What's on

MARIA MCKINNEY: SIRE.

Exhibitions

  • February 5 - October 27
  • Normal opening times
  • Free

THE MERL SEMINARS: LOOKING AT LADYBIRD BOOKS

Talks and seminars

  • April 5 - May 24
  • See dates, 12-1pm
  • Free

Booking recommended

COLOURS MORE THAN SENTENCES

Exhibitions

  • May 1 - July 31
  • Museum opening times

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

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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.

From Miners to Market Gardeners: the Story of the Sidlesham Land Settlement Association

In this guest post, Bill Martin explains the background to the Sidlesham Land Settlement Association. The Land Settlement Archive is housed at The MERL.


When I bought a retirement project in Sidlesham, West Sussex, I knew nothing of the local area. I met a former tenant of a smallholding in the village with a collection of photographs relating to something called a Land Settlement Association. I became interested and undertook some research, and met the relatives of some former unemployed miners who had moved south to Sidlesham from North East England in the late 1930s. Since then I have worked to commemorate their story.

Exterior of a brick-built house on a Land Settlement Association
A former Land Settlement Association house.

In 1936 around 200 men marched from Jarrow to London in search of work and an end to poverty. In the same year 100 unemployed miners and shipbuilders arrived in Sidlesham in West Sussex to begin new lives as market gardeners on a Land Settlement Association. The men from Jarrow returned with nothing, while the Sidlesham men started a multi-million pound horticultural industry which still survives today. Why has everyone heard about the Jarrow marchers, yet very few know about the Land Settlement Association?

The interior of a large greenhouse, with plants growing inside
MERL CR 3LSA PH5/93: a greenhouse at Sidlesham Land Settlement Association

20 LSAs had been set up across the country by the end of 1930s, each with between 40 and 120 smallholdings. Unemployed miners and shipbuilders from North East England and south Wales were given a house, piggery, chicken shed, glasshouse and 4 acres of land as part of a contract to produce food for the government. With the outbreak of war in 1939 the criteria for selection changed, and qualifications, experience and capital were needed to join the scheme. The LSA continued until 1983, at which time the estates were encouraged to form their own co-operatives, which many did. In fact, Snaith (Yorkshire Salads) and Foxash (Foxash Growers) still trade today.

The exterior of a large greenhouse attached to a brick building, behind a curving driveway
MERL CR 3LSA PH5/72: a greenhouse at Sidlesham Land Settlement Association

An LSA house will soon be re-erected at the Weald and Downland Living Museum in Chichester once funding becomes available. This is the latest chapter in the story of the Sidlesham LSA. A heritage trail was created in the village in 2015 with the help of a lottery grant, and a website brings the trail to life with stories from former tenants and staff. A film, made with the Novium Museum in Chichester, links archive footage (from The MERL) with interviews. In an amazing co-incidence, the film was made by the great-grandson of Henry Cloud, a boiler-maker from Palmers Shipyard in Jarrow who came to the LSA in 1939. The Novium Museum itself also held an exhibition from 2015-18. When the house is re-erected at the Weald and Downland Living Museum, the LSA story will have a permanent home.


Further reading

The MERL holds an extensive archive of documentation with information relating to all the LSAs: https://merl.reading.ac.uk/collections/land-settlement-association/

If you would like to know more about the Sidlesham LSA and/or have a story to tell please visit the website: http://sidleshamheritagetrail.co.uk/about

In 1994 Marianne Heath wrote ‘Sit and Sing Small’ about her memories of the Sidlesham LSA. Other LSAs have also documented their history: Abingdon (Cambridge) ‘Memories of The LSA’ published by the Abingdon History Group (2008); Fen Drayton (Cambridge) ‘Go Home, You Miners’ by Pamela Dearlove (2007); Newbourne (Suffolk) ‘Newbourne in Short Trousers’ by Leigh Belcham (2014); Newent (Gloucestershire) Website by Geoff Wood; Oxcroft (Derbyshire) ‘Settlers in England’ (Film); Potten (Bedfordshire) ‘The Return of the Unemployed to the Land’ by Dr Peter Clarke (2011); Chawston (Bedfordshire) ‘The Glass Village’ by Chris Cohen (2005).

In addition to those mentioned above, other LSAs were set up at Abbotts Anne (Hampshire), Broadwath (Cumbria), Crofton & Dalston (Cumbria), Denham (Suffolk), Harrowby & Low Fulney (Lincolnshire), Stannington (Northumberland) and Yeldham (Essex).

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What lies beneath?

Anthropologist and Collections Volunteer Paul Trawick has been delving into the role of field drains on English farms. These hidden gems offer an ingenious and indigenous way to reclaim ground, improve topsoil, tame groundwater, and achieve sustainable crop yields. But few of us even know they are there. In this, the first of several posts, Paul explains why these old systems may yet prove vital…


During the last two decades, the threat of catastrophic flooding has risen suddenly to become a permanent feature of English rural life.

As climate breakdown has accelerated and rainfall patterns shifted, devastating floods have become signature extreme weather events in the UK, as we saw only last month. These occurrences no longer seem rare but capable of striking anywhere at almost any time throughout the year. This is an ominous sign, especially for rural people, whose homes and livelihoods often rely on the well-managed landscapes that surround them.

A black and white photograph of a flooded field, with a fence running through the water.
Floods can be catastrophic for the livelihoods of rural people (MERL P 3FW PH2/1113)

English farmers have, of course, been dealing with the threat of occasional or seasonal flooding for centuries. They are well-equipped for that challenge by a technology that is ancient, sophisticated, and largely unknown to the public. Why is so little known about it?

Well, largely because it lies deep underground, so we don’t even know that it’s there. Used today by farmers in many relatively humid and temperate environments worldwide (i.e. regions where irrigation is not necessary for cultivation), this innovative tradition was probably first seen in continental Europe. However, because it flourished, developed, and was significantly improved here, British farmers can rightly claim this heritage as their own. It makes them as able to deal with flooding today as they were in the past.

Land drainage tiles are placed deep underground, as is the case with piping on Mark Moor, Somerset, being laid and checked in 1977 (MERL P 3FW PH2/680/3)

Today, however, in a context of climate crisis, more demands are being placed on this underground solution than ever before, and, in dealing with sudden and very heavy rainfall events, our British farmers and policy makers find themselves facing a dilemma. Their dilemma links to a system that is arguably more easily visible in the stores and database of this Museum than it is in the contexts where it has the biggest impact.

A black and white photograph of a waterlogged field.
Weather, rain and, floods can lead to water-logged and unproductive farmland (P FW PH2/W10/39)

So, how does this system work?

Using an ingenious underground system of pipes farmers are able to automatically and quickly drain excess water off of their fields after heavy rainfall events. This counteracts the waterlogging of topsoil and avoids flooding locally, on their own property. The knock-on effect of this is that they are able to maximise production and enhance our food security. However, in doing so they necessarily contribute to potential flooding on lands that lie downslope and downstream.

Today, such downstream neighbouring lands often include many former green spaces located in and around rural villages and towns, which have become increasingly occupied by non-farmers or by relative newcomers to the countryside. The majority of residents therefore don’t know a great deal about the ancient food management systems or how flood-meadows and other solutions have been exploited by farmers for centuries.

Excess water is released into waterways, as with the year-round flow of 450 gallons an hour from this reclaimed marshland at Brancaster, Norfolk, in 1964 (MERL P 3FW PH2/683)

In spite of these old technologies lurking underground and the natural capture and release processes of flood meadows playing their part, it is not hard to see how different stakeholders might combine to generate potential conflict. Farmers and landowners seeking to reduce damage and maximise profitability. Home and business owners keen to avoid damage to property. Insurance companies seeking to minimise liability.

Today, as severe storms strike the UK more often now than ever before, confrontations between different voices and groups are likely to happen more and more.

Stack of land drainage tiles in the snow in Billesdon, Leicestershire, in February 1976 (MERL P 3FW PH2/680/4)

Fortunately, there is every reason to think that many of the key challenges can be resolved. We may find ourselves powerless in the face of the increasing frequency of extreme rainfall events. However, improved awareness of hidden farm drainage systems and of the complex part they play in the capture and distribution of water after significant rainfall events, might help offset some of the conflict surrounding this complex issue.

These archaic systems may even offer some practical solutions to the threat of flooding in the countryside. Rural residents could respond more effectively and appropriately, through enhanced cooperation rather than through competition and conflict.


In the next post, we’ll delve deeper still into the workings of these mysterious drainage systems, learn more about how they work and where they lurk, both in the fields of our countryside and in the stores and displays of The MERL.

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The Jam Lady – Keeping Jam Relevant

Absolute Unit Mint Jelly launches in the MERL shop

  • The Museum of English Rural Life

    University of Reading

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    Reading

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