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.
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.
Have you noticed that the days are staying lighter for longer? Is spring just around the corner? Does the change in season make you think about spending time outside? If you are one of the 53 million people in the UK who live in an urban environment, you might want to ‘get out into the countryside’.
Be it a day trip or holiday, the benefits of the visiting the countryside include:
- Cleaner air and less noise
- Great views and scenery
- Places to walk and cycle
- Taking a break from stresses of everyday life to improve your mental health
Rural and urban life has always been interconnected. Historically people from towns have visited the countryside for relaxation, work and for the safety it offers. Harvesting hops in the Kentish hop fields was a working holiday for many poor city dwellers from the 1860s to 1950s. During World War II children were evacuated away from towns and cities to escape urban bombing. Today, pastimes like cycling, bird watching, horse riding and fishing are all ways to explore and enjoy the countryside.
The countryside is accessible through multiple transport options. Railways link the countryside and industry with towns and places of consumption. By the 1870s, railway passenger travel was firmly established. Bicycling increased in popularity in the 1880s and 1890s bringing transport ownership to a wide range of the population. By the 1930s the motor car had a dramatic impact upon country life by drawing more people out of the towns and into the countryside for leisure purposes, enabling more people to live in the country and work in the town.
Whatever your reason or however you do it why don’t you get out into the countryside today?
There are few opportunities in life to ask ‘…does anyone know anything about bats?’, but that day came in December 2018 for us here at The MERL.
Luckily, we have former University Librarian Rose-Ann Movosvic spending every Thursday volunteering at The MERL Library, but even luckier is that she also devotes the rest of her week to bat conservation. Here’s the story of how she saved a bat that got stuck in our rare book store:
When a bat turned up in the UMASCS rare book store late Friday afternoon several colleagues emailed me.
However, there was not much to be done at that point apart from hoping it would still be there on Monday morning – if it couldn’t be found, there would be a concern that it had hidden away somewhere to die (not a pleasant thought).
Happily, on Monday morning someone from the Museum got through to us again through the Bat Conservation Trust’s national bat helpline (0345 1300 228), the bat hadn’t moved or got itself killed, and it had been safely contained by The MERL conservator. We arrived to check it over and found, to our excitement, that it looked like a Nathusius’ Pipistrelle, rather than the expected Common Pipistrelle or Soprano Pipistrelle. The Nathusius is slightly larger than the other pipistrelle species and, as one of the diagnostic features is a penis that looks like a tiny, albino hedgehog, it being a male gave us an extra clue.
First things first, we gave him rehydration fluid as he was very thirsty, having probably been trapped in the store for a few days at least. Fortunately, he was completely uninjured. We had a look round the outside of the building to try and see how he might have got in but with no windows, no doors to the outside, no louvres or obvious ventilation shafts we couldn’t spot anything. However, as a bat can get through a gap as small as a couple of centimetres and it’s a huge building, it can be almost impossible to find an access point if you don’t actually observe the bat going in or out.
When we got him home, having decided to call him MERLin, we checked the other diagnostic features – wing venation and ratio of forearm to 5th finger. Both these were definitive so we were sure about our identification.
Merlin weighs just 7g, which is a reasonable weight in the middle of summer when there is plenty of insect prey around, but he needs to be around 25% heavier for the start of the hibernation period. Bats go into torpor or deep sleep when there is no food, which can be four-five months, so they need to put on lots of weight in the autumn. If we can get him to put on two grams more weight in a couple of weeks we will release him on a mild evening in the MERL garden so he will know where he is. If he doesn’t put on the weight quickly enough we will keep him over winter, in company with the other rehabilitating bats and the unreleasable educational bats we keep under licence, and release him in the spring.
So, why were we so pleased to find Merlin is a Nathusius’ pipistrelle?
Well, firstly, 90% of the bats we rescue and rehabilitate are common or soprano pipistrelles so anything different is already quite exciting. However, the Nathusius’ pipistrelle is both rare and little understood – until the 1990s it was believed to be a vagrant or occasional visitor to the UK but now we know that it is a largely migratory species. Most Nathusius’ pipistrelle bats are born in the Baltic states or further north and/or east and then migrate south and west along the Baltic and North Sea coast to spend the winter in Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium or France.
After a Nathusius’ pipistrelle ringed in Somerset was recaptured in the Netherlands in 2013 it was established that these bats do cross the Channel and a national project to find out more was started. The local bat group we belong to, the Berks & South Bucks Bat Group, joined the project in 2016. We have been out trapping bats up to ten nights each summer to try and catch Nathusius pipistrelles and ring them in the hope that they will be recaptured in the future and tell us more about their movements.
So far we have caught 19 individuals at three different sites, one bat having been recaptured by Surrey Bat Group near Runnymede, just a short distance away! Nationally over a thousand Nathusius’ pipistrelles have been caught and ringed, including six originally ringed in Latvia or Lithuania. Under the project licence we have given Merlin a ring of his own so that he might tell us more about his future movements once he is released.
All bats in the UK are protected under UK and EU legislation in recognition of the fact they suffered a catastrophic decline in the years to 1981. There are 17 species known to breed here, all of which feed on insects. The threats bats face include loss of roosts when big, old trees are felled or barns are converted, diminishing food supply with the use of insecticides in agriculture and gardens, and loss or fragmentation of habitat when ponds are drained, new roads are built or hedgerows grubbed up. Another threat we often encounter as bat rehabilitators is the domestic cat. There is evidence to suggest that this legal protection is enabling most UK species to hold their own or even recover somewhat.
The release of Merlin
After Merlin had been wintered, rehydrated and fed to be a healthy weight, we released him on the evening of 27 February 2019. This week was unusually warm for the season, and Merlin was released in The MERL garden by Rose-Ann – sound artist Felicity Ford also popped along to record his echolocating! At first he started flying straight back to the Archive store, but then thankfully veered into the trees. Hopefully he will find other bats to roost with and – now that he is ringed – we may yet see him again!