My Favourite Object #6: ‘Check Rein’ and Blacksmithing Tools

This post was written by Christina Avramakis, Project Assistant for our Sense of Place project.

My role at MERL has been to accession and catalogue new objects coming into the Museum, and so I have been very lucky to get up close and personal with many interesting objects and stories. For this reason, it was difficult to choose just one object and in the end I have settled on two horse-related accessions (although the queen honeybee artificial inseminator was very tempting!).

The objects I have chosen are a ‘check rein’ (object number 2012/387) and a set of blacksmithing tools (object numbers 2012/455/1-3 – 2012/459).

A pair of hammers and a pair of tongs (MERL/456-459)

A pair of hammers and a pair of tongs (MERL/456-459)

I think that the check rein is particularly special as this style of driving horses on the farm was very rare, only employed in a small part of Yorkshire, near Hull. The check rein was used by Ron Creasey, who was one of the last horselads (as the men who worked with the horses on the farm were known), working with horses on the farm from 1946, at the age of 17, until 1960.

Common horse reins consist of two lines which the driver uses to direct the horses or stop them. A check rein only uses a single line and so the driver controls and directs the horse using the rein in combination with verbal commands. Depending on the pull on the check rein, the horse will turn right or left, but the horse will only stop at the verbal command of the driver. For this reason, the horselad had to be both highly skilled to handle the check rein to ensure that the horses moved in the right direction at the right time, and sufficiently commanding that the horse would respond to its orders. It was for this same reason that the use of the check rein did not spread further; because of the reliance on verbal commands to manage the horses, some farmers simply considered it too unsafe, for if there was an emergency and the driver could not use his voice, there was no other way to stop the horses.

The 'Check Rein' (MERL/2012/387)

The ‘Check Rein’ (MERL/2012/387)

The blacksmithing tools, specifically a number of pincers and cat’s-head hammers, were used in Hampshire. They are just a small selection of blacksmith tools, but I like them for four reasons – their testament to innovation, sustainability, skill and endurance.

The pincers appeal to me for their ridged texture; but they have these ridges because of the way that they are made. They are an excellent example of innovation and recycling – they are made from used, worn-out rasps which,  as they were no longer fit for their original purpose, have been fashioned into something  different and given new life.

The cat’s-head hammers have a small prominent bulge on each side of the head which, it has been suggested, almost have the appearance of two ears, and so may be where the name comes from. One of the small bulges is used to create clips on the horseshoe, although the use of these hammers is now uncommon. For me, the skill, dexterity and precision required to shape the metal by striking it with just this small bulge is highly impressive.


Finally, what struck me as I learned more about these tools and their makers, beyond the specialised skills involved, were the unbreakable links between these people through a system of apprenticeships and mentoring that extended from the early 20th Century to the present day. Particularly at a time when there is a greater emphasis on an academic l education at school and university, it is both fascinating and reassuring to know that the traditional and unique skills and knowledge of the countryside have not yet been lost but have endured, with generations of blacksmiths passing on the tricks of the trade.

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.

My Favourite Object #4: ‘By the Roadside’ cigarette cards

written by Felicity McWilliams, Project Officer.

Quite a few of my favourite objects in the museum were collected as part of the Collecting 20th Century Rural Cultures project. The project began in 2008, with the aim of acquiring objects for the collections which build a picture of the twentieth century English countryside. A wide variety of objects were collected, such as a Corgi Toy combine harvester, a Farmer Palmer cartoon mug, and suburban railway posters advertising countryside rambles. More so than the rest of the collections, these objects often show ideas and representations of and about the countryside. I’ve chosen object number 2009/69 as my favourite – a full set of 50 Ogden’s cigarette cards, from the 1932 series ‘By the Roadside’. Each card depicts a place of historical or natural interest in or close to a town, with a colour illustration and description of the place on the reverse. The places featured on the cards range from all over England – and two from Scotland. Each illustration also has a small map showing how to find the place in relation to nearby larger towns. As former curator Roy Brigden pointed out in his own blog post about these cards, this implies that the collector could or should take a day trip to visit the featured place. Day trips in the countryside became possible for urban dwellers with the advent of the railways and later the motor car, and other objects in the Collecting 20th Century Rural Cultures collection, such as a 1900’s travelling tea-making basket, point to this popular twentieth century pastime.

2009/69/9: Cigarette card, from the 1932 Ogden’s Series ‘By the Roadside’. This card is ninth in the series of fifty.

2009/69/9: Cigarette card, from the 1932 Ogden’s Series ‘By the Roadside’. This card is ninth in the series of fifty.

Day trips to the countryside are by no means a hobby of the past, either. My own favourite from within this set is the ninth card in the series, which features the wool market in Chipping Campden, Gloucestershire. I like this one in particular because it reminds me of regular and continuing visits to Chipping Campden with my Nan. I’ll admit we probably visit for the tearooms and shoe shop more than the wool market, but it is a fascinating structure that is just part of the great historical interest and beauty of the town.

For me, this set of cigarette cards is very much about the rural landscape and our interactions with it. The Our Country Lives project will tackle the challenge of bringing more stories about rural lives, people, and landscapes into the displays; the objects collected as part of Collecting 20th Century Rural Cultures have a lot of potential to help draw out such themes. The current temporary exhibition at MERL is called Collecting the countryside: 20th century rural cultures, and it features many of the objects collected as part of the project. There’s also a space for visitors to leave their own suggestions and experiences, all of which will feed back into the Our Country Lives redevelopment work.

My Favourite Object #3: Horse overshoes, or lawn slippers

written by Claire Smith, Weekend Supervisor/Learning Assistant. To learn more about Claire, see her previous post.

Horse overshoes (MERL\59/392/1-2)

Horse overshoes (MERL\59/392/1-2)

Before the invention of the lawnmower in 1830, grass would be cut with a scythe, or animals would be allowed to graze on the lawn to keep it short. From the 1850s, horse-drawn lawn mowers were introduced. In order to prevent the horse’s hooves from damaging the lawn as the mower was pulled, the horse was fitted with lawn shoes, or slippers. These could also be made to measure for donkeys and ponies. The horse’s feet were simply strapped into the leather overshoe. This spread the pressure of the foot more evenly and prevented the shape of the horseshoe from being imprinted over the lawn.

There are several pairs of lawn shoes in the MERL collection, mainly for horses, but also some smaller ones which were probably used for donkeys or ponies. The pair shown above are made from leather, and padded on the inside with wool. They would have been strapped around the horse’s hooves and fastened with the buckles.

Horses are not the only animals to have shoes – when turkeys made their three month long walk to market, they would wear special leather boots to protect their feet. Pigs would wear knitted boots with leather soles. Geese wouldn’t allow themselves to be shod, so their feet would be dipped in tar and covered with sand. Sadly we don’t have any examples of pig or turkey shoes in the museum, but I think the horse slippers are lovely enough to make up for it!

My Favourite Object #2: Ploughs are interesting (honest)

The second ‘favourite object’ has been chosen by Adam Koszary, Project Officer for Our Country Lives. Since starting on work at MERL, it seems he has developed a particular interest in ploughs. Read his personal reflections on the merits of the plough…


It is worth pointing out that before I started at the Museum of English Rural Life, I had only a vague idea of what constituted English rural history; in fact, it was the first time I had even heard the phrase ‘rural life’. I am also not alone. With increasing urbanisation (I myself am a product of the West Midland Conurbation) there have also been increasing worries that children are disconnected from the land – the most recently publicised poll revealed that a third of primary school children thought cheese came from plants and one in five thought fish fingers came from chicken. While statistics should be taken with a pinch of salt, there is certainly a disconnection between the world of the farm and the urban sprawl. For instance I had little knowledge of ploughs, which, when I talk about working at a museum of rural life, is the thing which immediately springs to people’s minds (often with a roll of the eyes).

However, the more I read about the plough the more I have learnt to appreciate it. Like the cow, it has been with us since pre-history, with rudimentary versions tilling the fields of the first domesticated crops in the Fertile Crescent, which in turn developed into the lighter, oxen-drawn ploughs by the Roman period. I recently finished Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel on my commute, a book where he attempts to explain why ‘western civilisation’ dominates the world. He forwards the compelling hypothesis that the success of western civilisation is due to accidents of geography and biology. In particular, the ancient domestication of crops and animals – with which the invention of technology such as the plough went hand-in-hand – is an essential pre-requisite of large-scale, complex societies. The plough may seem mundane to most but it is a practical, time-tested tool that has built the world as we know it. That the same tool has been with us for around seven thousand years is, I would say, on par with the timeless design of the wheel.

62-524 copy

A Hornsby Reversible Plough (MERL/62/524)

That is not to say that the plough has not gone through some variations, such as moldboards and cutting knives, but the essential purpose and design of the plough is relatively unchanged. I have been spending time drawing the ploughs on MERL’s walls on my lunch breaks, and my first victim was the One-way Reversible Plough, made by Hornsby of Grantham. Quite a rare example according to the 2011 Digging Deep plough survey (p.22), it is designed with two moldboards on the beam, so that when one is engaged on one side of the plough, the other is lifted into the air. It is also known as a ‘Butterfly Plough’ – a name which, to me, does not adequately reflect the number of sharp blades attached to the frame. In fact, my first sight of it put me in mind of B-movie slasher flicks, and I could easily imagine a Leatherface-type serial killer wielding the Hornsby plough, chasing a victim across the Yorkshire Moors.

However, I would have been better imagining it wielded by Margaret Thatcher, as Hornsby was an internationally important industrial manufacturer located in her hometown of Grantham, and credited with pioneering the track system for vehicles which would eventually be used on the first tanks in World War I. The company, bought out by Ruston in 1918, was eventually subsumed into English Electric in 1966, which in turn was bought by Siemens in 2003.

However, regardless of the fortunes of individual companies, the plough ploughs on, its fundamental design and purpose remaining the same despite technological advances. For Our Country Lives, it is my hope that the ploughs receive more attention in how they are displayed and interpreted, so that more people can better understand the significance of what they are looking at. MERL has an opportunity in Our Country Lives to fight the kind of ignorance cited at the start of this post, and it can often be as easy as finding new ways to interpret hackneyed objects such as tractors and ploughs in a manner which makes people look at them differently.

My favourite object #1: a Yattendon Guild copperware vase

The first in our series of favourite objects chosen by MERL staff, volunteers and visitors, is written by Fiona Melhuish, MERL Librarian.


In my work with the Special Collections rare books and MERL library I get lots of opportunities to spotlight my favourite items from our wonderful book collections through exhibitions and Featured Items on the Special Collections website, so for this post I am going to choose one of my favourite objects from the Museum’s collections – a Yattendon Guild copperware vase (MERL 2009/24).

The vase pictured in an article in The Studio journal

Yattendon Guild Copperware vase (MERL 2009/24)

This vase was purchased by MERL in 2009 as part of the Collecting Rural Cultures project which aimed to acquire material to build a picture of the countryside in the twentieth century. It was made at the Yattendon Metalworking Class, or Yattendon Guild, an evening class for local men and boys, organised by Elizabeth Waterhouse (1834-1918), the wife of the architect Alfred Waterhouse, whose buildings include the Natural History Museum in London.  Alfred designed several buildings in Reading including East Thorpe, a Grade II listed building, which is now the home of MERL and Special Collections. The Waterhouse family purchased the Yattendon estate in West Berkshire in 1878, and Alfred built Yattendon Court (now demolished) as their family home.

Between 1890 and 1914, the class met weekly at Yattendon Court and developed into a thriving village industry. The class produced items in repoussé brass and copper mostly from Elizabeth’s own designs – she also taught her pupils how to beat the copper and brass. The metalworker Colin Pill (who has an interesting website devoted to Arts and Crafts metalwork) has pointed out that “the handle construction on [Yattendon] vases and tankards as well as the shallow nature of the repoussé and background punching or grounding are very distinctive”. Yattendon metalware does not appear to have been stamped with a maker’s mark but some pieces occasionally bear pen inscriptions.

The class became affiliated to the Home Arts and Industries Association (HAIA) which was established in 1884 to increase skills in craftsmanship among the working classes and to promote the revival of rural craft industries. Similar metalwork classes were set up in Newlyn in Cornwall and in Keswick in the Lake District.

The Yattendon Class established a reputation for good design, and produced items including plates, jugs and lanterns in an Arts and Crafts style. The decorative motifs were inspired by plants and flowers, whilst others featured peacocks, fish, deer and leopards. The class produced over 5,000 items and sold their wares in a local shop, whilst other items were sold at Liberty’s in London. In 1895 the art and design journal The Studio praised the Yattendon Guild’s “fine show of repoussé copper, excellent in its design and thoroughly characteristic of the metal”. This vase was featured in an article in The Studio in 1899.

Yattendon Guild copperware vase

The vase pictured in an article in The Studio journal

The vase is one of several items with a Waterhouse connection held by MERL and Special Collections. The Museum also has a tankard made by the Guild (MERL 68/506) and Special Collections holds books written by Elizabeth, correspondence and watercolours by the Waterhouse family. Neither the tankard or the vase are currently on public display in the Museum at the moment but please contact us if you would like to visit to see them!

Yattendon Guild copperware tankard (MERL 68/506)

Yattendon Guild copperware tankard (MERL 68/506)

Objects made in the Arts and Crafts style have always appealed to me, with their designs drawn from natural forms. However, what I think is particularly special about this object is the numerous links it has with different parts of our collections, from the building in which our collections are housed to local history and to the rural life and craft traditions which the Museum seeks to document and celebrate. The design of the vase has a simple beauty and a very satisfying symmetry, with the stylised plant/seed head motif gradually reducing in size as the vase tapers upwards – it would look wonderful in an Arts and Crafts-style fireplace filled with teazels!