Research post: X marks the spot


We’ve all been very busy researching nine new galleries for the Our Country Lives redevelopment, covering everything from wagon construction to rural fashion. What caught our eye recently, however, was a one-way, horse-drawn Butterfly plough.

While delving into our accession files for its measurements we found this interesting little map tucked into a sheaf of correspondence (below). It depicts a working farm in Polventon, Cornwall where our plough came from. It shows a house, barn, stables, a waggon and cart hovel, a ‘new building’ and a chapel. It also has some queries – such as one building labelled ‘bullock house? Pigs?’. I doubt we’ll ever know which.


The correspondence also revealed that the farmer used this horse-drawn plough to fill in the gaps which his tractor-drawn plough could not reach, such as by the hedges, showing the perseverance of old technology where practical. The curator has marked two X’s on the map where two ploughs were found in hedges (including the one in our collection). Not exactly buried treasure to most people, but valuable to us nonetheless.


What is also particularly interesting for us is the inclusion of a floor-plan of the farmhouse (below), labeling familiar objects in our collection such as settles. Considering our plans for the redeveloped galleries include a focus on ‘Hearth and Home’, exploring both the romanticised view of the cottage and the too-often grim reality, these plans may well shape our interpretation and object layout.

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The farmhouse still exists in the exact same shape, although the ‘waggon hovel’ has since been converted into a garage. No longer used as part of a farm, you can rent out the house for a self-catering holiday, which is itself an interesting comment on the changes in farming and rural real estate over the past fifty years.

Hopefully we’ll have more interesting things crop up as we research over the next few weeks!

Our Country Lives update: Bringing our wagons down to earth

Alongside finalising gallery layouts, coming up with exciting ideas for interactive displays and filling in foundations for our extensions, our biggest update for you this week is the removal of our wagons from their monorail.

Designs for the gallery and possible objects for display are coming together

Designs for the gallery and possible objects for display are coming together

wagon move 1

wagon move2












We managed to finish the job in one day with the help of a specialist removal company, a fork-lift truck and much bated breath. If you haven’t been to the Museum before, for the last ten years we have had several wagons raised from the floor on a monorail running down the length of the galleries. Each wagon was attached to its own beam which was first removed from its supports and brought to the floor; once the wagon’s own wheels were supporting it, the beam was then lowered from the wagon itself and taken away. One main worry was that since the wagons have been off their wheels for so long, and their wood so desiccated from the dry atmosphere of our building, that they may be a little brittle when on the floor again. They all, however, came down without a hitch and are now waiting with the rest of the collection to be redisplayed.


The reasoning behind their removal is that the wagons currently take up precious space in the rafters where we would like to build a new gallery for our ploughs. The Wagon Walk, where the majority of our wagons and carts will now be, will allow us to show our nationally important collection at its best. As well as exploring the craftsmanship and technical complexity of a wagon’s construction, we will also be delving into personal stories of those behind the wagons and how they used them. We will reveal how these wagons are intimately tied to their landscapes but also to local building traditions, and how the geography dictates the size, shape and construction of every single one of our unique wagons.



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.