What's on



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



  • August 5 - October 31
  • Museum opening times
  • Free

No need to book



  • September 3 - March 29, 2020
  • Normal 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.

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.

Time to Picnic: Top 10 tips from The MERL

Picnics. Sandwiches. Cake. Slightly too warm lemonade. Wasps. Picnics are a staple of the summer. They’re a great way to get outside and to experience all that the countryside has to offer. Indeed people have been enjoying eating outside for hundreds of years. In the late 1600s the pleasure gardens at Vauxhall sold cold meats in supper boxes or people brought their own food for eating outside. The Victorians and Edwardians enjoyed picnics in the countryside, at the coast, historical places of interest and sporting events.

In Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management 1861 edition she provides a ‘Bill of Fare for a picnic for 40 people’. This extravagant menu with a list of essential items includes ‘3 corkscrews’. Picnics can range from sandwiches to gourmet dishes, from a formal meal with tables laid with flower vases to a blanket on the ground using your hands.

But what do you need to have a great picnic excursion? Here are some object suggestions from The Museum of English Rural Life collection.

1. Seating

blanket, patchwork quilt and stool for picnics
Blanket (MERL 68/450), patchwork quilt (MERL 62/535) and stool (MERL 60/437)

First of all where are you going to sit for your picnic? We have a few seating choices in the collection. This horse blanket (MERL 68/450) is ideal to keep you off the ground, while patchwork quilts can provide both you and your picnic with a little extra cushion. This bedcover (62/535) has a log cabin patchwork design, built up in square pieces which have been individually lined and stitched together. Or you may want a stool (MERL 60/437) to lift you off the ground.  This two-legged stool is for a narrow boat and was painted by Frank Jones, and came from the workshop of Canal Wharf Works at Linslade, Bedfordshire.

2. Food and Drink

horn beaker
Horn beaker (MERL 51/624)

Next what are you going to eat and drink? We don’t have any food or drink in The MERL collection so instead here are a selection of eating and drinking vessels. This horn beaker (MERL 51/624) is carved from a single piece of horn and is decorated with carved grooves on the inside. Horn is a robust material that isn’t prone to breaking unlike glass or pottery. It is made from a section of a bullock’s horn which has been cleansed, scraped, polished and pared away. This beaker was used by George Hine, a roadworker in the East Hendred area.

3. Bottle

glass bottle
Glass bottle (MERL 69/29)

This glass bottle (MERL 69/29) has a fixed basketwork cover on the upper half and removable metal cover on the lower half. The basketwork protects the glass from knocks and bumps.

4. Plate

plate for picnic
Decorative plate (MERL 97/13)

This decorative plate (MERL 97/13) depicts agricultural implements and rural people. It’s pottery so be careful! The inscription ‘God speed the plough’ is a reference to the poem ‘A Farmer’s Arms’ that celebrates the independence and productivity of farmers. The poem is written on the underside of this plate and also features on other objects in our collection, including a two-handled cider mug (MERL 84/26). This plate was made by Burgess & Leigh Ltd. in 1862.

5. Jug

harvest jug
Harvest jug (MERL 60/146)

If you are looking for a boozy picnic this harvest jug is for you. Harvest jugs were made for the alcoholic celebration that followed a successful harvest. This earthenware jug (MERL 60/146) with sgraffito decoration is an example of Barnstaple ware. The jug is inscribed with a harvest poem on the reverse and signed ‘August 1838, John Prouse, Hartland’.

6. Games

cricket balls
Sixteen samples show various stages in the making of a cricket ball. (MERL 60/562/1-16)

Once you’ve enjoyed your meal how about a game? This cricket ball, in various stages of manufacturer, is in the collection. Make sure you pick the completed ball! The balls (MERL 60/562/1-16) were supplied by John Wisden & Co. Ltd., sellers of cricketing equipment, of Penshurst, Kent, in about 1945–6. We also have cricket bat samples loaned to the Museum by The County Sports Works in Saint Neots, Cambridgeshire. Cricket is an old English game that continues to be played on village pitches as well as internationally.

7. Toy

toy tractor
Triang Major pedal-powered toy tractor (MERL 93/91)

This toy tractor would be fun to drive outside. This Tri-ang Major tractor (MERL 93/91) is pedal-powered. The drawing stuck on each side of the central plate represents the engine. The donor received it as a present on his fourth or fifth birthday in 1952 or 1953. Tri-ang toys were produced by Lines Bros Ltd who made a wide range of toys from dolls houses to model railways.

8. Parasol

parasol for a picnic
A cream and pink striped cotton parasol with lace edging. (MERL 93/21)

If the English sunshine becomes too much to bear, a parasol is a perfect way to create shade and provide protection from the sun. This cream and pink striped cotton parasol (MERL 93/21) with lace edging has a handle made of cane. It came from the home of a local Reading family. If you want to invest in a parasol check out this blog.

9. Map

This Motoring and Hiking Map (MERL 2010/156) is essential for people venturing into the countryside. This map dates from the 1920s and covers areas of the south coast. It is based on Ordnance Survey maps and is at a scale of 3 miles to 1 inch. Although it might be a bit out of date now!

10. Picnic Basket

picnic baskets
Picnic Baskets (clockwise from top left: 2017/50/1-40, 2009/41, 66/346,  63/20)

And finally the museum has a wide choice of picnic baskets to hold everything. Modern purpose made baskets provide all the crockery and cutlery needed for a picnic.

Enjoy your picnic!

photograph of picnic
Photograph of family picnic with car in woods by Philip Collier. P DX323 PH1/E150/249J

Join Our Community

  • The Museum of English Rural Life

    University of Reading

    Redlands Road


    RG1 5EX

    Need directions?