The Museum of English Rural Life explores the history of the English countryside and its people. The museum is free to visit and is one of the best things to do in Reading. Whether on your own or with friends and family, discover our galleries, research our collections, refresh in our café, browse our shop, or relax in our garden.
Did you know
...city families used to pick hops on holiday?
Hop picking holidays allowed city families to earn money. Pickers were paid with tokens, which were used in local shops or exchanged for wages.
Did you know
...Elizabethan mattresses were used for both childbirth and corpses?
Mattresses, plaited from sedges, were made to support a mother during childbirth or a corpse after death. After use it would have been burned.
Did you know
...farmers used to sow seeds by fiddle?
Sowing by hand can be slow and inaccurate. Seed drills were developed in the 1800s to sow seeds quickly in a straight line at regular intervals.
Did you know
...Lady Eve Balfour (1898-1990) was one of the earliest organic farmers and co-founded the Soil Association?
Women continue to play a key role in this movement, with organic farms employing significantly more women than chemical farming.
Did you know
...Suttons Seeds invented the seed packet?
The local Reading firm, founded in 1806, popularised paper packets of seeds for gardeners.
Did you know
...villages often used to run their own fire services?
The National Fire Service was only created in 1941.
Did you know
Our Country Lives - Latest Blog Posts
Our blog explores the people, places and issues of the historic and contemporary English countryside and rural life, uncovering and exploring our collections, the exciting activity around the MERL and the people we with.
Almost everyone who lived in the town before this point has some memory of Reading biscuits. The excitement of picking up broken bakes on a Friday afternoon. The smell of freshly baked produce which pervaded the streets along with the scent of beer. And the sight of the company’s magnificent tins, which their parents may have kept as ornaments.
Our exhibition, Biscuit Town: 200 Years of Huntley & Palmers, displayed in The MERL’s staircase hall as part of Museums Partnership Reading, seeks to both encourage this reminiscence and inform a new generation of just how important Huntley & Palmers was to Reading’s history.
Commissioned as part of a series of events celebrating 200 years of Reading being the ‘Biscuit Town’, our exhibition places a particular emphasis on personal stories. Whilst the company’s business archives (held within the University’s Special Collections) are fascinating in their own right, we believe they are even more engaging when used to illustrate the lives and stories of real people. This thinking was based on the success of Queer Constellations, an exhibition last year which highlighted historical and current LGBTQ+ rural lives. It is my personal philosophy that people are more interesting than things, for what are archives and objects but the footprints left by the people who used and created them?
Untold stories – across Reading and the world
Although Huntley & Palmers was established as a small bakery in 1822 on Reading’s London Street (a five-minute walk from The MERL’s gates), the company rose in stature significantly after building and opening a factory on the King’s Road in 1846. The prospect of work in the factory attracted hundreds of people to Reading, and was instrumental to the growth of the town throughout the 19th century.
The first of our personal stories highlights the allure of a career in biscuits. Henry Gibbs, who was just fourteen years old, moved from Oxfordshire to Reading in 1861 to seek employment within the biscuit factory. He had no family in Reading and was mostly independent as he sought a home in which to lodge. By 1894, 9% of the town’s population were people like Henry, counting among the enormous numbers of Huntley & Palmers’ staff. His story also shows how collections can complement each other. I originally found Henry via census records, and confirmed his position within the company by using a wages ledger from the company archives. This ledger is on display in the exhibition.
In some instances, the absence of records needed to tell personal stories is in itself a story worth telling. A good example of this is the challenge of finding people who used Huntley & Palmers products overseas, or worked for the company to procure foreign ingredients. It’s important to acknowledge that Huntley & Palmers took advantage of commercial colonialism, advertising their product towards colonisers seeking familiar British food. They used Britain’s influence within colonised countries to procure experimental ingredients for biscuit recipes, such as spices and coconuts. Unfortunately, the archives do not contain any references to the names of the colonised workers who supplied these items. We know that in Uganda, local people used Huntley & Palmers’ tins to store and protect bibles. However, British foreign office records very rarely name colonised people either, preferring to keep records on European occupiers such as missionaries. As a result of this, the personal story we highlighted was that of the unnamed, whom history did not record in writing but must not be forgotten nonetheless.
The exhibition does not just relate the tales of those linked to the firm’s biscuit production. Notably, The MERL building was once owned by Alfred Palmer, the head of the engineering department. By investigating various online sources, I tracked down Jan Brown, the great granddaughter of George Watson, who was Alfred Palmer’s gardener in the 1880s. Watson and his family lived on the premises, in outbuildings which have since been replaced by The MERL galleries. He kept two greenhouses, at least one summer house and a number of flower arrangements. Within the exhibition we have represented George with a number of gardening tools from The MERL object collections, but his legacy can also be experienced by walking around our garden. The earth is the very same he would have handled nearly 150 years ago. George, perhaps more than anyone else in the exhibition, demonstrates how Huntley & Palmers touched the lives of everyone in Reading.
Huntley & Palmers’ escape from occupied France
War is the origin of stories both tragic and compelling, and we feature one personal wartime story within the exhibition.
In 1940, Reginald Wilde was working in Huntley & Palmers’ Paris factory. His wife and children had relocated to La Baule on the French west coast. When it became increasingly obvious that the French capital was going to fall to the advancing Axis forces, the directors of Huntley & Palmers in England ordered Reginald to evacuate the factory workers. However, he was not provided with transport, funds, or any other form of material support. He was on his own, with an enormous task.
Showing remarkable composure, Reginald gathered the factory staff and their families into a convoy. He ensured that all the essentials were covered, relating that:
‘At 1:30pm the vans and private cars and staff were collected together, and biscuit and cake were placed in one van, and a drum of petrol and a first aid kit in another van’.
The convoy’s journey to the French coast was fraught with danger. The rapid Blitzkrieg of the German forces ensured the invaders were only ever a few days behind. Thousands of others were following the same route, with cars ‘three abreast, stretching for miles’. They passed countless cars that had been abandoned due to lack of petrol (a resource was in desperately short supply). To avoid the traffic, they used side roads which amounted to little more than cart tracks. And it was not only Huntley & Palmers’ head office who failed to offer support. Reginald visited the British Consulate in Nantes and ‘they were not a bit helpful’. He was forced to rely entirely on his own resourcefulness.
Meanwhile, in La Boule, Reginald’s wife Dorothy had heard nothing from her husband. Fearing for her children, she arranged passage to England on the RMS Lancastria. In the nick of time, Reginald arrived and prevented her from boarding. In doing so, he saved the life of his family, as the Lancastria was sunk just outside of port. It was the largest loss of life from a single ship sinking in British maritime history. Having narrowly avoided personal tragedy, Reginald accompanied the rest of the Huntley & Palmers staff back to England and safety. He received a letter of commendation from Cecil Palmer and wrote a full account of his escape. This account, recently acquired into our archives, is on display in the exhibition.
A biscuit-themed visit to The MERL
All of these stories and more can be discovered within our staircase hall display, alongside Huntley & Palmers materials now on show throughout the galleries both at The MERL and at Reading Museum, whose Huntley & Palmers Gallery displays almost 300 of the company’s beautifully ornate tins. In The MERL, many of the farming-related objects throughout the galleries have a link to biscuits and we felt this is something worth exploring. For example: milk had a poor reputation in Victorian England due to the challenges of keeping it both fresh and free from Bovine Tuberculosis. Baking it into a biscuit eliminated this risk, and allowed consumers to benefit from milk’s healthy properties.
In addition to objects on display, we have drawers which can be opened to reveal more about Huntley & Palmers history, including the origins of the company and rules within the factory. Apparently, cutting your toenails on company time was cause for suspension!
A further essential element to any Huntley & Palmers visit is a viewing of the Unsweetened film, on display in the gallery Our Country Lives gallery. The film explores life at the Huntley & Palmers factory at the start of the First World War. All of these gallery-based gems are signified by a vinyl on the floor, as well as knitted biscuits crafted by our wonderful volunteer Mewes Knitters.
It’s easy, perhaps even logical, to think that if you’ve visited a museum once, you’ve seen all there is to see. But coming back to enjoy our commemorative Huntley & Palmers displays will provide a whole new experience. We hope to show the range of influence and cultural importance that Huntley & Palmers has had on real people, both in Reading and around the world. And who knows; perhaps somewhere in your family history, there lies a link to Biscuit Town, just waiting to be unwrapped.
Biscuit Town: 200 Years of Huntley & Palmers is on display at The MERL from the 10th May to 25th September 2022. Visiting is free. Plan your trip to the museum today.
Few items are more symbolic of life on the home-front during World War II than ration books. This is because rationing people of all ages across all walks of British life. It changed the food we cooked, the ways we travelled, and the clothes we wore.
In this blog, learn about wartime rationing in Britain. We explore how rationing worked, what was rationed, and how British farming and agriculture changed in response to the devastation of World War II.
The outbreak of war, and the need for rationing
At the start of the Second World War, there was a real fear that the British people would run out of food. In 1939, we were importing 55 million tonnes of our food each year from across the globe. As German submarines took to the seas and torpedoed supply ships, the trade routes we relied on were no longer safe, and it was no longer guaranteed that these these imports would safely reach British ports.
Understandably, the people panicked. If there were low stores of food, scarcity could lead to food hoarding, soaring food prices, and the risk that many people would go without and suffer.
To alleviate this, Britain’s wartime government began devising and researching a system of rationing, to ensure that there would continue to be enough food for everyone.
Creating a balanced rationed diet
Say Britain did lose access to those 55 million tonnes of imported food. What then? Could we survive on British-grown produce alone?
These questions formed the heart of top-secret research undertaken by scientists at the University of Cambridge: Elsie Widdowson, Robert McCance, and Frank Engledow (Drapers Professor of Agriculture). The researchers wanted to see whether they could create a diet of solely British-grown produce that would be sustainable on a national scale and healthy for each individual. Critically, this diet would have to be highly nutritious to meet the high energy needs of physically demanding wartime labour, whether on the farm or the factory floor.
To undertake the experiment, six volunteers were taken to Yorkshire and tasked with completing a range of physically-demanding activities (including hiking, cycling, and mountain climbing) on a strict diet of British-grown produce. With its range of landscapes, the Peak District and the Dales provided the perfect setting.
The scientists were delighted to find that their experiment was a success. The volunteers reported they felt full of energy as they completed the strenuous tasks, and experienced no detriment to their overall health. The only side effect they reported was an increase in flatulence! The results were circulated to the British government but they were kept under wraps until the end of the war. While the government’s rationing was less severe than the amounts used in the experiment, it was a relief to learn that the British people could still be ‘fighting fit’ regardless of the availability of imported food.
In January 1940, every man, woman and child was issued with a ration book. These books contained coupons, which people could exchange for certain amounts of produce from different shops. Shoppers were given 16 coupons per month to spend on food items they wished. These could be traded as follows:
Rice: 8 coupons
Sardines: 2 coupons
Sultanas: 8 coupons
Skimmed milk: 5 coupons
Currants: 16 coupons
Baked beans: 2 coupons
Biscuits (dry): 2 coupons
Biscuits (sweet): 4 coupons
Herrings: 2 coupons
Sultanas: 8 coupons
Stewed steak: 20 coupons
Rolled oats: 2 coupons
Sausage-meat: 12 coupons
Best Red Salmon: 32 coupons per small tin
Meat was the first thing to be rationed in March 1940, and more items were added to the list as the war progressed. People were strongly encouraged to grow their own fruit and vegetables, as made famous by the ‘Grow Your Own’ and ‘Dig for Victory’ campaigns, and keep livestock like chickens.
At the same time, each person was assigned a registered butcher and greengrocer, which meant that shopkeepers were able to anticipate the amounts of food they needed to supply each week. This minimised food waste (which continues to be a huge problem in the world today).
The different kinds of ration books
For food rations, brown ration books were the most common type, as they were used by most adults. Pregnant women, nursing mothers and children under five received green ration books, whilst blue ration books were issued to children between five and sixteen years old.
However, it wasn’t just food that was rationed in the Second World War. Materials and resources across day-to-day life needs to be carefully distributed to avoid shortages on the home front and accommodate the military needs of the war effort.
Small green books were used for petrol rations. To qualify for these, applicants would need to produce their car or motorcycle registration. The coupons were only valid for the period in which they were issued, so they could not be saved or hoarded. One coupon equated to one gallon of petrol.
Bright red ration books were for clothing rations. Clothes rationing came into effect from the 1st July 1941. Clothing was rationed so that raw materials were safeguarded for military use. It meant that factory space and workers could be put towards the war effort instead of making clothing. Only 24 coupons were issued every six months, with up to 100% purchase tax, meaning that you might end up paying double the price for a coat or dress! Children were permitted an extra ten coupons to accommodate for growing, but mothers were encouraged to plan ahead and buy clothes that kids could ‘grow into’.
The impact of the war on farming
Agriculture saw a radical change during the Second World War. For many farmers, the focus became production. Even animal food was rationed to ensure that animals produced the best quality meat, milk, or eggs without being overfed.
Farmers were required to seek permission to slaughter animals to feed their families, as everything was on the ration. One rule, however, was that should an animal be injured, it could be slaughtered to reduce its suffering. According to one testimony, ‘many sheep and pigs during the war “fell down holes” and injured themselves. Especially round people’s birthdays!’1
As men enlisted in the Armed Forces in huge numbers, the Women’s Land Army saw women heading into the countryside to sustain the country’s food production. For many women, it was their first venture into rural England and offered both adventure and the chance to learn new skills. You can learn more about the Women’s Land Army across The MERL website, including Land Girls: the History of the Women’s Land Army and Breaking the Colour Bar: Amelia King and the Women’s Land Army.
Meanwhile, people across England were encouraged to ‘Dig for Victory’, using every available plot of land to grow vegetables and fruit that could be added to daily food allowances. Parks, front gardens, and even the land outside the Tower of London was converted into veggie patches.
Rationing highlighted a divide between countryside and urban people. Those with more land available to them could keep chickens and other small animals that would provide them with extra food on top of their allotted rations. Elsewhere, in towns and cities, those living in built-up environments had much less opportunity afforded to them.
On a personal note, my grandmother was born in Bethnal Green in 1932 and was only seven when the war broke out. She recalled that her family had little money and often could not afford their allotted rations, debunking the myth that rations ensured food for all. She was later evacuated to Stoke-on-Trent, with her siblings and mother, and she was often put to work on a farm. It was the first time she had ever seen a cow and she loved green open spaces, of a kind she had never experienced before. The farmer allowed her family extra eggs and milk where possible, which dramatically improved their diets, although still not to the level they would have wished for.
The end of rationing
Rationing remained in effect until the early 1950s. Meat was the last item to be derationed and rationing ended completely in 1954, nine years after the war ended. The UK was the last country involved in the war to stop rationing food.
One suggested reason for the continuation of rationing was a withdrawal of financial support from America, which meant Britain still could not afford to import the same amounts of food that it had done before the war.
Another reason is that many felt spare food would be better directed to people across Europe who were in dire need of help. Holland, Belgium, Germany, and Denmark had all been reduced to starvation during the war and millions of people had been displaced or lost their homes entirely. Whilst imports of meat, butter and cheese from New Zealand and Australia, and fresh dairy produce from Ireland, eased some of the burden on UK diets, it was felt that the people of Europe needed it more.
To mark De-Rationing Day, members of the London Housewives’ Association held a special ceremony in London’s Trafalgar Square. Minister of Fuel and Power, Geoffrey Lloyd, burned a large replica of a ration book at an open meeting in his constituency.
Interested in learning more about the evacuee and related archives held at The MERL? Find out more about our Evacuee Archive or our Women’s Land Army Collection. Alternatively, learn about how we create educational experiences around our collections for school and college groups to enjoy.
Written by Phillippa Heath, The MERL’s Learning and Engagement Manager.
Over the last year and a half, The MERL has been working with University of Reading colleagues in the Biomedical Engineering department on a new multisensory intervention for people living with dementia.
The AMuSED toolkit (or, the Active MUlti-Sensory Environment for people living with Dementia) is in the form of a collapsible box which combines multisensory experiences, in a form which is portable, affordable, and gives opportunities for personalised approaches.
How the idea began
The AMuSED toolkit is the culmination of the research of biomedical engineers Professor Rachel McCrindle PhD student Esther Olorunda. In their work, Rachel and Esther explore the role that technology can have in improving the quality of life of people living with dementia.
Esther and Rachel reviewed existing interventions, which range from sensory rooms with bubble tubes, projectors and aroma therapy, to the Tovertafel (‘the Magic Table’ in Dutch) designed particularly for people living with moderate to severe dementia, which comprises a projector projecting light and games on a table.
The final toolkit that Esther and Rachel produced addressed some of the deficiencies of these existing offers. Most notably, this was the high cost per unit and the inflexibility to cater for individuals as dementia progresses. The newly created toolkit combines multisensory opportunities, in a box form which can be used in any location, is affordable, and can be personalised depending on individual preferences.
As part of our membership of the Dementia Friendly Reading working group, The MERL had the opportunity to co-design a MERL AMuSED box that drew on and was inspired by our collections. The overarching theme of the box that we produced was ‘A Day out in the Country’.
Our box combines a range of multisensory experiences to help bring the countryside to life, such as smells, a photograph album with audio descriptions, textures, games, resources for crafts, and even tweeting birds. Alongside these elements we have also included facsimile photographs and postcards from the Museum collections.
One addition which has been received particularly positively has been the ‘What’s in the Box?’ activities. These boxes include a tactile element, a collection image, and sound which plays automatically when the box is opened. In our MERL box, we have one which contains sheep’s fleece with an audio extract from an oral history interview with Amanda Owen, known more commonly as the the Yorkshire Shepherdess.
In another, we have Morris bells accompanied by, of course, the sound of Morris dancing!
What impact has AMuSED had?
The AMuSED Toolkit encompasses many of the elements of reminiscence therapy that have been practiced in museums over a number of years, but brings them together in one incredibly useful resource.
At the heart of reminiscence in museums has been an understanding that collections can inspire a connection or provoke a memory or story, and these uses have shown to be particularly beneficial for those living with dementia.
Depending on the nature of collections, we typically use objects, films, music, and archives as these prompts, but we also also frequently supplement this experience with sensory activity as part of structured sessions. The toolkit has greatly enhanced this work by offering something which brings multisensory elements in one place, allows for a tailored, personalised approach, and includes affordable digital elements.
At The MERL we have been using the AMuSED toolkit as part of our new Chatty Café initiative, an informal drop-in opportunity taking place on the third Tuesday of each month, as well as part of more structured memory sharing reminiscence sessions with partners such as Alzheimer’s Dementia Support.
How has working with The MERL collections benefitted the AMuSED research?
Discussing the collaboration with The MERL, Esther says:
‘The AMuSED Countryside edition co-designed with The MERL has created an avenue for people to experience the countryside through a multisensory tabletop box. The toolkit combines both digital and traditional elements to provide stimulation to the different senses such as sight, sound, touch and smell in order to create an immersive, engaging and interactive reminiscence experience.
Working with The MERL’s collections helped us understand more about rural life and the countryside than we initially thought possible. It provided us with access to the Museum’s resources such as photos from the archives, information about the appropriate elements for the theme and the question prompts used in the activity sessions. This collaboration also provided access to the amazing staff and volunteers that helped to organise and run the activity sessions.
The most amazing part of the collaboration with The MERL outside of the amazing cakes at the chatty cafés was the opportunity to observe the AMuSED toolkit being used in real time! This has helped to identify the benefits of the toolkit especially to people living with dementia, as well as ways in which it can be improved to better suit their needs’.
Professor McCrindle adds:
‘Working with Phillippa and the wider MERL team to co-design the Countryside Edition of the AMuSED boxes has been a fantastic and fascinating experience, showing how valuable, informative, and fun multi-disciplinary working can be. By working with The MERL, we were able to take advantage of The MERL’s expertise of providing engaging and stimulating reminiscence sessions for people living with dementia as well as their knowledge of ‘all things countryside’. The result of this collaboration has been the creation of a special countryside-themed AMuSED box that draws upon objects from The MERL’s archives as well as their understanding of peoples’ lived experiences’.
‘We also used the expertise of the University’s Creative and Print Services to ensure that the AMuSED boxes were printed and produced to the highest quality and able to withstand repeated handling and cleaning. One highlight of this collaborative experience has been the successful translation of our research ideas into something that is already benefitting people with dementia and their family members through The MERL’s community programmes’.
If you require any more information about the AMuSED box, The MERL Chatty Café, or using the AMuSED box as part of a memory sharing session, please contact The MERL’s Learning and Engagement Manager, Phillippa, at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The next Chatty Café takes place on the afternoon of Tuesday 19th April. Everyone is welcome and we’d love to see you there!