What did the Canadian-born Berkshire landowner Horatio Bland (1802-1876) have in common with an American called Lavinia Smith (1870-1944) who came to live much of her life in the English countryside? Furthermore, what did both these people share with the eccentric rural writer of the interwar period H. J. Massingham (1888-1952)? The answers to these questions are really threefold. Firstly, all of these people were enthusiastic collectors of artefacts and each established their own private museum to house the objects they acquired. Secondly, they all lived in the heart of small and tight-knit English village communities. Thirdly, the remaining objects from each of their respective collections came ultimately to reside within the bounds of Reading itself.
So, the common thread of the English village museum serves to link three otherwise distinct characters and their collecting habits. This link provides the basis for a strand of activity to be developed as part of Reading Connections. This activity was primarily conceived as a route to more meaningful exploration of the principal founding collections of MERL—those of Smith and Massingham. Indeed, the plan was to use these two sets of material to examine the ideas of community that lie at the heart of the wider project, as well as to reconnect items within one or both of these collections with people now living in the places where they were originally gathered. However, preparation for MERL’s involvement in work on Historic World Object holdings at Reading Museum led to the unexpected realization that the founding collections of MERL and Reading Museum both lie in village community contexts.The Horatio Bland collection at Reading Museum was gathered during the nineteenth century and was first displayed in the Berkshire village of Burghfield where Bland himself owned a small estate. Although he amassed objects from all over the world, these nevertheless found their first shared home in a rural locale. H. J. Massingham and Lavinia Smith gathered collections that were not only very much of the countryside but were also first housed and located in the countryside. Smith appears to have collected most of her objects during the interwar period and largely from the area surrounding East Hendred, Oxfordshire (then in Berkshire), later storing and displaying them in a cottage called Downside. At around the same time Massingham used contacts in the village of Winchcombe, Gloucestershire, to gather many objects that he then assembled in a purpose-built shed called ‘The Hermitage’, which was located in the grounds of his Buckinghamshire home.
Aspects of this strand of Reading Connections will build on work carried out as part of another recent project called A Sense of Place, which served to better catalogue and enhance the digital presence of object holdings such as those relating to Massingham and Smith. MERL has already built links with present-day museums that exist in both Winchcombe and East Hendred. Since the commencement of Reading Connections, a fresh conversation has begun in earnest with our colleagues at East Hendred Heritage Trust who manage the volunteer-run Champs Chapel Museum. With the help of them and with the assistance of museum historian and consultant Bridget Yates we hope to improve our knowledge of the objects that Lavinia Smith acquired. We are keen to record the memories of people who remember these items at Downside, build links with the descendants of those from whom she collected, and gain a more nuanced understanding of the original contexts in which the objects would have been used. We hope that this engagement will form a working model for future partnership work relating to the Massingham objects, that we would hope to develop in collaboration with the Winchcombe Folk and Police Museum.
What about the rural origins of Reading Museum and the history of Horatio Bland and his private collection? Well, this project has provided an opportunity for us to begin to consider both how and why he might have collected the objects he did, and to explore how they might have been stored or displayed before they were gifted to the Borough of Reading in 1876. For now, evidence of the pre-Reading context is fairly sparse. Nevertheless, an 1892 sale catalogue of the grounds of his onetime estate at Hillfields, Burghfield, provides a brief description of the building that once housed this fascinating hoard:
‘Detached Brick and Slated Building erected for a Museum, but now available for a Billiard Room, 25ft. by 20ft. and a Smoking Room, 20ft. by 14ft., with a Room over, 40ft. by 20ft. and dry Basement Storerooms, Cellarage, and a fireproof Room fitted with Milner’s fireproof door.’
At least one object from Bland’s original museum—a large Japanese temple bell dating to 1746 [Ashmolean EAX.3888]—was never transferred to the Borough, instead serving for many years as a school bell in Burghfield. This object later found its way into the collections of the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, as well as becoming a symbol of the community itself. Indeed, a local newsletter—The Newsbell—was named after it and discussions of life in the community still elicit memories of the bell in use at the school.
Watch this space to see what other stories these activities we might unearth about these different collectors and the things they acquired, and what we find out about the ways in which rural communities played a significant role in the history of collections like these, with their village and countryside origins.