Museum of English Rural Life

From the December 2001 issue of the Berkshire Family Historian

[This article about the Rural History Centre (as then known) is over nine years old so please refer to their current web site

by Jonathan Brown

The Rural History Centre at the University of Reading turns 50 this year. It was founded as the Museum of English Rural Life, born from the rapid pace of change that farming and the countryside had experienced during the Second World War, change which looked likely to continue following the passing of the Agriculture Act in 1947. Members of the University's Faculty of Agriculture were concerned enough to want to preserve something of the past, hence the museum's site at the University and in Reading. Today the Rural History Centre is a national centre for the study of the history of agriculture and the countryside. It has been recognised as such, by being awarded Designated status.

The Victorian passion for steam power saw the introduction of ploughing machines on many of the larger farms.

Initially, the museum built up collections of farm wagons, ploughs and other artefacts of the horse-powered age of agriculture.

Eric Guy's photograph of the blacksmith at Stanford in the Vale in the 1930s. One that really did have a chestnut tree.

Field studies were undertaken into country craftsmen, and the estate villages of Ardington and Lockinge, which laid the foundations for our collections of photographs.

The 1960s and 1970s saw the rapid expansion of archive collections, as first farm records, then business records were deposited, as well as large collections of photographs. Today the archive holdings are of a scale similar to many county record offices. The Rural History Centre is a specialist organisation, of course, but the range within the collections is, nevertheless, quite wide. Among the main groups of archives are the farm records business diaries, accounts, labour books - from about a thousand farms. The business records include archives of a number of agricultural engineering companies, such as the Wantage Engineering Company and Wallis & Steevens of Basingstoke. Other firms represented include Suttons Seeds, with some documents going back to the 1830s. Another group is the organisations connected with agriculture, such as the National Agricultural & Allied Workers Union and the Royal Agricultural Benevolent Institution, a charity founded in Victorian times which has enjoyed unaccustomed prominence recently as a result of its involvement in helping farmers during the foot and mouth crisis. Then there are the photographs. There are some very large collections, including the photographic library of Farmers Weekly. In all, there are more than 750,000 photographs. The earliest date from about 186o, but by far the majority are from the 1930s onwards.

Some of these collections contain documents that record the names of individuals. There are registers of employees included in the archives of a few of the businesses. There are registers of some of those who were assisted by the Royal Agricultural Benevolent Institution in the nineteenth century. By contrast, for example, there are no membership registers for the agricultural workers' union in the same period.

These archives can further studies, broadening and deepening knowledge of the life and work of past family members. The employment registers might not survive, but we can see the type of work people might have been doing at the engineering works. We can illustrate the products from catalogues and photographs. The collections of photographs clearly offer great potential as illustrations of place and life in the countryside. Many of the villages and towns of Berkshire and Oxfordshire are featured in the local topographical collections. These include the Dann & Lewis collection, which features Reading in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century; Treacher for the Twyford area, and Collier, who photographed most of Berkshire's villages. Some of these photographs date back to the 1880s, but most are from the first half of the twentieth century. Erie Guy photographed the agriculture of the Thames Valley in the 1930s and 1940s, and many of the locations are known. For those whose studies take them further afield, there may still be illustrations in our collections. Some of them have particular local strengths: the Miss Wight collection, for example, is concentrated on Herefordshire and Worcestershire.

The library at the Centre also holds many valuable research tools. There are collections of publications by local history groups from all round the country. The county directories cover nearly all the country, and there are runs of journals, such as Farmers Weekly and Country Life.

Using the Centre

The research collections at the Rural History Centre are open from 9.15 am to 4.45 pm, Monday - Friday. Please make an appointment with us first (address and telephone number are at the end of the article). Catalogues, lists and indexes are available, both as traditional handlists and in computer cataloguing. The computer catalogue is available on-line through our website. The on-line catalogue contains library, archive and artefact entries, and a research bibliography containing references to thousands of journal articles, books and theses. If you are only interested, say, in photographs, you can select that as a search option.

We are happy to receive enquiries by post, telephone and e-mail. Remember, though, that we cannot do your research for you. However, do not be afraid to ask anything. We can guide you then as to what is feasible, and any costs that might be involved. Please allow respectable time for replies, as we are few in number here.

The future for the Centre

The Rural History Centre is on the move. The long-projected plan for a new home is progressing, although the designing, redesigning and negotiating about it seem no less protracted. However, we shall be moving to the former St Andrews student hall of residence, which will be converted to our needs. As a first step a new archive store on a nearby site will come into use later this year. We had a successful appeal to raise part of the funds for the development, and this appeal fund is still open. The Heritage Lottery Fund have now granted 'stage 1' approval for funding, and the university is committing very substantially to the funds.

We are always glad of support. You might like to join our mailing list. You might like to join our team of volunteer assistants. You might be able to help in cash or kind with our development projects. If you would like to know more, contact me at the Centre.[Address and email are out of date - see web site current.]

Jonathan Brown, Rural History Centre, University of Reading, Whiteknights, Reading RG6 6AG.

Telephone 0118 931 8660; fax 0118 975 1264

Websitehttp://www.reading.ac.uk/merl/

Additional information