What's on



  • September 3 - March 29, 2020
  • Normal opening times
  • Free


Talks and seminars

  • September 24 - November 26
  • 12-1pm
  • Free

Free. Booking advisable.



  • November 6 - January 31, 2020
  • Museum opening times
  • Free

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.

Our newest exhibition is causing quite the buzz


AniMERL – an autumn of animals at The MERL

A public lecture by Jimmy Doherty, plus seminars, exhibitions, family events and more

A Future for Fowler: steam collection conserved

The Fowler Collection at The MERL

John Fowler and Co., (Leeds) Ltd. was one the world’s leading manufacturers of steam engines of the mid-nineteenth century. The Fowler collection held at The MERL contains production registers, photograph albums, drawings and other business records of exceptional quality. It is a very popular archive with steam enthusiasts researching the history of their own engines.

The collection is significant because of John Fowler’s contribution to the development of steam engine engineering. In 1858, Fowler won a £500 prize from the Royal Agricultural Society for using a steam engine in an agricultural context with the invention of a ploughing engine. This was a major technological innovation in the mechanisation of agriculture. Engines at either end of a field wound a large multi-furrow plough back and forth on a cable. Farmers valued this type of ploughing in areas of the country with heavy clay soil, which was very hard work for horses.

Black and white to-scale line drawing of a Fowler ploughing steam engine.
A ploughing engine, from the Museum’s collection of Fowler engineering drawings. (TR FOW DO1/58300)

After first using other manufacturers to help produce his steam ploughs, Fowler established and opened his own business in Leeds in 1860 as The Steam Plough Works. Fowler also developed a wide product range including railway locomotives, traction engines, road locomotives, showman’s engines, stationary engines, diesel locomotives and crawlers. It was a highly successful business and continued producing engines up until the 1970s, with overseas offices in Europe, Asia and Australia.

As a result of this huge impact and global reach, as well as the survival of many Fowler engines, the collection is one of the most heavily-used amongst our agricultural engineering archive holdings.

Conserving the Collection

Over the past year we have conserved some of the archive’s volumes. This is thanks to funding from the Arts Council England’s PRISM fund, The Steam Plough Club, and a private donation. Prior to their conservation the volumes were fragile, the bindings were broken and a large number of their covers were suffering from leather rot.

A large leather-bound volume, closed.
A Fowler volume before conservation.
A large ledger, open to a fragile-looking page.
This volume was so fragile that users were not able to access the information.
A large ledger in a new red binding, open to a page showing the successful conservation work.
After the conservation the volume is now accessible.

In total, we had 43 volumes conserved from two series of records: production registers and photograph albums. With the production registers, researchers can find an engine’s date of production, product number, description, weight, order date, order book reference, purchaser and delivery date. The photograph albums also contain images of each model, like the one below. Consequently, these are important records. As a result of this work, these volumes are more accessible to researchers and are preserved for future generations.

Black and white photograph, showing a side view of a 'Super-heater Ploughing Engine' dated April 15/27.
A Fowler ploughing engine. (TR FOW PH2/34/186)

The conservation work was undertaken by Riley, Dunn and Wilson.

Finally, you can find out more about the John Fowler Collection at The MERL.

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    University of Reading

    Redlands Road


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