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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
In July 2018 we were fortunate to acquire an early edition of Five hundreth pointes of good husbandrie by Thomas Tusser at the Rothamsted Collection/Lawes Agricultural Library auction at Forum Auctions. This 1585 edition, with its splendid frontispiece, bound in mottled calf with gilt turn-ins, will join other early editions of Tusser’s work in our collections, including editions printed in 1672 and 1812. The first edition of Tusser’s work was published in 1557.
We were particularly delighted that one of our students, Amy Thomas, was able to make immediate use of the new acquisition and our other editions of Tusser’s book in her research. Amy has been working on a Undergraduate Research Opportunities Programme (UROP) project entitled ‘How To Be Rural: Agricultural Instruction in the MERL collections’, examining forgotten agricultural manuals and countryside ‘how-to’ books from the MERL library collections.
As part of the project, Amy has written the following piece as an introduction to Tusser and his descendants, and his significance in the history of agricultural writing.
Amy has also curated a pop-up exhibition entitled ‘Tusser Illustrated’ which looks at how Tusser’s work has been researched and illustrated by the historian Dorothy Hartley, and offers a view of the use of visual depictions in the rural didactic genre. The exhibition will be available to view at the ‘Writing the Rural’ lunchtime seminar at 12-1pm on Thursday 14 March 2019 at The MERL. (Booking is recommended as places are limited).
Thomas Tusser was a musician, farmer and writer who lived in the sixteenth century. He was born in Essex in 1524 to a family with gentry status. He was blessed with a singing voice good enough that he was sent to Wallingford to be a chorister, and later to St. Paul’s Cathedral where he made connections and friends. He was educated at Eton, and later at Cambridge. He spent ten years at court working as a musician for Lord Paget during King Edward VI’s reign, but left after ten years to go back to farming. He tried to farm three times but with each failure he went back to his music career. He married twice in his life and had children with his second wife, Amy Moon. He died in a debtor’s prison in 1580.
While Tusser was not a successful farmer, his book about farming was. His didactic poetry is said to be the beginning of the English rural didactic tradition, a tradition that has continued since in a variety of forms. A Hundred Good Points of Husbandry was expanded to Five Hundred Points of Good Husbandry in 1573,with five editions being published during Tusser’s lifetime. His book has continued to be published throughout the centuries, one of these editions was revised by Dorothy Hartley and published in 1931.
Hartley’s notes and correspondence suggest that she was planning an illustrated version of Tusser’s work based on her own research. She planned to have a frontispiece of Tusser’s farm as it was, and what seem to be a chapter of comparative images of the twentieth century and the sixteenth century. There are sketches in Hartley’s collection at MERL showing that she was working on a calendar based on Tusser’s work. She had done sketches for February, March, April, August and November. Three out of the five sketches depict women carrying out farming tasks.
Why did Hartley draw women in her sketches? It could be because she was a woman, but Tusser himself included A Hundred Good Points of Housewifery in his book which compliments the housewife and her work with reverence. He even said, “take huswife from husband, and what is he then?” His writing praises domestic harmony and family while also showing that he expects a wife to work too.
Another book in the agricultural instruction genre that has gender inclusive illustrations is A Book of Farmcraft by Michael Greenhill and Evelyn Dunbar. Michael Greenhill was 25 years old in 1941 when A Book of Farmcraft was written. He was an agricultural instructor at Sparsholt Farm Institute where land girls were trained. Evelyn Dunbar was a war artist who focused on depicting the efforts of women on the home front. She spent some time at Sparsholt to draw and paint the land girls’ training. Greenhill saw Dunbar’s art and how the land girls often did things wrong and thought they should write an instructional book together. A Book of Farmcraft was acclaimed for the use of teaching newcomers how to farm in a time when unskilled farm labour was needed.
All our editions of Tusser’s work are available to view through the Special Collections Service reading room.