Lavinia Smith

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Just in case you weren’t listening to Radio Berkshire yesterday afternoon you can catch up with what Greta and I had to say to Bill Buckley on the History Hour. We talked in detail about A Sense of Place and discussed other ongoing projects at MERL. Go to http://bbc.in/HEQUOL – the interview begins at 1.06.55 and continues for several segments of the show.

Amongst other things, we spoke in more detail about Lavinia Smith and her collections from East Hendred, as well as some of the other ongoing digitisation work being undertaken at the museum – Rural Images Discovered and OBL4HE – and about the forthcoming MERL Village Fete, which sees the museum turn its attention to a fresh diamond jubilee theme. I say ‘fresh’ because MERL actually celebrated its own diamond jubilee in 2011, staging a 60th anniversary exhibition in collaboration with none other than the BBC. As the following image shows, yesterday’s broadcast on BBC Berkshire was the latest in a long line of connections between ‘Auntie’ and MERL over the years.

Live TV broadcast from MERL, May 1954

Live TV broadcast from MERL, May 1954

Turning my attention back to this year’s jubilee – that of HRH Queen Elizabeth – the museum is lucky enough to be linking up with HistoryPin once more as a result of this milestone event. MERL, of course, has previously partnered with HistoryPin on a project concerned with Pinning Reading’s History, and the Sense of Place project team will be working with them over the coming months to find new ways of making the museum’s artfactual collections accessible via virtual maps.

By way of extending these existing and ongoing links with HistoryPin, we’ll be using the Village Fete as a context in which to gather content for another place-related project that they are currently developing, which is concerned with Pinning the Queen’s History. Having been born within a week of the 1977 celebrations I am what is commonly referred to as a ‘Silver Jubilee baby’ and therefore have something of a soft spot for street parties and bunting. With this in mind (and just to show how all these things seem to tie neatly together) I’ll finish with a rather pleasing photograph that somebody posted on HistoryPin, which shows a Reading-based street party held around the time I was born.

Silver Jubilee Street Party Vine Crescent Reading, 1977

Silver Jubilee Street Party, Vine Crescent, Reading, 1977

I hope you enjoy listening to Greta and me on the radio and we both look forward to seeing you at the MERL Village Fete on Saturday 9 June 2012!

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Having reached the cataloguing milestone of finishing all 1300 or so records from 1951, I thought it would be good to share some of the things I’ve catalogued. 1951 contained several large collections of objects – the Lavinia Smith Collection, the H. J. Massingham Collection and the Shickle Collection of Friendly Society Poleheads – which definitely helped speed up the cataloguing.

Lavinia Smith was an American who lived with her sister, Frances, in the village of East Hendred in Oxfordshire (formerly in Berkshire) until her death in 1944, aged 73. She gathered objects from friends and neighbours in the East Hendred area, and even found some at the village dump, and displayed them to visitors, especially children from local schools, at their house in the village, ‘Downside’. When Lavinia died, the collection was bequeathed to Berkshire Education Services, and later transferred to the Berkshire Archives at MERL.

A view of Downside, where Lavinia Smith lived.

The Lavinia Smith collection at MERL contains over 400objects – including agricultural implements, animal traps, animal bells and shepherds’ crooks, horseshoes and harnesses, woodworking and metal working tools, fireside and cooking equipment, and much much more! Try searching for ‘Lavinia Smith’ in our online catalogue. Further Lavinia Smith material is held at the East Hendred Museum and details can also be found here. Our records at MERL also contain a list of many of Lavinia Smith’s donors, along with their occupations, which provides interesting contextual evidence – and could be an interesting avenue for future research.

The East Hendred Museum, housed in Champs Chapel.

So, having spent the best part of a month cataloguing the Lavinia Smith Collection, I had a really strong urge to visit East Hendred (and take my photo next to the village sign – but my arms weren’t long enough to fit me and the sign in the same photo) and decided to head off one sunny Sunday and see what sort of a place it was. As it turns out, East Hendred is one of the most beautiful villages I’ve ever been to! Unfortunately the East Hendred Museum was closed on my visit, but I spent an hour or two walking around and enjoying the sunshine, and I can see why it would have appealed – it was very ‘English’ and very ‘Midsomer Murders’. However, there wasn’t much sign within the village of the agricultural way of life that Lavinia Smith’s collection documents. Until this project, I’d never heard of East Hendred, and so had no idea what it was like and had no context in which to catalogue the Collection – visiting it has made it a ‘real’ place far more than looking at it on a map did.

Incidentally, East Hendred is one of those difficult places we’ve encountered which has been affected by changing county borders – from Berkshire to Oxfordshire – and is brilliantly illustrated in this ‘Best Kept Village’ sign from the 1970s.

From Berkshire to Oxfordshire.

And on the way back into Reading, across the Berkshire Downs, it was pleasing to recognise lots of place names that I’d encountered in the cataloguing. I’m from Cambridge and don’t know this area at all, but I feel that I’m slowly starting to piece together a map in my mind of where places around here are. So my visit to East Hendred helped me improve my ‘sense of place’ in terms of the context in which Lavinia Smith was collecting and of my geographical knowledge of the Berkshire/Oxfordshire area.

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