Focus on Collections #5: Brewing Beer

Written by Adam Koszary, Project Officer.

England is ale, and ale is England.

It is an old adage, and people grasping at a description of ‘English culture’ very often reach for the low-hanging fruit of ale, pubs and Morris dancing (when they’re not already listing smocks, village greens and other aspects of the rural idyll).

‘Mmm . . . English culture. Well . . .’ he paused, rocking on his heels, a great dolmen of a man. ‘In about 1981 I had to give a lecture at the embassy in Tokyo on the subject of English culture.’

‘Oh really.’ I was underwhelmed. ‘And what did you have to say about it?’

‘Funny thing is I can’t remember . . . Shall we go and get a pint?’

Conversation between Will Self and Peter Self.

Drinking, however, is something that crosses boundaries of geography, class and background. Ale has dominated our drinking culture for centuries, and has its roots in our agricultural past and climate. We could never properly cultivate vineyards for wine, but our capacity for growing cereal crops meant we had a ready supply of grain for our earliest beers. It’s no surprise that when a culture learns how to cultivate crops, it very soon discovers how to make beer, and with grain, hops, yeast and water on our doorstep rural communities took full advantage. This, however, is not to say that it was a purely rural pastime, as brewing also benefited from the urban market and the mass-production of beer its denser populations made possible.

Photograph of a man cutting down hop vines with a scythe on Bradstock's Farm, Hertfordshire. (P SHA A PH2/2/45)

Photograph of a man cutting down hop vines with a scythe on Bradstock’s Farm, Hertfordshire. (P SHA A PH2/2/45)

The Museum holds many objects which we can use to explore brewing, such as a whole range of hop farming equipment – my favourite is the hop stilts, which were used to maintain and string hops on their high poles (although tractors and cranes are more popular now, as in the image above). We also have parts of an early twentieth century home-brewing kit from Suffolk. Home-brewing was very popular among rural communities even up until the First World War. The beginning of the end of this period of traditional home-brewing was an 1887 amendment to Gladstone’s 1880 Act which ended the inclusion of free beer as part of a farm worker’s salary, which discouraged farmhouse brewing. Yet the practice has seen a modern resurgence, and rather than being a rural phenomenon you are now more likely to find home-brewers in city-centre flats. The fact that my friend can brew beer in his own basement is testament to how simple brewing can be with new technology (for an idea of the process, check out these blogs). Real ale’s wider popularity, though, is down to the new and exciting beers North American micro-breweries have been experimenting with, CAMRA‘s relentless campaign, but also real ale’s new-found popularity with young drinkers (which may have something to do with its price relative to lager).

SimondsBreweryReading also has a proud brewing history. The most famous Reading brewery was H & G Simonds, founded in 1785 on Broad Street, and which was taken over by Courage in 1960. Large-scale brewing in Reading ended when this Brewery was closed in 2010, but that does not mean that Reading isn’t also benefiting from the real ale resurgence. Loddon’s Brewery sits just outside Caversham, Binghams Brewery is nearby in Ruscombe, West Berkshire Brewery is only in Yattendon and Two Cocks Brewery (of Grand Designs fame) are just down the road on the outskirts of Newbury. There are also numerous microbreweries in and around town, such as Sherfield Brewery, who recently worked with the University of Reading Real Ale Society to brew their own beer Extra Curricular (which I tried a pint of in the Greyfriar – it was delicious). All of these breweries are fairly small, but if anything they reflect the type of brewing equipment in our collection: small-scale, but used with skill and passion in a brewing tradition which stretches back centuries.

Of course, talking about brewing and brewery objects is all very well, but if you would like to taste the end-product of all this brewing then head down to the 20th Reading Beer & Cider festival. It’s taking place in Kings Meadow on the Bank Holiday weekend (1st-4th May), and is one of the largest of its kind in England.

We will also be selling a selection of local beers, including from the West Berkshire Brewery and Binghams Brewery, (and cider from Tutts Clump), in the beer tent at our own Village Fete on May 31st. If  we’re lucky, there’ll also be a special batch of the aforementioned ‘Extra Curricular’. You will also be able to find out more about brewing on the Brewery History Society’s stand. However, if you cannot wait until then and would like to see any of our objects relating to brewing, then please get in touch!

The Museum of English Rural Life recommends responsible drinking.

A hop knife, used for sampling hops (MERL/83/14)

A hop knife, used for sampling hops (MERL/83/14)

A mash stirrer for home-brewing (MERL/51/752)

A mash stirrer for home-brewing (MERL/51/752)

Focus on Collections #4: Tools & Trade History Society Library

written by Tony Waldis, the Librarian of the Tools and Trades History Society (TATHS) Library, a special collection kept at MERL for use by visitors and readers. This collection reflects the encompassing knowledge of rural craft and industry kept at MERL, and which we hope to continue to pass down through our displays, outreach and events after our redevelopment.

Among the specialist subject collections at MERL is the library of The Tools and Trades History Society, with over 1,100 books, catalogues, videos and pamphlets.

P FW PH1/54/11/18/3 - A welder at work.

P FW PH1/54/11/18/3 – A welder at work.

It is not just about ‘old tools’; the library also has Young Farmers’ Club Booklets and English Industries of the Middle Ages too. There are numerous trade catalogues that would help to identify most hand tools you are likely to come across, but there is also a wealth of information on the tradesmen of the past and the conditions they worked and lived in. Spare a thought, for instance, for the 18th-century apprentice tied to his master for seven years, during which he could not, marry, leave his master, play at cards, dice or other unlawful games, haunt taverns or play-houses, or absent himself from his master’s service day or night. Worse still, the Xbox and iPad had yet to be invented.

A wide variety of trades and crafts are covered by the collection, from the village blacksmith (who usually doubled as the dentist too because he had the strongest grip for pulling teeth) to the local hat maker. Did you know that the chemicals used in hat making could literally send the workers insane? Hence the saying ‘as mad as a hatter’.

Come along to the MERL Reading Room and see what strange facts you can find in the TATHS collection; a catalogue of material is available online on the TATHS website. There are recipes for cleaning and polishing everything under the sun and for making everything from puddings to poisons. Just don’t mix them up!

Focus on Collections #3 – Baskets

written by Greta Bertram, Project Officer.

Anybody who’s been following the MERL Projects Blog over the past eighteen months will know that I love all things basket-related. My obsession began three years ago when I was writing my dissertation about craft as heritage, and needed to choose one craft to use as a case study. I’ve always been fascinated by baskets and how they are constructed so it was an easy decision. I interviewed several basketmakers and watched them at work in their studios; a few months later I went on weekend course and made two baskets; and then I was then lucky enough to get a job at MERL, where I’ve been able to bask in baskets!

Basketry and Beyond studying MERL’s collection of baskets from the south west.

Basketry and Beyond studying MERL’s collection of baskets from the south west.

MERL has one of the most significant basketry collections in the UK, with over 600 baskets, basketwork objects and basketmaking tools. The collection includes baskets for agricultural, industrial, fishing and domestic use, mostly from England but also from other parts of the UK. It also includes over 200 objects from Emily Mullins, a Reading basketmaker, who made numerous baskets specifically for the Museum. The collection was studied in the 1960s by Dorothy Wright, author of The Complete Book of Baskets and Basketry and an authority on baskets. She produced detailed catalogue records for the collection, which are available to view online, and also played an important role in acquiring baskets for the Museum.

The basketry collection is one of our most popular and most visited collections at MERL, by basketmakers and non-basketmakers alike – visits since I’ve been here have included Basketry and Beyond researching baskets from the southwest for their festival in May this year, and from the University’s archaeology department to look at fishing baskets. I really enjoy supervising these visits – it’s great to look at the baskets more closely and to have the chance to find out more about them from people who know what they’re talking about, and I always try to feed this information back into the museum catalogue.

We’ve also had very exciting basket news recently – MERL has been awarded a grant from the Radcliffe Trust to run a project, Stakeholders, which will see us working closely with basketmakers to explore the collection and commission pieces to fill gaps in the collections. Click here to find out more.

However, while we have this amazing collection, there are actually very few baskets currently on display in the galleries. This is something that we hope will change as part of the Our Country Lives re-development, and we hope that the Stakeholders project can help inform this.

MERL 2006/54. One of my favourite baskets at MERL, an oak swill basket made by Owen Jones.

MERL 2006/54. One of my favourite baskets at MERL, an oak swill basket made by Owen Jones.

Since being asked to write this post I’ve been thinking long and hard about my favourite baskets at MERL – there are so many to choose from! I think one of my favourites has to be the Owen Jones oak swill basket (MERL 2006/54). Owen is the only person in the country making them professionally. He was featured in MERL’s Rural Crafts Take Ten project, and you can watch a video of him making his basket online and in the Museum. I could watch him working for hours and when I had the chance to meet him in May it took me a while to pluck up the courage to speak to him. There are also some really unusual baskets that have to be on my list – we have a basket that was used as a casing for artillery shells in WWI (MERL 90/43), and a pannier basket that was used  to drop supplies to the troops from the air during WW2 (MERL 60/449 & 63/70).

I hope I’ve managed to convey some of my passion for baskets! When you love baskets, MERL is one of the best places to be – now I just need to find the time to have a few more goes at making baskets myself.

MERL 90/43. An artillery shell basket, used to protect shells during the First World War.

MERL 90/43. An artillery shell basket, used to protect shells during the First World War.

Focus on collections #2: Collecting your #muscake (and eating it!)

Sit back with a cup of tea and a piece of cake (of course) and take a few minutes to read this fascinating post by Assistant Curator, Dr Ollie Douglas, on the little known cake-related collections at MERL (and elsewhere)…


Here at the Museum we’ve been eating rather a lot of cake. The frenetic activity of the annual MERL Village Fete was fuelled largely by cake, either produced for the baking competition or purchased along with cream teas. Add to this a flurry of summer birthdays and a series of project successes and you’d be forgiven for thinking that we do little other than eat tasty confectioneries all day long. I hasten to add that this is, of course, not true and that we not only work extremely hard but only ever eat cake at a safe and conservator-approved distance from our collections!

Winning Victoria Sponge Cake in the children's baking competition at the MERL Village Fete 2013

Winning Victoria Sponge Cake in the children’s baking competition at the MERL Village Fete 2013

If you are tucking into a piece of Victoria sponge right now and muttering that a museum dedicated to rural life should have no reason to acquire cake-related objects then I’m afraid I’m going to disappoint. Not only do we have extensive collections on the theme of cake but we probably have sufficient holdings to fill all the cake tins of Mary Berry herself. Inspired by my colleagues and their growing addiction to baked goods as well as by a recent discussion concerning cake and collections I set out to investigate what interesting nibbles I could find in the storerooms of MERL.

In the archive we have several photographs of Princess Marina’s bridal cake, as taken by local photographer Philip Collier (1881-1979), shortly before the royal wedding in 1934. The cake was made by the local firm Huntley and Palmers, who were better known for their biscuits but evidently dabbled in cakes as well. Collier’s work forms an important strand of a new collaboration with Reading Museum entitled Reading Connections.

Princess Marina's wedding cake on display in Reading, 1934 (MERL P DX323 PH1/E150/222)

Princess Marina’s wedding cake on display in Reading, 1934 (MERL P DX323 PH1/E150/222)

Elsewhere in the archive we also hold trade records relating to the production, promotion, and distribution of cake-breaking equipment, including a cake-breaker promoted by Alexander and Sons of Cirencester. This refers to a different, altogether less appetising, sort of cake. Oil cake was made from the material that remained after oil was extracted from crops such as oil seed rape and linseed. The resultant blocks were sold as animal feed but needed to be broken up before being fed to livestock. Cake-breakers were used to grind up larger chunks into pieces that animals could then eat.

Cake breaker made and advertised by Alexander and Sons of Cirencester, 1870s (MERL TR SCM P2/B15)

Cake breaker made and advertised by Alexander and Sons of Cirencester, 1870s (MERL TR SCM P2/B15)

As far as the object holdings go, we have further items relating to animal cake, including an actual cake-breaker (MERL 53/197) from Langley, Warwickshire, which would have been used to prepare animal feed in just the way described. However, let me now return to items connected with cakes intended for people rather than animals. The collection of Lavinia Smith yields a rich seam of cake-related objects. Smith was an American-born collector who gathered items to characterise life in the village where she lived, East Hendred.  Her collection forms another strand of the Reading Connections project. She was concerned as much with life inside the farmhouse or cottage as she was with work in surrounding fields and hence the objects include numerous items of hearth furniture and cooking utensils such as a girdle plate (MERL 51/520) that would have been suspended over an open fire and used to bake oatcakes, scones or cakes. She also collected a so-called ‘salamander’ (MERL 51/751) given to her by the local blacksmith, which comprised an iron bar ending in a flat plate that pivoted on a stand and was heated in the fire until red hot whereupon it was used for browning pastry, mashed potato and cakes.

Gingerbread mould, as collected by Lavina Smith and bearing a striking resemblance to a Biddenden cake mould (MERL 51/536)

Gingerbread mould, as collected by Lavina Smith and bearing a striking resemblance to a Biddenden cake mould (MERL 51/536)

Although it’s not strictly speaking cake-related, Smith also acquired an object described by John Denniss—the baker who passed it to her—as a gingerbread mould (MERL 51/536). Denniss’ family had reputedly been bakers in East Hendred for 200 years and it had presumably been used by them. My colleague Laura recently retrieved it from the store in preparation for a visit by an overseas researcher interested in biscuit, cookie, and gingerbread moulds, and on closer examination I realised that it bears a striking resemblance to the design of the Biddenden cake. These were handed out as part of a charitable dole at Biddenden, Kent, which is said to have been founded by the conjoined twins Eliza and Mary Chalkhurst in the 1100s. Although the story has been largely discredited, it is a potent example of how cakes are easily incorporated into powerful local traditions.

A piece of artwork (MERL 2009/28) purchased through MERL’s recent collecting project, offers a slightly different take on the link between cake and tradition (MERL 2009/28). This picture by well-known cartoonist Norman Thelwell (1923-2004) offers a wry comment on the invention of tradition. At the centre of the image some rustic-looking yokels appear to be hitting a cake with rough-hewn sticks. This is a reference to cake-based customary practices and to the tradition of beating the bounds, here combined in a characteristically comical, mystifying, and Thelwellian take on English culture.

Norman Thelwell, 'The age-old custom of beating the balm cake at Abbots Dawdling', 1960 (2009/28)

Norman Thelwell, ‘The age-old custom of beating the balm cake at Abbots Dawdling’, 1960 (2009/28)

This image harbours a subtle air of poking fun at folk revivalists and at people who enjoy pastimes that form part of this movement, such as Morris dancers and mummers. Just for the record, MERL remains extremely pleased to be able to host Morris dancers at its Village fete every year, and here at the Museum we warmly encourage links between cake and tradition, though perhaps in a less violent-looking way than Thelwell’s portrayal!

Having delved deeper into MERL’s own slice of cake history I should confess that I have a soft spot for collections that relate to cake. I began my career at the Pitt Rivers Museum at the University of Oxford, which houses an extraordinary collection of ceremonial cakes. I think you can still view some of these objects, packed into a drawer on the ground floor. I like to think that these items were left by early curators to slowly desiccate, no doubt offering a tempting distraction from other more scholarly activities. However, these early custodians resisted the urge to snack and the items were preserved to stand as testimony to the inventive baking skills of our forebears, to the rich multiplicity of food-related cultural practice, and to the (sometimes surreal) interests of anthropologists and folklorists of the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries.

In the course of my own PhD research I came across references to a collection of ceremonial cakes of the British Isles that was exhibited during the International Folklore Congress of 1891, as held at Burlington House, London (see this list of items exhibited, as published in 1891). This collation of so-called ‘feasten cakes’ was coordinated by a member of the Folklore Society called Alice Bertha Gomme (1852-1938). Gomme was the wife of folklorist George Lawrence Gomme (1853-1916) and was a significant figure in her own right, serving as Secretary to the Entertainment Committee of the 1891 Congress and going on to become a leading expert in the study of children’s games as well as traditional food.

Some of the early collections amassed by curators at MERL sought to offer a comprehensive and regional overview of the whole of England; these include the wagon holdings (as discussed in a previous post) and perhaps most famously the smocks (also mentioned in an earlier post). Much like these later examples, Gomme’s vision for the cake display was clearly one that was comparably inclusive. As this map shows, with the exception of Ireland the coverage was relatively comprehensive and the the provenance of the ceremonial cakes featured is clearly indicative of a desire on Gomme’s part to be as representative of the United Kingdom as possible.

Map showing distribution of British ceremonial cakes exhibited at the International Folklore Congress of 1891 (Oliver Douglas, 'The Material Culture of Folklore' - unpublished DPhil Thesis, p.87)

Map showing distribution of British ceremonial cakes exhibited at the International Folklore
Congress of 1891 (Oliver Douglas, ‘The Material Culture of Folklore’ – unpublished DPhil Thesis, p.87)

The temptation of this edible display was such that it was not simply illustrative and a significant number of these delicacies were purchased by the Entertainment Committee in order to be served to hungry delegates attending the Congress. As the historian of the folklore movement Richard Dorson later put it, the Congress offered “a feast for the eyes, the ears, and even the mouth.” I wonder if perhaps the staff at MERL should take a leaf from Gomme’s recipe book and begin to think more carefully about the foodstuffs we serve at the Village fete and why we serve them. What can different types of cake tell us about English rural life? Are ceremonial and feasten foods still important markers of who the English are and what it means to be a part of a rural way of life? Are we contributing to the continuation of rural cake-baking traditions that the Women’s Institute would be proud of and are we helping to reinvent traditions in a way that Thelwell might have found amusing? I hope so.

Finally, and far more importantly, I wonder whose turn is it to bring in the baked goods (and who ate the last slice of the chocolate cake I saw in the staff room?!).


Focus on Collections: These wheels were made for rolling…

written by Felicity McWilliams, Project Officer for A Sense of Place, Countryside21, and Reading Connections.

‘Focus on Collections’ will be a regular feature examining our staff’s favourite objects in the museum, as well as anything interesting we find during research.


Visitors to MERL will know that the wagons form a large part of the current displays in the gallery.  Many are grouped around the wood and metal sections, but they are all over the gallery, most noticeably high up on the ‘rails’.  They are a hugely important part of the collections, so they will of course feature in the redisplay (not to mention the fact that, given that they’re so big, there’s a limit on choices of where to put them).  The plan for the new galleries will involve a way to highlight these wonderful vehicles more, and some of the wagons might soon be on the move to the proposed extension out at the far end of the gallery.  Grouping some of them together in this way may allow different stories to be told, such as the regional variation and adaptation to local landscapes evident in wagon design.

Given that I have been working on the A Sense of Place  project, one of my favourite things about the wagons is how you can see the effects of place and landscape on their design.  Stand between the Cornish wagon and Shropshire wagon in the gallery and you will start to see what I mean.  The Cornish wagon is much smaller in scale, has small narrow hoop-tyred wheels, tall ladders and rope rollers at the back.  These features make it perfect for the Cornish landscape – a small wagon for the narrow country lanes, and tall ladders and rope rollers to secure the load because the lanes are often steep.

Wagons for blog

The Shropshire wagon (MERL 59/219) on the left, in contrast to the Cornish wagon (MERL 62/530) on the right.

The Shropshire wagon looks almost comically large in contrast, and is painted bright yellow (which is apparently traditional for Shropshire wagons, though I’ve yet to be able to find out why).  It has very wide strake-tyred wheels, with two rows of strakes.  Hoop tyres, as on the Cornish wagon, are formed of a continuous hoop of iron, put onto the wheel when hot so that it shrinks and secures the rest of the wheel’s components tightly together.  A straked wheel, in contrast, has numerous arched ‘shoes’, called strakes, nailed around its rim.  Because these don’t shrink onto the wheel in the same way, a tool called a ‘samson’ is used to pull the rim sections tightly together before each strake is nailed into place.  The museum has a samson, which you can see in the display case of wheelwrighting tools not far from the Shropshire wagon.   The two rows of protruding nail heads on the wagon’s wheels provide crucial extra grip for the wet, clay-like soil in Shropshire.

If you go to the Museum’s online catalogue, you can find the records for the Cornish and Shropshire wagons, as well as all the other wagons on display.  These records were ‘enhanced’ as part of the A Sense of Place project, and it’s great to think that some of the work from that project might be feeding into the changes happening at MERL over the next few years.