Evacuees visiting The MERL

The Evacuees next to the interactive that tells their stories.

The evacuees next to the interactive that tells their stories.

On 28 November 2016, The MERL welcomed seven evacuees and their families to the Museum. The evacuees had agreed to allow the Museum to include their stories in the evacuee interactive and the day was designed to thank all involved for their participation. The day included showing the evacuees the interactive for the first time, photographing the evacuees and the evacuees recording their written memoirs. The photographs and audio will now be added to the interactive in the Town and Country gallery.

The evacuees included Peter Terry and Barbara Wood.

Peter Terry, June 1940

Peter Terry, June 1940

Peter Terry, 2016.

Peter Terry, 2016.

Peter Terry was evacuated from Ilford Essex with the Beal School to Kennylands Camp, Sonning Common, Berkshire. The Council for the Preservation of Rural England recommended to the Government in 1938 that camps should be built in various country areas with the object of giving deprived children from inner cities the opportunity of having a holiday in the countryside. It was envisaged that the camps could be used as evacuation centres if necessary. Kennylands was the first camp to be finished and occupied.

Barbara and Betty as young evacuees.

Barbara and Betty as young evacuees.

Barbara and Betty, 2016.

Barbara and Betty, 2016.

Barbara and Betty Wood were evacuated from Sea Mills, Bristol to Rockwell Green, Somerset. Barbara said of the experience, “Although there were unhappy times that we stayed there, Uncle always seemed to be there to listen when we felt sad. Long after the war was over, Auntie and Uncle used to come and stay with us for holidays.”

The MERL holds over 600 evacuee memoirs of children who were evacuated in Britain and overseas.

To find out more about the archive, click here.

Caroline Gould (Principal Archivist)

Sew Engaging at the Rising Sun

Dr Jane McCutchan is back in Reading for the latest stage of  the Sew Engaging project…

Drop in at Rising Sun Arts Centre, near the Royal Berks Hospital on a Thursday morning, and you are close to Heaven. Eleven o’clock and the clients have stopped for a tea break.  The chair under Dennis (not his real name) is gently collapsing, but he smiles at me like an angel.

‘Hello,’ I say, ‘I’m the sewing lady.’

‘Rising Sun’ is one of the first community groups to take part in the ‘Sew Engaging’ project, which is reaching out to the public while the Museum of English Rural Life is closed for refurbishment. I have been invited to spend the day at the Centre and see their progress.

Sew engaging rising sun 1


The tea break is over and there is an eagerness to return to work. Larry, the group leader, holds up the quilt panels for everyone to admire; beautiful colours, carefully applied beads and lovingly stitched applique … you can hear a pin drop. I am at a loss to know what to suggest, each panel is a work of art.

‘We need help with the borders,’ Larry tells me, and I can see the problem. ‘We have a treadle sewing machine and want to stitch the squares onto a backing, but it will be a challenge.  What we really need is a hand sewing machine.’

(Note: If you would like to help Rising Sun with their quilt project, please post a comment below and we will pass on your message).


Sew engaging rising sun 2


As it happens, I have a sewing machine in the back of the car, a vintage ‘Regina’. It had been given to me by Sir William McAlpine and offered to the Museum, but as MERL already had several models of a similar vintage in its collections, if was decided that it could be put to much better use by if handed over to a group who might be able to use it. Now, spruced up and polished, there is only one problem, it doesn’t work. This is a set-back, but everyone is encouraging, ‘It’s so pretty … look at the flowers.’

We turn to and make a wall hanging for Election Day and VE Day. Hugh Ehrman has given us a patriotic needlepoint kit, and this is our inspiration.


Sew engaging rising sun 3


I take ‘Regina’ to Tom Dilley, Sewing Machine Service & Sales in Swindon. The wooden carrying case has ‘locked’ and there isn’t a key. I wait while he finds one that will fit, removes the lid and carefully examines the ‘patient’.

Sew engaging rising sun 4


The diagnosis is not good, the bobbin winder is broken and the threading mechanism is more complex than a Singer sewing machine of the same age. BUT the handle turns, the needle goes up and down and it makes a wonderfully soothing sound. Perhaps we can make perforated patterns on paper, and then everyone will be able to use the sewing machine.


Sew Engaging: Jane visits the Aman Group in Slough

Aman Group is a women’s only community group who meet at Manor Park Community Centre in Slough to learn from each other in friendship and participate in exercise, awareness sessions, health and beauty ideas and much more. In 2014, Sloughroots ‘Remedies-Remembered’ participants from the Aman Group got involved in a Quilt Project when they visited Museum of English Rural Life, and made 20 art panels reflecting feelings, colours, cultures, interests and values of the participants.

Sew Engaging Aman1

In March 2015, Aman Group, in partnership with Slough Borough Council, held an open morning, to discuss ideas for future sessions, and the ‘Sew Engaging’ project was on their list. ‘Please be here to set up your stall at 10.30’, they suggested, so I caught the village bus, taking the quilt and a suitcase of sewing supplies. Public transport doesn’t ‘connect up’ for rural commuters, one of the things we ‘hate’ about living in the country, but the M4 was grid-locked, due to an accident. I spent an hour waiting for the 0911 train, which was packed. ‘I thought you did well to get off at Reading,’ the Dispatcher said, grinning at my packages, but I caught the Slough shuttle and a friendly face met me at the station, ‘Welcome back’.

Sew engaging Aman group

The ladies were gathering in the Gymnasium, ‘Lovely to see you again! Are you coming every week to teach us sewing?’ The up-cycled needlework kit I had sent them was still in the envelope, but it wasn’t long before some of the women drifted towards my table.

Sew engaging aman lady

‘I loved sewing, until I had a stroke and lost the use of my arm, I wouldn’t be able to do it now’, one lady told me. How I wished I had brought a tapestry frame to show her, it holds the canvas taught so she could stitch with one hand.  I encourage her to sort the yarn into colours. ‘I look after my family and do all my own work,’ she told me. ‘Needlework would give me a few minutes relaxation and something pretty to hang on the wall.’

Sew engaging aman ladies

Soon more volunteers begin work on the unfinished ‘Butterfly’ canvas, eager to brighten up the muted blues and pinks of the floral cushion cover with gold thread and bead work.  This panel will be part of the ‘triptych’ showing things people love about the countryside.  Other panels have been sent to the Chinese Women’s Group in Reading  and the Powys Federation of Women’s Institutes, for their interpretation.

Sew engaging aman sewing


Next time, Jane visits Pennyhooks Care Farm near Oxford, and works with students who have Autistic Spectrum Disorder.

Sew Engaging! The first ‘man stitch’

In this week’s Sew Engaging! project update, Jane visits Cotswold Woollen Weavers at Filkins and gets the first ‘man stitch’

It was dark. I got up this morning and lit the wood burner, glad of my sweater, the brown one I was wearing to launch the ‘Sew Engaging’ project at the Riverside Inn on Valentine’s Day. It has a hole under one arm. I bought my sweater in Filkins two years ago, and have worn it practically every day since. I put another log on the fire and wash the soot off my hands; ‘Real stuff for real people’, time to search for a new sweater.

Filkins lies just off the A361 between Lechlade and Burford and is home of the Cotswold Woollen Weavers. The village is of Saxon origin, now with a population of about 450, two churches built 800 years apart, a public swimming pool given by a Chancellor of the Exchequer, a village lock-up and a very fine pub. The area is home of the ‘Cotswold Lions’ or their modern descendants– flocks of woolly sheep.

Cross the threshold of the Cotswold Woollen Weavers (mind your head) to feel the warmth of natural fibres and feast your eyes on their beautiful colours. The Main Shop is full of garments, accessories and knitwear; a visitor from Oxford adds a stitch to the needlework in the Weaving Shed. She has not heard of the Museum of English Rural Life but will visit when we re-open in 2016.

Sew engaging last loom

‘The last of the looms’ – the fabric is now woven off site.

Director, Richard Martin, at his desk in the Design Studio, is surrounded by the ephemera of the textile industry. ‘What do you love or hate about the countryside?’ I ask. We talk about the project while he puts the first ‘man stitch’ in the ‘tapestry’. I make my purchase, leaving Richard making history, but there is no time to work more than a few stitches. I steal away via the coffee shop and come home.

Sew engaging first man stitch

Making the first ‘man stitch’


What do you love or hate about the countryside? Some people are ‘Sew Engaged’, they have spent hours working on the canvas at home. Elaine and Bambi show off their ‘pet hate’ at Woolstone Farm Livery in Vale of White Horse:


Sew Engaging horse



Sew engaging pet hate


The ‘Sew Engaging’ project, funded by The Ashley Family Foundation, is giving people an opportunity to enjoy working with the ‘real stuff’- up-cycled needlework kits and a rainbow of tapestry yarn. Please contact Rob Davies at the Museum of English Rural Life if you belong to a group that would like to take part in the project. Previous sewing skills are not needed and we supply all the materials free of charge.


Next time, Jane goes to a Community Craft Fair in Slough.

Sew Engaging!

Our new ‘Sew Engaging!’ outreach project has been launched on the banks of the River Thames at Lechlade, Gloucestershire. The project has been designed by textile artist, Jane McCutchan, and funded by The Ashley Family Foundation. Jane holds a Barnett Bequest Fellowship at MERL, and a doctorate from the University of Reading, and uses our collections in her work. In this series of posts, you will be able to follow Jane’s adventures as she invites people to ‘up-cycle’ unfinished needlepoint kits, and stitch designs which reflect their feelings about the countryside.

February 14th 2015

Quintessential wintry countryside; a bevy of snow-white swans grazes the water meadow, a lonely narrow boat leans against the bank, the willows are colouring against a leaden sky. Swindon is 11 miles and another world behind, I cross Halfpenny Bridge, turn left, and the carpark of the Riverside Inn is full.

‘What do you love or hate about the countryside?’ I ask the Manager, business-like in a red top covered with hearts. Apprehensively, I pull the canvas out of my bag; three up-cycled pieces joined together; ‘The Old Mill’ came from a charity shop in Dawlish, two flowery seat covers are tacked on upside down. Squint, and the one on the left will become an apple orchard, the other a vegetable garden. I order coffee and a sandwich. Will she let me sit here and stitch?

sew engaging watermill


‘Watch out for the pins’, the rural scene is littered with small pieces of paper, pictures of icons people hate; solar panels, satellite dishes, wind turbines, power lines, road signs, wheelie bins, plastic bottles, broken bottles, a shopping trolley in the pond. The plan is to work them into the traditional scene using the same vintage colour palette, and invite the public to add a stitch.

sew engaging2

Summer Lancaster, Manager at the Riverside Inn, Lechlade makes the first stitch


Sew engaging no fly tipping





‘What are you doing?’ Two women pause, interested, I explain. ‘What a wonderful idea, we love doing this!’ Another Jane sits down, she is from Bath. My sandwich arrives, it looks delicious but we are too busy to eat.  Marion from Bristol is my next customer; no-one has heard of the Museum of English Rural Life.

sew engaging3


Lunch is coming to an end, Alex comes out from behind the bar, ‘May I try?’ I haven’t done this before.’

sew engaging4


I tell everyone about my Blog and invite them to visit MERL, when it reopens in 2016 and see all the needlework in the ‘Sew Engaging!’ exhibition. Donations of tapestry yarn and part-finished kits are needed; please send them to the museum.

Next time: Jane visits Cotswold Woollen Weavers at Filkins and gets a first ‘man stitch’.

Huntley & Palmers and the MERL shop

Claire Smith, Visitor Services Assistant, looks at MERL’s links with biscuit company, Huntley & Palmers, and the development of new related products for the MERL shop

MERL has very strong links with Huntley & Palmers. Not only do we look after their archives, we’re based in Alfred Palmer’s former home!

The University of Reading Special Collections Services and the Museum of English Rural Life are housed in a Grade II listed building, which was originally known as East Thorpe, the home of Sir Alfred Palmer of the Huntley and Palmers biscuit company.

East Thorpe was designed and built by the architect Alfred Waterhouse between 1880–1882. Many original aspects remain, such as the beautiful stained glass in the Staircase Hall and Reading Room.

East ThorpeThe building was given to the University in 1911, when it became St Andrew’s Hall. MERL has been based here since 2005. More information is available in the online exhibition on our website .

The records of Huntley & Palmers  cover the period 1837-1995, the collections consists of documentary materials from all areas of the business, including financial records, correspondence, sales records, promotional material, production records, packaging designs and specimens, photographs, published material and audio visual items. The recipes in the archives inspired our Biscuit Bake-off competition launched earlier this yearThe archives are accessible to the public, via the Special Collections reading room.

Some of the artwork for the Huntley & Palmers packaging is absolutely beautiful and it is such a shame that it is hidden in the archives stores. Last year we were delighted to be able to use some of the stunning images to create items which we now stock in the MERL shop, such as notecards, invitations, mirrors and wrapping paper. Read more in a previous post Some of these are now available in the MERL online store

H&P thank you

We have recently extended the Huntley & Palmers range to include  striking biscuit tins, also based on original designs. We also have packets of biscuits currently made by the company, now based in Suffolk, some of which are based on century-old recipes. 

H&P shop latest

We are currently working with Reading Museum on an Arts Council funded project entitled Reading Engaged, part of which will focus on new products for both museums’ shops. Huntley & Palmers seemed like a natural place to start, as both the University of Reading’s Special Collections and Reading Museum have such extensive collections. We will also be investigating other shared ground, for example our Waterhouse-designed buildings, and other local companies such as Suttons Seeds. The aim of the retail-focussed part of the project is to pool our resources to develop new bespoke product ranges which compliment both museums.

Discovering the Landscape #5: Mawson’s ‘The art & craft of garden making’ (1900)

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 another of our favourite items:

The art & craft of garden making by Thomas H. Mawson (London: B.T. Batsford, 1900)

A Country House and Garden, double page illustration from Mawson, 1900

A Country House and Garden, double page illustration from Mawson, 1900

In his first book, Mawson demonstrated his expertise as a landscape designer, who rose from humble origins to become the leader of his field, undertaking major commissions in Britain, Europe and Canada and in 1929 becoming the first president of the Institute of Landscape Architects.

Mawson, Art & Craft of Garden Making, 1900

Mawson, Art & Craft of Garden Making, 1900

Thomas Hayton Mawson (1861-1933) was a well-known landscape architect, garden designer and town planner thought by many to be the leading practitioner of his time.  In the early 1880s Mawson and his brothers established their own firm.  Based in Windermere, Mawson received commissions to design private gardens and as the firm grew took on work across the country.

By 1900 Mawson had achieved such success and acclaim to allow him to leave Mawson brothers and pursue landscape design independently.  Becoming the leader of his field, Mawson took on many high profile private and public projects, working for example for Queen Alexandra and the maharaja of Baroda.  His public works include Haslam Park in Preston and internationally the Peace Palace gardens at The Hague, which Mawson won a competition to design in 1908.

In the same year as leaving Mawson Brothers, the first edition of Mawson’s  The art & craft of garden making was published.  This ran to several editions, many of these are held here at MERL, with our holdings furthered by the acquisition of a first and second edition of the work from the Landscape Institute Library.

The first edition featured here is bound with the publisher’s original green cloth and is finished with beautiful gilt decoration.  The volume is illustrated with perspective views drawn by Mr. C.E. Mallows, chapter headings designed for the title by Mr. D. Chamberlain and extensive, varied and intricate depictions of plants, plans of gardens and garden ornaments.

Chapter 2 illustrated heading, Mawson, 1900

Chapter 2 illustrated heading, Mawson, 1900


Plan from Mawson, 1900

Plan from Mawson, 1900

Clearly concerned by recent treatment of the topic of landscape gardening, Mawson’s preface reveals his desire to restore the image of the practice in public perception and counter claims that beautiful gardens occur more by ‘accident’ than design.  I can’t help but wonder who Mawson might have in mind here… do get in touch if you have any ideas!

‘Garden making; it has been said is the only art which, owing to accidental development and un-looked for groupings, the realisation surpasses in beauty the original conception… a caustic critic seizing upon this statement has referred to landscape gardening as an art which relies upon accident for its effects.  Whilst not fully admitting the justice of this criticism… the writings and practice of many men who have undertaken to lay out gardens, have given cause for it… no such desirable object as garden making has suffered so much from the inattention of those who have been most capable of guiding and advising.’ – p. xi.


Mawson’s archival collection is held at the Cumbria Record Office, Kendal.

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.


Press release: Arts Council funding brings Reading museums closer to the community

Reading Museum outreachArts Council funding brings Reading museums closer to the community

5th March, 2014

The Museum of English Rural Life (MERL) and Reading Museum have been awarded £129,150 to collaborate on ‘Reading Engaged’, a new joint project aimed at strengthening engagement with local communities.

MERL, which is owned and managed by the University of Reading, has received the award as part the latest round of Arts Council England’s Strategic support fund, announced today.  57 organisations will receive a total of £5,715,338 through the Renaissance Strategic support fund, which aims to support excellence, and the potential for excellence, in a wide range of museums across England.

Over the past year the two museums have worked together to reinforce to the local community the contribution Reading and its citizens made during the First World War. This award strengthens that partnership and sees the museums develop closer ties with community groups through displays, partnerships and events.

New display cases in Reading Museum’s ‘Reading: People and Place’ gallery will allow both museums to experiment with innovative community-generated or volunteer-developed exhibitions. MERL will use these displays to test ideas and new approaches to content creation and engagement for ‘Our Country Lives’ – MERL’s redisplay project.

MERL community eventThe funding will also support audience research that will help both museums develop new programmes that reflect the communities they serve.   Other joint activities will include working together on new merchandise for their Museum shops and on staff and volunteer training.

Kate Arnold-Forster, Director of MERL, said: “The Museum of English Rural Life is delighted to have been given this opportunity to strengthen our strategic partnership with Reading Museum. We are confident that this project will mean that people living in Reading will be able to experience more and better opportunities to enjoy what our museums have to offer. We also want to share what we learn through this project with other museums to help show them the benefits of partnership working.”

Cllr Paul Gittings, Lead Member for Culture and Sport at Reading Borough Council, said “It is fantastic that the University and Council’s museums are working so closely together for the benefit of all Reading’s communities. This further funding success builds upon the foundations of their joint work over the last 12 months and will provide more exciting opportunities for local people to engage with the significant museum collections we have here in Reading”.


For further information, images and interviews, please contact:

Alison Hilton, Marketing Officer at Museum of English Rural Life on 0118 378 8660.

Notes for editors:

The Arts Council announcement and further details can be found on their website


Discovering the landscape #2 (Landscape Institute project update)

We have been so busy over the last couple of months that we almost forgot to let you know what we’ve been up to! Here’s our progress in pictures…


A new library room has been created to accommodate the growing MERL library. 

LI update Feb 2014 006-1

Over 500 books have been bib-checked for duplication across the University libraries, with 150 books catalogued and on the shelves ready for readers to use in our new library room! Subjects include garden design, historical parks and gardens, urban landscape planning, and the history of gardens and gardening.

LI update Feb 2014 012-1

Drawings from the Geoffrey Jellicoe collection have been catalogued on our database including this design (one of many) for the gardens at Shute House in Dorset.

Geoffrey Jellicoe plan of Shute House

Cataloguing and digitizing the Susan Jellicoe photographic collection of albums. The collections boasts over 6000 prints of national and international landscape and architecture as can be seen in this page featuring Sonning lock here in Berkshire and an avenue of Royal Palms in Barbados.

P JEL PH2 L_6_4-1

Welcoming volunteers who have recently begun assisting in bib-checking and labelling books, and digitizing the Clifford Tandy photographic collection of slides.

P TAN PH5_4_296-1

Getting to know our collections to assist with enquiries and cataloguing, and in preparation for the inaugural meeting of the Friends of the Landscape Institute archive on Saturday, where we will be displaying some of the gems from the archive and library.

2013-11-14 15 12 21 (2)-1‘Instruction pair les jardin Fruitiers et Potages’ printed in Paris in 1697

LI update Feb 2014 021-1AR CRO Magdalen College rose garden photo 2

Plan for the rose garden at Magdalen College, University of Oxford by Sylvia Crowe and a photograph of the completed garden some years later.