The Museum of English Rural Life is one of the best things to do in Reading. Whether on your own or with friends and family, discover our new immersive galleries, research our collections, refresh in our café and 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.
This year at the MERL Annual Lecture we presented ‘Muscle Memory’, a world-premiere performance from award-winning accordionist, singer and clog dancer Hannah James, developed in response to the collections at The MERL and the traditions that have helped shaped them.
One of the key figures in the revival of English percussive dance, Hannah’s musicianship takes her far beyond the tradition and has taken her around the world. Hannah will be performing in a pair of specially commissioned clogs made for her by Geraint Parfitt, one of only a handful of traditional clog makers in the UK.
We commissioned the clogs as part of the Museum of the Intangible project. For this project, we have invited makers, writers and practitioners to produce a range of creative responses to the MERL’s collections as a way of exploring some of the intangible cultural heritage connected with them. This particular commission combines two aspects of intangible heritage – traditional craft skills and performing arts – in the form of clog making and clog dancing. You can read more about the commission in a recent blog. Following the performance, Hannah will use the clogs in performances and after some time in the real world, they will be accessioned into the MERL collections, with an amazing story to tell.
Hannah wrote about the commission on her own blog:
“I was delighted to be asked to create this piece for The MERL but I didn’t realise how deeply personal this project would become to me until I started working on it. Meeting Geraint and seeing how much he lives his craft, as I do, has made the whole process very special. I hope that the piece can communicate the strong connection that we both have to our work, and the importance of keeping crafts and skills alive.”
Watch Hannah talking about his skills:
“I wanted to create a piece which highlights how crafts and skills exist in living bodies; our bodies literally grow into them. We develop particular muscles, calluses and strange dents in our hands and feet through practising them. These are things that can’t be passed on through a book or a video, or an exhibition, they have to be acquired slowly, under the watchful eye of a master, be passed from one living body to another and I fear that, in this modern world, the importance of both human contact and this slow acquisition of skills is being forgotten.”
“Muscle Memory is the story of a pair of clogs, and the lives that brought them into being, lived in them, and left their imprints inside them.”
Watch ‘Muscle Memory’ from 22:15 mins on the video below:
This performance certainly highlighted how museum objects interact with skills and traditions, but it also did something that only an artistic response can manage: it introduced emotion. A profound tragedy ran through Hannah’s performance: the clogs were not just dead objects but ones that had been murdered. But rather than this being an angry rant against the loss of traditional skills, there was also a joy in the performance. The clogs, the maker, the dancer, the musician are entwined to create something raw and wonderful and enjoyable. Every performance is ephemeral but the best ones leave an imprint on our memories. Hannah’s clog dance will live long in mine.
Guy Baxter, Associate Director, The Museum of English Rural Life
After the performance, Hannah joined MERL musician-in-residence Jackie Oates, Chief Executive and Artistic Director of EFDSS Katy Spicer, and Greta Bertram, Curator of the Crafts Study Centre at the University for the Creative Arts in Farnham, for a panel discussion on how creative responses can help us to understand the different layers of our heritage. The discussion was be chaired by Dr Paddy Bullard, Associate Professor of English and convenor of the Collections Research Network at the University of Reading.
Each panellist spoke briefly on how they feel their work helps people to understand the past, focussing on the museum as a setting for this kind of project, the way performance traditions clarify or obscure our understanding and the role of organisations and how to bring all of these different strands together.
Both the debate and the performance raised important questions about the preservation of traditional skills and of the part they play in the creative economy of the UK. In addition to this, Hannah’s powerful narrative threw the internal conflict of museum practice into sharp relief. In endeavouring to preserve and safeguard heritage through the collecting of material things, museums like The MERL often play a part in the consignment of such material forms to the cultural past. We need to work towards a future where museums and the wider creative industries and arts and heritage sector work together to support and safeguard our pasts for our future. No one can do this in isolation but we hope that many in these communities will retain both the muscle memory of feet tapping to Hannah’s powerful performance and the intellectual vigour and call to arms that lay at the core of a vibrant panel debate.
Ollie Douglas, Curator of the MERL Collections
You can watch the full discussion from 53:10 mins on the video below:
The aim of this project is to raise awareness of the crafts and skills that are threatened and encourage debate about how to make sure they live on for future generations to learn and enjoy. With that in mind, we also commissioned Hannah to make a clog dancing tutorial to help you get started. You’ll have to find your own clogs, though! (Tap shoes, or any hard soled shoes are great to start with!) You can watch it here and it will also be available for visitors to the Museum.
During the late medieval and early Tudor era, when superstition about witchcraft and the supernatural was at its height, people in England sought new forms of protection, and, for some, new ways of inflicting harm. It was at this time that many turned to concealing objects. Often found close to entrances, including doorways and fireplaces, these items were concealed to protect, or harm, the inhabitants of the buildings where they were placed.
Items found range from clothing to mummified animals – often cats – and are commonly discovered during renovations or demolitions. Over the years many have made their way into museums, including the collections at The MERL, becoming a point of interest for visitors and researchers alike.
So what does this have to do with English Rural Life?
The 20th November saw The MERL unveil yet another successful Late event, this time examining the diverse theme of Folk. Alongside a myriad of activities, trails, and talks, some of the Museum’s lesser seen objects made their debut, raising many an eyebrow and many a question throughout the evening.
From corn dollies, to horse brasses, pole heads to a Fool’s Bladder, visitors were given the chance to engage with folk culture from England and beyond in a pop-up exhibition on the Museum’s mezzanine and through volunteer-led object handling in the galleries.
Three objects in particular stood out however, each with its own ominous past, but all with one intriguing thing in common. These three items were a Bellarmine jar, a small leather pouch, and a pair of leather children’s shoes. All are related to concealed, apotropaic, objects.
So what are these objects, and why are they significant?
These children’s shoes were found in a fifteenth-century farmhouse at Leigh-on-Sea, Essex, during its demolition. They were found in an attic, thought to have originally been a child’s bedroom, which had been sealed off in around 1800. At the time of donation museum staff suspected that the shoes were deliberately deposited in the attic as an apotropaic device to protect the home. Shoes are one of the most commonly found concealed items. Over 2,000 examples are on record so far – a number that will undoubtedly continue to grow – with the earliest known examples dating from the 14th century.
This hand-stitched, circular leather pouch was found on the chancel arch of West Ogwell Church in Devon, and contains the remains of pages of writing. It was thought, by museum staff at the time of acquisition to have been a charm or a curse, and may date from the seventeenth century. Due to its age and condition, it is impossible to know what the writing once said or their intended purpose. Few paper items from this period survive, deteriorating over the centuries, or falling victim to pests.
Often written charms were used as a means of protection, however a couple of examples of written curses do exist. Having been found in a church, this item could have been intended for either protection or harm – Maybe a prayer, placed high, closer to God, or harmful words, intended for the congregation.
Although this jar was not found concealed, having been dug up at Sandy, Bedfordshire, Bellarmine jars were a firm favourite for concealment, and were most notably used as Witch Bottles.
Witch Bottles were used as a counter-spell against witchcraft. A vessel would have been filled with ‘powerful’ substances, some of the most common being human hair, heart-shaped fabric, urine, and iron pins or nails – Iron metal was believed to repel witches.
This was then concealed by an entry point, preventing any unwanted entities from entering the building and causing harm. Witch Bottles have been found under fireplaces, beneath the floors, and under door frames.
Of approximately 250 recorded English witch-bottles, 130 are thought to be Bellarmine. Made in Germany and popularised throughout 17th century Europe, the jars’ name was inspired by Italian Cardinal, Robert Bellarmine, who was renowned for publishing anti-protestant literature.
One Thing to Remember …
A lack of records and written accounts means that we cannot be certain that the purpose of these particular items and their concealment was based in the supernatural. These interpretations are ‘of their time’, reflecting the beliefs of those who found the items, and the museum staff who received them. Understanding the period in which they were hidden and the popularity of concealed, apotropaic items during a period of superstition, certainly helps in identifying and understanding these types of objects, but it must be taken with a pinch of salt. Nevertheless, these objects and their presumed history, is a fascinating insight into English Folk culture, superstitions, and beliefs.
For more information about concealed objects and supernatural folk culture, visit Apotropaios, and Inner Lives: Emotion, Identity and the Supernatural, 1300-1900.
 Apotropaios, Concealed Shoes. Available from: http://www.apotropaios.co.uk/shoes.html
 Apotropaios, Written Charms. Available from: http://www.apotropaios.co.uk/written-charms.html
 Apotropaios, Witch Bottles. Available from: http://www.apotropaios.co.uk/witch-bottles.html
Staff and volunteers gathered for a special celebratory coffee morning honouring the sterling service of volunteer, Ron Butler, who is retiring after volunteering for an amazing 23 years at The MERL.
The icing on the cake was that Ron was selected to receive the 2018 University of Reading’s Alumni Society’s Distinguished Volunteer Award. Ron and his wife Jan were recognised for their outstanding contribution to the University of Reading.
Initially, Ron brought his technical expertise from a career at Reading’s Sutton Seeds, to shed light on the Sutton’s archive. He advised on crop photographs and providing information for exhibitions, and providing expertise at special events.
Ron went on to volunteer week-in, week-out, carefully repackaging archival materials to ensure the long-term preservation of items from a wide range of The MERL archives, including the publications Farmers Weekly, and Farmer & Stockbreeder.
In more recent years (a mere 15!), Ron’s wife Jan Butler has worked by Ron’s side to help with the repackaging, which also enables easier retrieval when items are requested.
The MERL’s Volunteer Coordinator, Sheila Fisher, calculated that Ron has given approximately 1,000 days over the 23 years, donating over 3,000 hours, which equates to two full years of time equivalent staff hours in total.
Director of The MERL, Kate Arnold-Forster, presented the award during the celebratory coffee morning.
A tribute from colleagues at The MERL
Ron and Jan are described as “wonderful” and “completely dedicated” by archive colleagues based at the Museum of English Rural Life.
In a speech at the reception, Principal Archivist Caroline Gould summed up Ron’s contribution:
“Ron has seen lots of changes at The MERL over the years. Ron started when The MERL occupied the temporary – or not so temporary – accommodation on Whiteknights campus. We then moved down to The MERL’s current location and now we have emerged from the redevelopment project a fully-fledged museum with an ever-increasing social media presence!
Throughout this time Ron has assisted the archive team especially with their work and turned his hand to a wide range of tasks. Here are some highlights…
Jonathan Brown remembers not only Ron’s help with the Sutton Seeds archive, but also the local photography collections including the Philip Osbourne Collier Collection and Dan Lewis collections.
In those days, Ron was part of a partnership with Gerry Westall, who was a Sutton Seeds colleague and also a long serving member of The MERL volunteer team, and a great double act he and Ron both made.
Ron was part of a team for the glass negatives project, where once a week, ten volunteers worked with Brenda Lee repackaging over 200,000 glass negatives ready for their move to this site. This was when Ron also suggested Jan may be willing to volunteer at the Museum. Since that project, Ron and Jan have worked together volunteering on a long list of projects.
Most recently, Ron and Jan worked on re-packaging our D series collections, an-often neglected collection holding some real gems – to date they have processed around 124 boxes.
Ron and Jan repackaged the Porter Collection of Letterbox Ephemera, where they had to deal with over 24 boxes of ephemera, which had landed on Mr Porter’s doorstep over the course of nearly 40 years, encountering in this material samples of shampoo and cleaning products and the odd cereal box!
Ron was first interested in volunteering with us because of his long association with Sutton Seeds, but as we have demonstrated, Ron has turned his hand to help with whichever collection has needed the attention, always with a smile and never fazed by the task in front of him.
So we would like to say “Thank you, Ron!”