 2008 book, ‘British Mouse Traps and their makers’, 2008.

The trap itself operates by a see-saw mechanism in its middle, which allows a mouse to enter the trap but then finds the door has swung shut on it. The owner of the humane trap would then release the mouse afterward. As we don’t expect these traps to be working as mousetraps we don’t tend to check them regularly, hence the fact that the mouse sadly perished in this instance.

Colin Pullinger outside his factory. ©David Drummond: 2008.

Colin Pullinger outside his factory. ©David Drummond: 2008.

Its inventor Colin Pullinger operated what he called the ‘Inventive Factory’, which is where he designed his first commercial success, the Perpetual Mouse Trap. During his most productive period in the 1880s his staff of around 40 men and boys churned out 960 traps a week.

Pullinger’s presence in his hometown of Selsey is denoted by a blue plaque, but now his reputation has experienced a new boost, with many people online praising the effectiveness of his trap in the modern age.

The mouse somehow managed to get inside one of our glass-fronted cabinets.

The mouse somehow managed to get inside one of our glass-fronted cabinets.

In our previous post we were undecided on what to do with the mouse, but we have now decided to preserve it. The mouse was giving off quite a stink, which suggests that her death was fairly recent, and so was fumigated by our Conservator.

For now, her body rests in a small, tissue-paper tray surrounded by silica gel in a sealed plastic box. The silica gel will dry out the mouse and make it safe for display in our new galleries. The Museum is about to begin constructing our new exhibitions, and it’s safe to say that this mouse will be front and centre.

The empty space in the rear right of the cabinet is where the trap was formerly stored.

The empty space in the rear right of the cabinet is where the trap was formerly stored.

And for those who have smelled a rat, we can categorically deny that we planted the mouse in the trap in order to gain this publicity. Not only does it go against every rule in Conservation and museum ethics, we don’t think any of our staff are Machiavellian enough to have pulled it off.

For an insight into why this mouse trap went viral, check back tomorrow for another blog post.

The mouse is currently being prepared by our Conservator.

The mouse is currently being prepared by our Conservator.

Object handling with Addington School

A little while ago we welcomed students from The Addington School who came to find out what it’s like to work in a museum. Assistant Volunteer Coordinator Rhiannon really enjoyed introducing them to the world of museums, our collections and the role of the curator…

Last term the museum welcomed a group of Further Education (FE) students from The Addington School in Woodley. They came to the museum to find out what it is like to work in a museum as part of their Transitions Workplace Training. Other businesses that have shown Addington students around their world of work include Reading Buses and Reading Fire Station, so we had a lot to live up to.

Working with students at Addington

Working with students from Addington

The objective of the session was that the students would go away with knowledge of the purpose of museums, an understanding of what we do at The Museum of English Rural Life and having had a chance to actually handle some museum objects and guess what they were. The day started with a quick brainstorm of what the group already knew about museums, with us asking questions such as ‘What is a museum?’, ‘What do you find in a museum?’, ‘Who works in a museum?’ and ‘Who visits museums?’. The answers we got were hugely varied ranging from “old people go to museums” to “at a museum you find things on the walls”. Some of our particular favourite comments about museums were that they are “special” and “magical” places, “that they are for everyone” and also we saw a statement that “museums are boring” as a personal challenge to prove them wrong!

After establishing general information about museums we enjoyed taking the group on a special behind the scenes tour of the building. First we had a look at the gallery space; confirming someone’s earlier comment that museums are big places by seeing the open space we have whilst the museum is being redeveloped. Next came a trip up to the mezzanine level where the students got their first glimpse of some of the objects they would be handling later on. Guessing what different corn dollies represented was a particular hit, as was a procession past all of the tools hung on the mezzanine wall.

Once the students had seen some (actually hundreds) of objects it was time for a rundown of how to handle them. The group put themselves into the mind-set of a curator who had been given a set of objects that they had to identify using sight, sound, smell and most importantly touch. Some objects were harder to identity than others; a Strickle (a tool used to sharpen scythes) and a Polehead from 1700s, testing the students curatorial powers the most. It was wonderful to see the real respect the group had for the objects, even under the extremely tempting circumstance of being told not to ring a sheep bell!

We had a marvellous day with the students and it was a joy to introduce them to the world of museums. We hope that they went away with a new appreciation of museums and the type of work that goes on within them, as well as some changed minds about whether or not museums are boring!

Students exploring a museum object

Students exploring a museum object

Exploring the Beale Family Farm Diaries

Written by Sharon Maxwell, Archivist (Cataloguing & Projects)

Beale Family Farm Diaries

Beale Family Farm Diaries

One of our recently catalogued collections is a set of 41 farm diaries belonging to the Beale Family of River Hall Farm, Biddenden, Kent. The diaries document the daily lives of Richard Beale Snr and Richard Beale Jnr during the years 1791 until 1834. Richard Beale Snr was born in 1744, he never married and when he died in 1814, he left his estate to his nephew Richard Beale, the son of his brother Seaman Cooke Beale, of London. Richard Beale Jnr was born in 1771 and by his death in 1836 he had a large family, some of whose descendants continued to live in Biddenden until the 1960s.

Verses of an untitled poem found in one of the diaries.

Verses of an untitled poem found in one of the diaries.

The diaries are small pocket notebooks bound in all different colours of leather mainly red but also brown and blue, they have a metal latch or ribbon tie to keep them closed due to the fact that many of them have pockets in the covers which had contained notes, correspondence and all manner of bits and pieces. To preserve these extra items contained in the diaries they have been flattened and placed in archival envelopes to ensure their survival.

The diaries contain pre-printed information including lists of the fairs in Kent and Sussex and the monthly market days for that year. The diaries describe day to day tasks like harvesting and ploughing, tending to the animals including sheep shearing and the auction of livestock, and other work around the farm such as fixing fencing and managing the woodland. The Beales comment about the weather and loans of both animals and money to various individuals. The diaries also hold insights into the personal lives of the family including notes about visits and meetings and also items of correspondence from family members. The diaries are also account

A display of items found in the diary

A display of items found in the diary

books; daily totals are meticulously recorded and many of the loose papers include itemised bills and receipts from suppliers and customers. There are some tantalising clues as to the identity of some of the farm workers with their names and pay recorded in both diary entries and on the loose items. Some of the more unexpected items found in the diaries include a couple of home remedies to cure animal diseases, verses of an untitled poem, a piece of felt with a line of sewing on it, a small sample of black material and a brown leaf folded amongst a set of accounts.

The catalogue of these farm diaries will soon be available to view on our online catalogue under the reference FR DX2147.

155-year old mouse trap claims its latest victim

After logging onto their computers today, staff here at the MERL were greeted by an unusual email from the Assistant Curator:

‘There appears to be a dead mouse in this mousetrap…’

It began.

‘…which is not described as being there on the database.’


So, this retired rodent had managed to sneak past University of Reading security, exterior doors and Museum staff,  and clambered its way up into our Store. Upon finding itself there it would have found the promised land; a mouse paradise laid before it full of straw, wood and textiles. Then, out of thousands of objects, it chose for its home the very thing designed to kill it some 150 years ago: a mouse trap.

The trap itself was not baited, but this did not stop our mouse from wriggling inside and, finding itself trapped, meet its demise. The trap was manufactured by Colin Pullinger & Sons of Silsey, West Sussex and although we don’t know the exact date this one was made, the trap itself was patented in 1861. It is a multi-catch trap with a see-saw mechanism, and you can see its object record here. It is known as a ‘Perpetual Mouse Trap’ and proudly declares that it ‘will last a lifetime’. How apt.

The trap is described as 'Perpetual' and it certainly is that.

The trap is described as ‘Perpetual’ and it certainly is that.

Pests are, of course, a perpetual menace in any museum. Curators and conservators are always alert for the tell-tale signs of moths, beetles and rodents which feast on the organic materials we hold in store. Hygiene and regular cleaning are a first line of defence, as are glazed cases. Objects are also treated before storage or display to ensure anything lurking within is killed. And while our most vulnerable objects have always been cased – such as clothing and leather – the rest of our stored collection made of sturdier wood and metal was only fully glazed over last year. This mouse may have snuck into the trap before this glazing, or otherwise managed to get in while construction work has been carried out for the Museum’s redevelopment.


We have traps set for pests, but we can never catch everything all of the time. This mouse managed to sign its own death warrant before it could do any more damage, the extent of which was only a nibbled label. We will also have to determine whether this mouse was a scout or part of a larger family. Luckily, because the collection is heavily used it is often only a matter of time before any kind of infestation is noticed and nipped in the bud. This mouse was found when our Assistant Curator was in the Stores selecting objects for use in an interdisciplinary research session on the subject of ‘Animals at Reading’. Our current MERL Fellow, Professor Karen Sayer, is also particularly interested in traps as part of her ongoing research into rats and pest control and regularly views our collection.

The other end of the trap, sans mouse.

The other end of the trap, sans mouse.

For the moment, however, the mouse remains in the trap while we decide what to do with it. One option is a dignified burial, another is to desiccate it or have it prepared to remain as a permanent feature of the mouse trap for our new displays. We’ll let you know what we decide.