As we launch a new range of bespoke products inspired by the engineering drawings held in the MERL archives, Principal Archivist, Caroline Gould, looks at what makes this one of our most consulted collections and we share an insight from an enthusiast into how the collection has helped with their personal project.
Over the last few months, colleagues working in archives, retail and marketing have been delving into the archives of the MERL and Special Collections to look for striking images to create new product ranges for the MERL gift shop. With the breadth of beautiful artwork and ephemera in the collections ranging from Suttons Seeds to the De La Rue archive, we are spoilt for choice, and have a list of potential collections to feature that would fill a department store! So the inspiration for our new range comes from what is maybe an unlikely source: we are about to launch a new range of shop products featuring, wait for it… agricultural manufacturers engineering drawings of steam engines, road rollers and road locomotives!
Perhaps it is not such a surprising choice, however, when you consider that over 100,000 engineering drawings are held in The MERL archives and that they are amongst the most popular series of records requested by researchers. The records relate to companies such as Charles Burrell and Sons Limited, John Fowler and Co (Leeds) Ltd, Ransomes, Sims and Jefferies Ltd, Marshall, Sons and Co Ltd and Wallis and Steevens Ltd. Model makers and steam engine enthusiasts contact us as they work on restoration projects, refurbishing their engines using the engineering drawings for their original purpose.
Many enthusiasts also use the production records of the archives to find out the history of their steam engine: Who was the first owner? Where was it shipped to? When was the engine built? The firms exported products all over the world, Europe, America, India, China, Chile, Australia and New, Zealand. So we receive requests from all of the world.
We are always delighted to see the results of projects which have used our collections. For example, model maker George King has used the archives to create a range of models including a Fowler Superva Plough engine. for more images of this model Plough Engine Project — George King Woodturner:
Jeffrey Shackell has been visiting the reading room to consult the collections whilst working on his own engine, and has kindly shared his account of his experience:
I have to say that my visits to MERL have been extremely rewarding. I was a little nervous at first sitting in the Reading Room with the very precious original Fowler books and documents to read through but the very kind staff helped me understand the ‘ropes’ and I soon settled in. I have really enjoyed my visits, they have been something to look forward to. I am making a particular study of Fowler agricultural traction engines and what better place to study than at MERL with the original build specification books in front of me.
I have also found it very interesting to study some of the works photographs and one engine in particular is worthy of note. This is Fowler A8 traction engine No.11484 which as luck would have it is a survivor today. One of my first childhood books on traction engines was a small book written by Harold Bonnett and in this little book he writes about three friends who are undertaking a mammoth restoration of a Fowler traction engine. The very engine he writes about is No.11484 and so it was fantastic all these years later (60 plus) to be able to see the engine as it looked when new at the Steam Plough Works in Leeds.
I am also particularly interested in the photographs of Eric Guy and once again at MERL one is able to see these wonderful images of his and a cross over exists in that Eric captured Fowler R class traction engine No.7953 at work on the Berkshire Downs in around 1936 and this photograph was also provided by Caroline and is now framed and on my wall as something quite special to look at every day.
I hope to be able to continue my visits to MERL for many years to come and am most grateful that the facility exists.
We are always trying to improve access to archives held at The MERL. Currently we are working on two projects relating to the agricultural manufacturing archives. Our Paper Conservator, Victoria Stevens, is undertaking a conservation survey to assess the John Fowler and Ransomes, Sims and Jefferies archive for items that require conservation care. Sharon Maxwell, Archivist and Emma Hunt, Archives Assistant are working with Beaulieu Motor Museum to digitise the 16mm reel to reel product publicity films for Ransomes, Sims and Jefferies. The films will then be catalogued and be available in the Reading Room.
We are grateful for the support and expertise we have received from The Road Locomotive Society, Steam Plough Club and the National Traction Engine Trust who have supported us creating access to these incredible archives for many years.
More information about the archives held at The MERL can be found on our website:
- Charles Burrell & Sons Limited
- John Fowler & Co (Leeds) Ltd. Archive. You can find out more in our an online exhibition Fowler: National and International Steam Power
- Ransomes, Sims & Jefferies, Ltd.
- Marshall, Sons & Co Ltd – The MERL (reading.ac.uk)
- Wallis & Steevens Ltd Archive
But aside from the practical appeal of the engineering drawings, many are also quite beautiful… We have selected some of our favourites to feature on a range of products that will not just catch the eye of enthusiasts… (though we think we know what will be on their Christmas lists this year!!)
The Blueprints Range is available in the MERL Gift Shop and to order from our new online shop.