Readerships and literary cultures 1900-1950

Archivist Nancy Fulford reports back from the first of the University’s ‘Archives and Texts’ seminars. For information on the rest of the series, see

‘Readerships and literary cultures 1900-1950’ was the first in this autumn’s series of Archives and Texts seminars; this session was given by Dr Erica Brown of Sheffield Hallam University. Erica has established an archive of popular fiction 1900-1950 at the university library, largely built on donations from the public – from single copies of books to chunks of private library collections. A dedicated group of volunteer readers are regularly tasked with reading books from the collection and completing a questionnaire to give details on plot, genre, literary and cultural references, in addition to any mention of writers, books, plays and films. These regular surveys are building an interesting and useful database of intertextual information. Bookplates, inscriptions, and the owners and donors of books are all noted. Information from the reader questionnaires is used to enhance the catalogue record, allowing researchers to search in a variety of ways, far beyond standard book cataloguing. So far the greatest numbers of literary references are to the bible and Shakespeare, closely followed by Dickens.

These books, aka the ‘middlebrow’ novel, were popular then, but largely not re-published or in print today. This collection thus forms a whole chunk of reading/publishing history. Having read reams of these novels, Erica says she is sometimes amazed that these were once topping the bestseller lists as it is hard to find anything to appreciate about them! Authors range from the well known such as Elizabeth Taylor, Daphne Du Maurier and John Galsworthy, to the obscure – including Kitty Ritson, who wrote a series of pony books, and Willie Riley, whose novel Windyridge inspired copycat naming of homes up and down the country.

In addition to completing the cataloguing questionnaires, readers are also writing reviews of the books which you can read on the Reading 1900-1950 blog. Some of these reviews suggest the books in question wouldn’t have fared well with today’s readers. Publishers usually have a reader or group of readers, often in-house, who read manuscripts submitted for publication, writing a report on their thoughts on the proposed book: plot summaries, whether they think it is right for the market and a suggested recommendation to ‘accept’ or ‘decline’. Several of our collections in our own Archive of British Printing & Publishing contain these reader’s reports, which can give insight into what the publisher was and wasn’t looking for, what might not be accepted by the general public at the time or what was published because of a well known name rather than a well written read. At yesterday’s seminar it was suggested that any existing reader’s reports on these books could provide an interesting comparison with these recent reviews. We might be seeing Erica back in our reading room to take a look…

Top Ten Treasures from the Archives: William Penn letter

Our collections richer than most people would imagine and cover a wide variety of subjects and historical periods. To give you an idea of what’s there, University Archivist Guy Baxter will be introducing his ‘Top Ten Treasures’ over the coming weeks, picking highlights from the archive collections here at Reading. Enjoy!

Treasure Number 2: Letter from William Penn

Top Ten Treasures: Letter from William Penn

Guy writes, ‘William Penn (1644–1718) built a very different empire from that of Henry II. An early Quaker persecuted for his  religious beliefs, Penn went on to found the colony (now a US State) which still bears his name, Pennsylvania. Amazingly, this letter from 1701 survived in the papers of Britain’s first female MP Nancy Astor, herself an American with an interest in her country’s history. Penn himself died just a few miles from Reading, in Ruscombe near Twyford.’


MERL Seminar Series 2013: Women and the Countryside

Here at Special Collections, we’re linked to the collections and work of the Museum of English Rural Life. Our visitors may be interested in this year’s MERL Seminar Series, which focuses on women and the countryside. For further information, see the MERL Seminars page.


Looking for Lavinia: An American collector in 1930s Berkshire

Dr Bridget Yates, Independent Researcher, and Dr Ollie Douglas, Assistant Curator, Museum of English Rural Life

  • Tuesday 29 October
  • 4.30 to 6pm
  • Free
  • Register

DownsideDuring the 1930s, an American woman called Lavinia Smith formed a museum of ‘Old Village Life’ and ‘Bygones’ in her home in the English village of East Hendred. After her death the collection passed to the local Education Authority and eventually to MERL. With the generous support of the Arts Council England and with the help of our friends at Champs Chapel Museum and in the community where she lived and collected, MERL’s ‘Reading Connections’ project has begun to reveal for the first time how and why Lavinia Smith came to establish this collection.

To find out more about the collection at MERL, visit the Village Collections page of the Reading Connections project.


Lady Eve Balfour: farmer or Bright Young Thing?

Dr Erin Gill, Writer and Researcher

  • Tuesday 12th November
  • 4.30 to 6pm
  • Free
  • Register

Young Lady Eve BalfourOne of the first women to study agriculture at Reading, Eve Balfour farmed in East Suffolk during the interwar years. Today known as the founder of the Soil Association, in the 1920s and 1930s Eve combined farming with playing in a Jazz band, writing detective novels, and experimenting with Ouija boards. Was she a proper farmer? Or was she one of the era’s ‘Bright Young Things’ who played at farming? Dr Erin Gill’s doctoral thesis focuses on the career of Lady Eve Balfour and her contribution to the organic food and farming movement. She is involved in the AHRC-funded ‘Histories of Environmental Change’ network.

Visit Dr Erin Gill’s website.

Find out more about Lady Eve Balfour and the AHRC Environmental Histories network.



Turner Collection

This collection was moved back to Douai Abbey in September 2017.  Please contact them for more information:

In the first of a series highlighting a selection of our collections, here’s a look at our Turner Collection, featuring a bibliophilic monk and revolutionary war.


Turner Collection, University of Reading

Turner Collection, University of Reading


Turner Collection, Lettre adressee au Roi, 1789, Vol. 22

Turner Collection, Lettre adressee au Roi, 1789, Vol. 22

Consisting of nearly 8000 items in total, the Turner Collection is an invaluable and fascinating source of pamphlets and political tracts directly relating to the French revolution.  The 2500 pamphlets in 275 volumes mainly concern the period of 1787-1806 covering the French Revolution and the revolutionary wars.  Many of the pamphlets were printed in Paris with the collection also featuring contemporary items printed in other major European printing centres, such as London, on the topic.

The collection is the work of Father John Turner (1765-1844) an English Benedictine monk.  In the mid 1780’s Turner was resident at abbeys in Douai (northern France) and Paris.  Turner became directly involved in events in revolutionary France, embracing the revolution in 1792 by taking the Oath of Liberty and Equality and joining the National Guard.  At that time the monastic way of life was no longer recognised in France.  Turner was later imprisoned in Sainte-Pélagie from 1793 to 1794, after the French declaration of war on Britain in early 1793 resulted in the arrest of British citizens in France.

Turner Collection, Edmund Burke with Turner's notes, Vol. 25

Turner Collection, Edmund Burke with Turner’s notes, Vol. 25

Turner Collection, Thomas Paine, 1793, Vol. 27

Turner Collection, Thomas Paine, 1793, Vol. 27

In early 1795 Turner and others of his Benedictine community returned to their monastic life in Paris.  It was at this time that Turner began to collect and collate into volumes examples of the vast numbers of revolutionary pamphlets Paris had been flooded with during the revolution.  Turner was a bibliophile, he also collected older and rarer books of the ancien régime, in part to replenish the monastic library of his abbey which had been gutted during the revolutionary conflicts.

The pamphlets largely concern contemporary political and ecclesiastical matters, much of the material is of French publication but wider European contexts are also evident.  There are for example tracts by Edmund Burke and Thomas Paine, demonstrating the dissemination of revolutionary ideology through the printed medium across Europe and America at this time.  Many of the volumes also contain Turner’s handwritten notes and transcriptions.


Turner Collection, Turner's handwritten notes

Turner Collection, Turner’s handwritten notes

Douai Abbey today

Douai Abbey today

When the Benedictine community to which Turner had belonged moved to England in 1903 (due to unfavourable anti-clerical legislation in France) they established themselves at Douai Abbey, near Woolhampton.  Turner’s collection also came to England and was deposited at the University of Reading by the Abbott and community of Douai in 1966.

As you can see – the collection and the story of its compilation by father Turner certainly packs a punch in terms of historical interest and intrigue!  For researchers of the French revolution and the revolutionary printing press the collection is a hugely valuable resource.  Contact us for more information or visit to view the collection and browse the card catalogue.

Ada Lovelace day: 15 October

Ada Lovelace portrait (sourced at Wikipedia)

Ada Lovelace portrait

Today is Ada Lovelace day, an annual celebration of achievements in science, technology, engineering and maths by women.  Ada Lovelace (1815-1852) was a nineteenth century mathematician and computer pioneer.  Interested in all kinds of scientific developments, such as the brain and phrenology, Ada is most well known for her work on Charles Babbage’s invention of an analytical engine, a kind of mechanical computer.

Ada was noted for her ability to capture technical concepts and transform them into lucid and clear prose.  Her comments in the early 1840’s on Luigi Menabrea’s work contain what is believed to be one of the earliest computer programs, in the form of an algorithm for machine processes.

Childe Harold's Pilgrimmage, Byron, 1821.

Childe Harold’s Pilgrimmage, Byron, 1821

Ada was also the only legitimate daughter of Lord Byron.  Byron featured her in the opening lines of the third canto of his poem Childe Harold, written soon after Ada’s birth and the break-up of Byron’s marriage to her mother:

‘Ada! sole daughter of my house and my heart?’

From our Reserve and Cole collections, one of our featured items highlights female achievement in the field of botanical art in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.  Pre-nineteenth century professional female artists were very rare, underlining the importance (and beauty!) of the work by Berthe Hoola van Nooten (1840-1855) and Maria Sibylla Merian (1647-1717).

Garcinia mangostana, Fleurs, fruits et feuillages choisis de la flore by Nooten, 1880

Garcinia mangostana, Fleurs, fruits et feuillages choisis de la flore by Nooten, 1880

Top Ten Treasures from the Archives: Henry II charter

Our collections richer than most people would imagine and cover a wide variety of subjects and historical periods. To give you an idea of what’s there, University Archivist Guy Baxter will be introducing his ‘Top Ten Treasures’ over the coming weeks, picking highlights from the archive collections here at Reading. Enjoy!

Treasure No. 1:

Henry II charter1

Guy writes, ‘My first choice is in fact the oldest archival document held by the University: a charter of Henry II to the Abbey of St. Sauveur-le-Vicomte, issued at Westminster sometime between 1155 and 1158. This manuscript is complemented by a comprehensive collection of photocopies of images and transcripts of the charters and other acts of the Angevin Kings of England, including Henry’s sons Richard the Lion-Heart and King John.’

For those interested in medieval history, our archives contain other relevant items such as examples of 12th- and 13th-century York charters (MS 1148/13/4), the Stenton Coin Collection and a 15th century Book of Hours (MS 2087).

Archives & Texts lecture series

An autumn series from the Department of English Literature and Department of Modern Languages and European Studies, open to all University members.


Monday 21 October (wk 3)

Dr Erica Brown (English, Sheffield Hallam)
‘Building an archive of popular fiction 1900–50: Sheffield Hallam University’s Readerships and Literary Cultures collection’

Monday 4 November (wk 5)

Dr Nicola Abram (English, Reading)
‘Exploring Black British Women’s Theatre’
(part of Reading’s Black History Month)

Monday 2 December (week 9)

Stefano Bragato (Modern Languages, Reading)
‘How to write a futurist life: the notebooks of F.T. Marinetti between reality and invention’


All events at 5pm in Humss Room 301. All welcome! For further information, contact Dr Nicola Wilson and Dr Alison Martin (

A unique offer: Collections-Based Research at the University of Reading

Have you heard about the collections-based research programme here at Reading? Head of UMASC Kate Arnold-Forster and Head of the School of Literature and Languages Alison Donnell take a look at the ways in which collections-based research is changing the landscape of doctoral work. 


This October, we’ll be welcoming the first cohort of a unique doctoral skills training programme here at Reading. Drawing on the extensive research potential of the University’s internationally recognised museums and collections, this programme will train doctoral students in the practical skills and intellectual sensitivities essential for quality collections-based research.

The programme responds to the notable ‘material turn’ within humanities research but reaches across and beyond this field to generate a multidisciplinary environment for postgraduate primary source and object-based learning. Our first cohort will embark on research projects across Archaeology, English, Italian, History, Film and Theatre, Typography and Classics – working on collections as diverse as evacuee diaries, Greek vases and Mills and Boon editorial papers. The main objective of this new programme is to develop skills in interdisciplinary approaches to objects and archives so that research students are equipped to fully explore the visual, historical, cultural and material aspects of their research collections.

The doctoral skills programme will also take advantage of the exceptional range of scholarly and practice-based opportunities that a combination of the University’s world class researchers, facilities and strong professional and external links with stakeholder organisations can provide.  As well as writing their theses, students will have opportunities for placements and public engagement work that will enhance their employability by exposing them to experiences that may support future careers within and beyond academia. Building on recent investment in new teaching and learning expertise, the programme fits well with initiatives to embed collections-based teaching in undergraduate courses and will be a genuinely collaborative endeavour in harnessing a combination of academic knowledge and the experience and expertise of the University’s collections staff.

beckett manuscript 1

Collections like the Beckett Archives are key resources for the programme

The University’s outstanding museums and collections will provide the key resource for this programme and act as an impressive focal point for developing the skills required to invigorate postgraduate research culture across a wide spectrum of disciplines. These collections are regarded as significant and unique both nationally and internationally. Three are nationally-designated: the Museum of English Rural Life (MERL), the Beckett Archive and the Archive of British Publishing and Printing. In addition the programme will engage the University’s other outstanding museums, the Cole Museum of Zoology and the Ure Museum of Greek Archaeology, departmental research and teaching collections (such as those of the Department of Typography & Graphic Communication, and the Herbarium), as well as smaller teaching sets such as a fine representative collection of 16th- to 20th- century drawings by European artists in the Department of Art.

Museum Studies Programme Director Dr Rhianedd Smith

What is exciting is the speed with which the programme has attracted new partnership opportunities for students, researchers and collections specialists to work collaboratively in building what we believe is a nationally distinctive and innovative pathway to a PhD. For example, Dr Teresa Murjas and Dr Lisa Purse from FTT will be supervising a research-practice PhD based on MERL’s Evacuee Archive. Funding from the Arts Council (ACE) has contributed to essential cataloguing and digitisation and to support an associated project that will allow Dr Murjas to develop a performance based on the Archive. At the same time, strategic opportunities are already beginning to shape this new programme as we build links with a number of independent research organisations (IROs) who now develop the projects for AHRC Collaborative Doctoral Awards. This year, students on our pilot training will have the chance to join training workshops for London-based IROs, such as the National Archives and British Museum, and students from these institutions will be joining us.

In a rapidly evolving environment for arts and humanities research, the long term aim of this new doctoral training programme is to strengthen Reading’s leading position in Collections-Based Research. It will take advantage of the remarkable quality and scope of the University’s museums and collections to attract postgraduate students, both nationally and internationally, and to build a community of researchers genuinely equipped to reveal, understand and communicate the potential of the university’s vast reserves of still hidden research treasures.